Tuesday, April 13, 2021
Home Tech Americans believe in work. WeWork preyed on that instinct.

Americans believe in work. WeWork preyed on that instinct.

Watch the brand new Hulu documentary WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, and if you happen to can hold your eyebrows from crawling off your face solely in the primary 20 minutes, my hat’s off to you.

WeWork — the now-troubled firm that took out long-term leases on New York City actual property and constructed enjoyable co-working workplace areas for millennials — is described all through the movie in phrases that border on the spiritual. It started as a “transparent and accountable” group, centered on “connection” and “changing the world.” Spending your days at a WeWork website was “somehow like being a member of a club, beyond just where your office building is.” Where latest faculty grads might go to seek out “purpose” and a “dream.” It was “legitimately the craziest work experience.” WeWork, and different associated manufacturers — WeReside, WeDevelop — was all about “bringing people together” in the “spirit of We.”

All that language is creepy and in addition queasily acquainted to so many millennials, introduced as much as believe outlandish beliefs about work. I’m what is commonly known as an “elder millennial,” born in 1983, and my age cohort and I are accustomed to recitations of the parable that really, the corporate that pays us cash in change for our labor — if we’re fortunate sufficient to evade the gig financial system’s clutches — is “more like a family” than a enterprise. (It by no means is.) And we had been raised in a cultural panorama, because the Atlantic author Derek Thompson says in the documentary, of “techno-optimism,” a world in which “you were rewarded if you could articulate a vision of your company that wasn’t just going to make money, it was going to change the world.”

Work is our goal, our guiding mild, the place we discover our which means, the place now we have enjoyable — or not less than, that’s what we had been alleged to believe. It’s not about work-life stability; it’s about melding your life with work. We hear Dolly Parton sing “9 to 5” and sigh wistfully. (In a dystopian twist, Dolly recorded a version of the song called “5 to 9,” an ode to the “side hustle,” for a Squarespace advert in the course of the 2021 Super Bowl.)

And after all, work is the place we become profitable. Gobs of it, if solely we work laborious sufficient. In the phrases of WeWork founder Adam Neumann: “We want to do something that actually makes the world a better place, and we want to make money doing it!” In the phrases of the WeWork tagline: Do What You Love. The acquainted rejoinder to that phrase is implied: And love what you do.

A photo of the exterior of an office space with a bike in front.

A WeWork area in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, bearing the WeWork mantra: “Do What You Love.”
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It’s only a Twenty first-century utopian mantra, and for WeWork and Neumann, it labored for some time. Small surprise. Dreams of utopianism are an American custom — perhaps the American custom, if we prolong the label to those that immigrated to this continent in search of a greater and extra harmonious life, distant from wherever life was worse. In the nineteenth century, a whole bunch of utopian communities had been based in the US, each spiritual (the Shakers) and secular (the transcendentalist Brook Farm). The twentieth century carried on the custom (consider the hippies in Haight-Ashbury).

Over time, the form has morphed however the primary ideas stay the identical. Groups kind, usually round a charismatic and idealistic chief. To some extent, they isolate themselves from the skin. They undertake beliefs that run in opposition to the grain of mainstream society and attempt to stay in concord with each other, modeling a brand new way of life. Sometimes they succeed and thrive; extra usually, they fold or implode, scattering spectacular fireworks. More than a number of instances, they devolve into abusive cults (howdy, Wild Wild Country).

It is becoming that some notorious Twenty first-century utopian communities have organized themselves round secular concepts of self-betterment and success, particularly in this “techno-optimistic” world. Streaming providers have made a modest cottage trade of documenting the newest developments. One latest instance is Keith Raniere and NXIVM in HBO’s The Vow, about a corporation (learn: a cult) dedicated to projecting prosperity and accomplishment. Or there’s the double whammy of the Netflix and Hulu docs centering on Billy McFarland and the Fyre Festival disaster. That infamously botched occasion grew out of McFarland’s eager sense that younger, aspiring professionals in New York would latch onto a imaginative and prescient of success that began with cocktail events in fancy brownstones and ended with a lavish social gathering on a Caribbean island. (Or cheese sandwiches in styrofoam takeout containers, I suppose.)

It’s the Fyre Festival viewers that WeWork founder Neumann focused most aggressively. (I’d like to see the Venn diagram overlap between McFarland’s and Neumann’s acolytes.) And it’s Neumann who’s the principle draw of WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn.

WeWork CEO Adam Neumann points while onstage during WeWork Presents Second Annual Creator Global Finals. 

WeWork founder Adam Neumann talking in January 2019.
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for WeWork

The movie, written and directed by Jed Rothstein, depends on acquainted visible language — slow-motion photographs of empty rooms, archival footage, brightly lit interviews — because it tries, a tad clumsily, to doc each Neumann’s rise and fall and the corporate’s whereas exploring the varieties of people that had been drawn to his imaginative and prescient. They are all earnest, lovely, and round “elder millennial” in age — the form of people who find themselves able to get their fingers soiled and actually make one thing of the world. They signed as much as work for, or at, WeWork. They wished to construct firms whereas in the presence of different bold younger folks with the hope of constructing the world a greater place. (There’s an amazing supercut of younger founders reciting the portmanteau names of their firms in fast succession — monikers like Yoink, BrunchCritic.com, SmileBack, ScrollKit, Handshake, Scruff, and what appeared like Beer2Buzz.)

They additionally wished to drink, quite a bit. The documentary makes an enormous level of this. Former WeWork lawyer Don Lewis, who a bit older than a lot of the interviewees, talks of kegs of beer, limitless alcohol, showing at 4 pm and persevering with to circulation till there was nobody left to drink it. The annual WeWork “summer camp” for adults (sure, you learn that accurately) is described largely as a spot the place the booze flowed freely and founder Adam Neumann gave motivational speeches. Someone calls it “Fyre Festival gone right.”

(It’s frankly stunning, given the quantity of consuming it paperwork, that the movie comprises not a single whisper of sexual assault allegations. Especially since harrowing and troubling allegations have most definitely been raised in court docket; allegedly one co-worker advised one other that it was “only a matter of time until someone gets raped” at a WeWork occasion.)

Some of WeWork’s shoppers — er, group members — took their devotion a step additional, signing as much as stay in a “WeLive” neo-commune. Individual residents (just about all of whom, in accordance with the movie, had been single) lived in 200-square-foot hotel-style rooms and shared kitchens, laundry, and customary areas. This setup itself just isn’t uncommon in New York City, the place the hire is excessive and associates could be laborious to seek out if you happen to’re new in city. But WeReside, as former resident August Urbish explains, grew to become extra like a walled-off utopian group than only a place to stay. “It was weird if someone left the building,” he says.

Later, Urbish notes that after he moved into the area whereas additionally figuring out of a WeWork workplace, his “entire life was propped up by the We Community.” Friends from “the outside” would come to go to him and wouldn’t return. “Pretty quickly,” he says, “I had alienated most of my friends outside the building.” (Incidentally, or perhaps not, being inspired to isolate your self out of your family and friends is a well-established warning signal that you’ve joined a cult.)

On the one hand, this sounds quite a bit like faculty, whenever you’re swept up into campus life and may begin to lose contact with the buddies again dwelling. On the opposite hand, these had been adults, professionals, in their 20s and 30s. And as extra time glided by, the extra it began to look that Neumann and his imaginative and prescient weren’t solely on the up-and-up, particularly when his spouse Rebekah (a cousin of Gwyneth Paltrow and seemingly reduce from the GOOP material) took a extra lively function in the corporate.

In the movie, former WeWork staffers speak concerning the “propaganda” that was fed to members whereas the whole lot was chaos behind the scenes. On Monday mornings, when new members had been being “onboarded,” present employees occupying WeWork areas would hear deafening chants and whoops and hollers, all concerning the awesomeness of WeWork. “They were ready to spend any amount of money to make themselves feel good and look good to their employees,” says Joanna Strange, who was as soon as a product supervisor for the corporate.

Neumann stands with forms and spreadsheets around him.

Neumann was seen as a vaguely messianic determine, however as soon as the reality concerning the firm was recognized, buyers began fleeing.

Neumann cultivated an air of vaguely Muppety charisma that charmed not simply folks his personal age, however the fabulously rich buyers who stored the cash, and alcohol, flowing freely. In regular folks’s phrases, Neumann fleeced them, largely through the use of a kooky metric known as “community adjusted Ebitda” to measure WeWork’s success. (Ebitda stands for “earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization,” and is extensively used in the world of finance; Neumann and his colleagues “adjusted” the definition to incorporate varied building- and community-level working bills, thereby tweaking the numbers to cover WeWork’s huge unprofitability.) He wasn’t working an actual property firm, he insisted; it was a lot greater than that. The firm grew to become a Silicon Valley “unicorn” — a personal firm valued at $1 billion — after which a unicorn many instances over, finally reaching a price of $47 billion. Investors, drawn in by different buyers, simply stored investing. Even the Saudi Arabian authorities bought in on it.

Neumann was flying excessive on his personal provide, seemingly simply assuming that if he talked sufficient and satisfied folks he knew what he was doing, the whole lot would work out. He thought he might bend actuality to his will. And why shouldn’t he? Thanks to at least one anecdote an interviewee relates in the movie, we uncover that the WeWork baristas had began serving lattes when folks ordered cappuccinos, and vice versa, as a result of Neumann would order a latte however count on a cappuccino and no person wished to right him. “If you tell a 30something male that he’s Jesus Christ, he’s inclined to believe you,” NYU enterprise professor Scott Galloway says.

Meanwhile, folks in the WeWork group had been discovering the perils of questioning the “spirit of We.” Justin Zhen, the founding father of a startup known as Thinknum Alternative Data that was housed in a WeWork area, talks concerning the day his firm found, by way of public information, that the WeWork “churn rate” — that is, the variety of members leaving WeWork — had elevated and was accelerating. Furthermore, an inner social community, developed to be used amongst WeWork group members and utilized by Neumann as a lure for buyers, was barely getting used. Zhen’s firm posted one thing about it on their weblog, and inside hours a WeWork group supervisor appeared. According to Zhen, they advised him he’d “violated our membership happiness clause” and had half-hour to pack up his firm and depart the premises.

And then, simply days earlier than it deliberate to go public, the jig was up. As the unprofitable basis and Neumann’s sleight of hand grew to become clear to buyers, his monetary backers started to go for the hills, and he was finally despatched packing altogether. Among different developments, the S-1 kind that WeWork filed with the SEC (which kicks off the IPO course of) included this little ditty on the primary web page; somebody in the documentary describes it because the writing of somebody who was excessive:

We dedicate this
to the vitality of we —
larger than any one in every of us
however inside every of us.

WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn chronicles the corporate’s many monetary issues, funding kerfuffles, the figures lurking behind the scenes, the events, the non secular advisers Rebekah Neumann introduced in, the eccentricities, and the long-reaching enterprise penalties of Neumann’s grift. Then there’s the manipulation Neumann used to persuade his workers that they had been fortunate to work for him, that he didn’t want them, that they needed to struggle to remain employed, and that they need to be pleased about it.

But it’s oddly incurious concerning the bigger cultural implications of WeWork’s downfall, or what the entire disaster really means. It shares this disinterest with the latest HBO collection on QAnon, The Storm, which fails to essentially discover why in any other case sensible and curious individuals are drawn into what seem to be clearly preposterous schemes. The solely reply given is that Neumann introduced a imaginative and prescient of coolness that resonated with millennials’ want to seek out each goal and revenue in their work. (And additionally booze.) But it doesn’t get at why so many individuals discover that imaginative and prescient engaging and credible in the primary place.

I’m interested in this. I believe, generally, that given how usually we’ve heard this type of — effectively, let’s be frank, bullshit — from charismatic and younger (and normally male) dreamers, we’d be inoculated by now. It’s a gross sales pitch. They need one thing from you. Neumann was looking for younger, bold, handsome millennial startup founders to pay his firm to hire area … er, excuse me, be a part of the group. (By renting area.) As the Atlantic’s Thompson explains, “the original members weren’t ‘members’ so much as a ‘resource’ from which WeWork could extract a reputation.”

A window printed with cursive lettering reading “Hustle.”

Mantras, in all places.

A former assistant to Neumann displays that “I was in my mid-20s looking for purpose, and here’s this person selling this dream, and I was an easy target for that.” By the tip of the movie, she’s in tears, remembering what she misplaced when WeWork went down: “It could have come together into something beautiful.”

But might it have? Could an “authentic” group centered on a man like Neumann, who wished a flock who would worship him, be any good in any respect? Why can we hold falling for this?

If I sound irritated, it’s as a result of I’m. I don’t fault anybody for desperately looking for goal in life or looking for group; that’s essentially the most sympathetic trait conceivable, a story as previous as humanity itself. What frustrates me is that it retains working, and taking the seekers down with it.

To me, Neumann’s language sounds most of all like a really particular number of cool younger “church planters” — largely male pastors of largely white and largely conservative evangelical church buildings — who popped up in the late ’90s and early aughts, proper once I was coming of age, and lured younger folks into their congregations with the promise that this wasn’t your dad and mom’ church, that we’re not like these others. (Neumann is Israeli and grew up on a kibbutz, however his rhetoric is lifeless on.)

You knew it whenever you noticed it. They had strobe lights and a espresso bar in the again, or perhaps they lounged on couches or met in a bar — so countercultural! The aspiring-influencer pastor wore costly denims and a hipster haircut, and at Wednesday-night Bible research you may indulge in some artisanal beer (a daring transfer in a teetotaling church tradition). When one interviewee in the documentary says that at WeWork there was pleasure about “rebelling against the office culture set by the ’80s and ’90s,” the hair stood up on my neck.

Everything was about transparency and accountability, about “authentic community” and “being real,” not like these fuddy-duddy church buildings again dwelling. Your associates had been from church; your life revolved round it. And they had been all younger, handsome, well-dressed, and sensible, such as you. To borrow the phrases of Don Lewis, the previous WeWork lawyer: “People really liked the coolness of it, and that was kind of what was being sold.”

Don’t get me incorrect: Some of the church leaders I bear in mind had been honest, and a few of the church buildings helped folks and matured simply tremendous into close-knit however welcoming teams that really invested in serving the group round them. And the ’90s weren’t the primary time a youthful technology of clergy tried to reinvent their dad and mom’ Sunday conferences — not by an extended shot.

But various of my acquaintances and associates bought burned by these locations, realizing too late that the pastor was extra in amassing adoring followers than in main. Sometimes that motivation “only” manifested in narcissistic habits; generally it performed out in far worse methods. And their followers might need been rebelling in opposition to the tradition of their dad and mom, however their rise up was surface-level; in the event that they dared to be “authentic” and “real” sufficient to query the chief, they’d discover themselves on the skin.

What some expertise in spiritual communities, others expertise in secular ones. WeWork and the complete “We community,” led to its demise by Neumann, is just one such case. But there are huge the reason why millennials flock to those new leaders and “authentic” communities, and students research these causes. Until its remaining five-minute stretch, the documentary doesn’t attempt to deal with them in any significant method. I believe that’s as a result of the filmmakers don’t know the explanation themselves.

At the tip, they provide their finest shot. Many of the interviews had been seemingly performed in the course of the pandemic, and in the movie’s remaining moments, it turns its consideration to why “community” exists and the way we’ve misplaced it throughout this time. But it lacks true perception. There are plenty of slow-motion photographs of empty New York streets and interviewees donning face masks. People discuss how a lot we miss “community” throughout such an prolonged interval of isolation, saying issues like, “What are we if we don’t have each other?”

But perhaps a greater tack would have been to flippantly interrogate the phrase “community,” which is so current in the movie it’s virtually a watermark, but can be so overused as to be meaningless. After all, “community” is an enormous buzzword at Facebook, too, and on just about each social networking platform. And in all of Silicon Valley, and in cults like NXIVM, and in pop-up church buildings that meet in bars. Adam Neumann didn’t invent it. Does it imply associates? Family? People you form of know? Drinking buddies? People you see on daily basis? Could or not it’s that guys like Neumann are latching onto the phrase due to its vagueness? Because of the malleability that permits anybody to make it imply no matter they need? And if there’s no area for arguing or questioning one supreme chief in your group, is it a group in any respect?

WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn is definitely price watching, a cautionary story for our time. I want it had been extra curious concerning the roots of the rage-inducing story it tells. As it stands, it’s simply one other brick in a rising pile of examples of Twenty first-century techno-utopianism and the ruses we fall for over and over.

By the way in which: Adam Neumann is doing tremendous, although he and Rebekah declined to be interviewed for the documentary. In January 2020, WeWork was nonetheless rising. In truth, the pandemic might need saved the corporate. As of some days in the past, it was nonetheless valued at $9 billion and going public. The Neumanns stay, because the movie tells us on the finish, in one of many a number of homes they personal in the New York space; Adam bought a golden parachute on his method out of WeWork. In the grand American utopian custom, it’s everybody else who bought screwed.

WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn premiered on the digital SXSW Film Festival in March and begins streaming on Hulu on April 2.

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