Upskilling at the end of the world: LinkedIn and the fetishisation of work

To state that LinkedIn is a wasteland for hopes and dreams—on top of being just generally soul destroying—is far from an original statement. Whether it is decried as “the best social network for self-loathing” (Palus and Schwedel, 2019), or more succinctly a “cringefest” and “hellhole” (Kernan, 2020; Hughes, 2018), the peculiar hybrid of workplace self-improvement seminar and social media titan trundles on; CEOs pretend they care about your future, imparting advice such as “do a paper round and put it on your CV!”, whilst students and graduates efface ourselves as #OpentoWork.

So, many have ascertained that LinkedIn is awful, but could it be studied as something more? A window through which to observe how we collectively think and talk about work, what we value at the expense of others, and the meaning with which we imbue certain occupations?

Through the eyes of LinkedIn’s finest, I will first discuss the collective lies we tell ourselves so as to make sense of why we work, before examining how the capitalist class perceives the practice of self-actualisation (spoiler: badly). As a disclaimer, I am primarily writing this piece to make sense of the hours I spend on the app doomscrolling; I’m enmeshed in this as much as anyone else. As a methodology of sorts, I only draw on posts with quite a lot of engagement—reliability is key—and have sourced most of the posts used here from the iconic Twitter account ‘Crap on LinkedIn’, alongside some primary sources.

You love your job, stop asking questions

Magdoff’s (2006) Marxist discussion of meaningful work centres its dilution in the growing complexity of capitalist society, specifically in the ensuing separation of people into classes and the social division of labour. People are subsequently separated into different forms of labour based on notions of social superiority and inferiority; the production process itself is also fractionalised, with workers increasingly separated from what it is they’re producing. This Marxist perspective would hence see much of us disenchanted with work, as it becomes increasingly nothing more than a means to fund what little you do outside work. Erin Griffiths (2019) in a popular piece claimed that our generation “pretends” to love work, engaging in a practice which she calls “performative workaholism”, intimately tied to hustle culture. However, McCallum (2020) takes this a different approach, suggesting that we are perhaps not pretending and rather, as a coping mechanism, “indulging in a fantasy that hard work equals just rewards”, lying to ourselves and in the process affirming an economic logic centred on work ethic.

This coping mechanism is made necessary because the material state of working life for many is pretty dire: more than one in five of Britain’s workforce is precariously employed (Booth, 2016); the real wages of the median worker have decreased by 10% since 2008 (Blanchflower and Machin, 2014: 19); and the gulf between inherited wealth and income from work has continued to widen, with the former becoming increasingly important in determining lifetime living standards (Johnson, 2021). Now consider this environment alongside the long-term prospects of a “good job-less future” and mushrooming underemployment in capitalist economies, as a result of diminishing growth and structural changes (Benanav, 2020: 46–47). It can feasibly be surmised that work in its current iteration gives a lot less than it gets, and isn’t set to get any better in most cases.

It is within this scenario that the need to find meaning in work develops a hold—if you’re not going to get anything else, wouldn’t a higher purpose at least be nice? Nowhere is this Nietzschean search for the will to power more visible than LinkedIn.

The three samples above depict this reconstruction of the meaning of work from different angles, but all with the overarching premise that work can give you something which cannot be obtained elsewhere. Greg—who, at a cellular level, intimidates me a lot—quite clearly speaks to this idea, as without work he could quite literally evaporate. Austin riffs on this, packaging seemingly harmless wellbeing practices (Chick-fil-A is not cool) with an ascetic lifestyle, unbridled wealth and joy through work. The two in tandem represent the centring of work in one’s broader identity to a large degree. The strangest, and most popular by far, is the final post. With its tags of #backtowork and #culture, the mid-pandemic return to the office is framed as a wellbeing exercise, a “welcome home”, even if it is one not asked for. This is supplemented by the superficially caring traffic light lanyard set-up, a masterstroke of human resources, which obscures the obligation that the employees have to those managing them to physically enter the workspace during a pandemic. In the era of material precarity described above, this focus on things “beyond” the extractive process becomes pivotal to keeping us all going.

This little number arguably represents the three prior posts in one. Once I finished dry heaving, what I began to find most fascinating in this tragic epic is the starkly contrasting interpretations of what work is for, displayed in turn by #goodvibesMandi and the Wendy’s staff. In Mandi’s account, work is imbued with the same kind of above-mentioned quasi-religious value, bringing people to tears by its sheer availability—not the fear of starvation. The Wendy’s employee, however, understands her position to be one of economic imperatives, something which Mandi obfuscates.

The clarity of vision displayed by the Wendy’s employee surfaces another critique of the discursive shift towards meaning and ‘doing what you love’. What can be most grating about much of this discourse is the way it simultaneously denigrates a broad swathe of socially vital jobs. Tokumitsu (2014), in a manner echoing Magdoff, highlights how society delineates between ‘lovable’ (intellectual, creative, socially prestigious) and ‘unlovable’ (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished) work, arguing that our shift towards the ‘Do What You Love’ (DWYL) mantra pushes us to be “self-focused to the point of narcissism”. They characterise this by using the contrast of Steve Jobs’ ‘lovable’ work, an individualist taking on the world, besotted with his intellectually stimulating passion project, and the thousands of industrial workers in ‘unlovable’ employment, “conveniently hidden on the other side of the planet”, actually putting in the work to realise his ambitions. Furthermore, with “Personal Care Aide” and “Home Care Aide” the fastest-growing occupations of 2020, “arduous, low-wage occupations” (ibid), and the pandemic highlighting the centrality of the care sector to society, the DWYL mantra can be seen to lack space for appreciation of the functions which actually underpin our lives.

Therefore, DWYL privileges the few who can aspire to a job they love, whilst erasing the majority who cannot. This can be seen in the “Mandi v. Wendy’s worker” dichotomy: Mandi does not seem to quite understand why she should not receive undying gratitude for enabling the individual who renders her a service to work more—for the notoriously low-paying Wendy’s no less (Thoelcke et al, 2012). For this reason, platitudes towards mental health and wellbeing in work ring hollow for those beyond a certain sphere. Being implored to find your own meaning in what you do is a cop out from an economy which cannot generate nearly enough meaningful jobs of its own accord.

Self-Development, self-actualization and the private sphere

Straddling this exaltation of (desirable) working life on LinkedIn is a simultaneous grappling with the meaning of self-actualization: what’s the point of it all? As far back as the 1980s, it has been identified that “a significant number of jobholders now see self-development as their primary motivation for working,”(Yankelovich and Immerwahr, 1983); at the same time, these jobholders have become increasingly divorced from any opportunity to even superficially elevate their position in the hierarchy, with “blue- and white-collar workers call[ing] upon the identical phrase: ‘I’m a robot’” (Terkel, 1974). Interestingly, with a focus on the posting habits of the bosses who disproportionately inhabit my LinkedIn feed, self-actualization, professional development and ‘up-skilling’ are regularly conflated and often become indistinguishable from each other; professional development is rendered personal development.

Critiques of capitalist systems of work, and their entailing exploitation, often do see meaningful work playing a role in the actualisation of the self. Engels (1976), for example, saw work as the “prime basic condition of all human existence” to the extent that “labour created man himself”. Whilst this is contested, nonetheless, the primary critique of work’s self-actualising potential rests primarily in capitalism’s grounding in wage labour, and the asymmetric power relationship between capitalist and worker (Marx, 1887: 231). Work itself can bring self-actualisation, but it cannot for too many in its current form.

The capitalist class, through the medium of LinkedIn, enters this debate with a fascinating (/terrifying) perception of time, what is worthwhile, and how time in the private sphere should be spent. The samples below all point to a push towards mobilising recreation into developing marketable skills, a purely zero-sum decision between you and the future, more employable (and hence more satisfied) you. The femininst activist and scholar Sylvia Federici (2012) has stated that “nothing so effectively stifles our lives as the transformation into work of the activities and relations that satisfy our desires.” Sarah Jaffe (2021) makes a similar point, claiming that “capitalist society has turned work into love, and love, conversely, into work”. LinkedIn is an outrider for this invasion of the private sphere, but often in a comical capacity. The posts below offer a snapshot of how the founders and CEOs of LinkedIn spent their global pandemic, and would like you to spend yours.

In almost all cases, a dichotomous choice is set up between relaxing at home (bad don’t do it) and turning home into your work away from work (or in other words, “hitting people and creating relationships” (??)). This preoccupation with self-development as self-actualisation intrinsically also reifies the quantifiable, with an obsession on numbers (2 hOuRs watching Netflix!) and lists. Furthermore, embodied by a specific hatred for Netflix, there is not only a disdain for free time, but a desire to penetrate it. Asim’s company, Jibble, for example, is actually an employee monitoring app, allowing workplace surveillance of meeting attendance, time spent idle etc. by managers; hence, his post is particularly entertaining, considering he is actively working to flush your work-life balance down the toilet, taking you with him.

When considered alongside the previous section and within the scenario of the pandemic, we are hence expected to engage in a practice of uncritically finding a way to love what we do, whilst reformulating our lifestyles to do whatever it is a whole lot more.

So what to do? It is important to note here that I have centred this piece on those within the sphere (inferno), and that there is a diverse range of responses. Whether in the cottagecore aesthetic or the rise of the ‘Tiny House’ architectural and social movement, there is a disparate response of people ‘checking out’ of the work obsession, generally related to each other by a shared undercurrent of apathy towards the mind-numbing chaos described above. Whilst understandable, on a wider scale we need to make the case for better work with better pay.


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