The cost of success

WORK / The human cost of striving for success in a competitive global economy.

Deeply engaging and inspiring multi-level reflections on the life chances and realities of seemingly the most affluent youth of today’s West-shaped global economic «elite,» Piet Baumgartner’s The Driven Ones challenges us to face a human dimension of deeply ingrained societal ideals driving the very heart of the capitalist system. Having its international premiere at IDFA, shot over six years, between 2015-21, this classically constructed yet dynamically edited observational documentary follows five St Gallen University MA management program graduates dubbed «the world’s best» by the Financial Times. We see them from the moment of enrolment until the four years after graduation, in a crucial period of their lives, in which they transition from safe, idealistic university surroundings through various reality checks to professional life.

The Driven Ones Piet Baumgartner
The Driven Ones, a film by Piet Baumgartner

Gaps of silence

In a way, The Driven Ones is a fascinating study of what documentary filmmakers can do in the face of notorious secrecy and limited access to information on the subjects. Although not that severe, the initial restrictions delineated by the university are overcome by focusing on the student’s reactions and work at particular seminars or special meetings. Feifei, Sara, Tobias, David, and Frederic come from various countries and have different personalities and aims. They are all sensitive, intelligent, ambitious, and knowledgeable young human beings aware of the crucial problems our current world forces us to withstand. They are open, communicative, and idealistic, full of plans for the future. After graduation and a short moment of happiness after getting the job they wanted, their situation starts to change. Those who get consultancy jobs cannot say anything about their work, even to the extent of self-censoring their inner thoughts. Others who established their own companies allow the filmmaker to follow some of their early meetings and conversations without disclosing too many details. Not that these details are necessary – what the filmmaker and we can observe from a distance, and with a growing allure, is a human dimension of work in the global economic management system of our times. Its ups and downs, joys and anxieties, ideals crashing against everyday problems, tiredness and exhaustion, helplessness and fear, disappointments, and a budding realisation of one’s limits. Often, the gaps of silence, of what is not spoken, tell more than what we actually hear.

Is it possible for capitalism and social responsibility to function side by side?

The job entails numerous short-term travels, working hours until midnight, and a lack of time for family and friends. It overshadows the existing relationships, leading to break-ups and shattering of family ties. After only a few years of working, the film’s characters become lonely workaholics completely devoted to their professional lives. They have their own small field of responsibility and rarely can see a wider perspective of processes they are a part of as this is known solely to their bosses. The situation differs in the case of two of them who established their own businesses. As entrepreneurs, though, they have a heavy load of ensuring the everyday running of a company and its business model. Not all the business ideas are economically viable.

The Driven Ones Piet Baumgartner
The Driven Ones, a film by Piet Baumgartner

Limitations of the individual

In all these circumstances, there are initially subtle, but with time, more and more visible, signs of social differentiation in treating women, immigrants, and people of particular nationalities. They influence a position in a company where one can get, pay, or meet the requirements of clients and business partners. Family background weighs progressively upon a person’s ability to find an independent way of life and a fulfilling career. The parents support the film’s characters in their choices and take the role of a cordially critical safety net, pointing to other potentially open professional options. They bring in a valuable wider perspective that, although not yet fully appreciated by young professionals, might be helpful. As we leave them, only four eventful years after graduation, they have become different people. Cautious in their statements, they can still see the enormity of work ahead of them, the work left by elder generations, after whom they will have to clean up for years as global problems mount.

Each of them views the situation from a different angle and imagines diverse paths to solving the problems of environmental degradation and climate change. They do, however, realise, as we all do at a certain point, that there are limits to what individuals can do. Some of them express trust in politics and government regulation, others in the competence and connections of the elders, business acumen, public schools, and the media, while all supposedly share a faith in their own youthful ingenuity. They, however, also ask about the limits of a never-ending race and if it will not end rapidly in the very near future. Is it possible for capitalism and social responsibility to function side by side? It seems we all have to start imagining multiple new ways in which we collectively, beyond the limitations of an individual, could ensure it is.

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Aleksandra Biernacka
Aleksandra Biernacka
Anthropologist and sociologist of culture. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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