The impulse is reasonable. Intimacy on social networks is often forged by an ability to connect over life’s banalities. The corporate millennial may have started out sharing agonies like an upcoming test or late shift at the local watering hole, on Facebook, or, to reach way back, on Xanga or in their AIM away message. As they’ve matured, their complaints are now about mid-week work travel or seething clients. These shared grievances are not only indicative of a certain evolution of usage, but a distinctly “Millennial reality,” as Daniel Wenger describes in the New Yorker, one that includes “grinding hours, relatively low salaries and potentially valueless equity packages, the gutting of human-resource departments,” and, pointedly, “loose vacation-time policies that discourage employees from being the suckers who actually take any.”
But context is everything. Someone who sends a weekend snap of an empty office to a partying peer might want sympathy, but could come across as humblebragging. PDW can be an occasion to demonstrate or prove productivity against the person resting on their laurels. While in one sense posting about how hard you’re working could be seen as a cry for help against workplaces that unabashedly dip into the emotional stores of millennials while paying less, the practice of PDW only reinforces an insidious ethic that suggests productivity—not leisure—is a prize. If social media is a place to display our best selves, and we live in a culture that values extreme productivity, then our exhausted, burnt-out selves can perversely become the “best” selves we want to display. Posts about how tired we are, how hard we’re working, and self-deprecating jokes centered on “the grind” serve as evidence of goodness. Griping becomes capital in the economy of bad feeling.
Additionally, there is privilege obscured in certain semi-public displays of angst. Despite the higher prevalence and risk of depression and poverty amongst people of color, black people especially—PDW posts display an overrepresentation of whiteness and relative affluence. Complaining about work, or humblebragging about being overworked, is a more common practice amongst those whose employment isn’t tenuous, who work positions within the bounds of respectability, who can fit more straightforward forms of social media braggadocio—vacations, fancy meals—in their feeds alongside their workplace angst. Both are in the service of representing an aspirant social position: I have these good things; I work this important job.
Meanwhile hourly-wage earners, undocumented workers, service workers, etc., likely have as many or more reasons to catalogue being overworked, but the social capital of PDW is not available to them. Their position, professionally and personally, is more tenuous. Using social media on the job carries a higher penalty. Anonymity might be crucial. And the “brag” part of the PDW humblebrag requires not only that you show how much you’re killing yourself for your job, but how much you’re killing yourself for an “important,” “cool,” high-status job. The question of who can comfortably capitalize on bad feelings remains an important one, even while we acknowledge that depression and anxiety, or just plain old discontent isn’t proprietary to any one demographic.