Tech Cynic: The rise and fall of Startup Stockholm Syndrome

Who needs wages when you've got free fruit and coffee?

Living in Berlin, Germany means that I inevitably cross paths with numerous startup employees, in both business and social situations. It's unfair to portray such a broad group of people with a simple stereotype, but I'm going to do it anyway.

They're usually men* in their early- to mid-twenties; sometimes German but more usually from abroad; dressed in smart casual clothing that's moderately-priced but intended to look more expensive than it is; and keen to engage anyone in conversation about how well they're doing in their career. They have an intensity that neatly straddles the boundary between keen and hunted, and often have nervous tics and a hollowness to their laughter that belies a deep dissatisfaction with their own existence.

They are fiercely, disturbingly loyal to their employers - at least on the surface. They leave glowing, gushingly positive reviews on careers sites about the wonderful working environment provided by their benevolent employer (on job listings that, strangely, never mention a salary range); they extol the wonders of the free fruit and coffee, the Friday after-work beers, the table football machine and the vintage Apple Macs adorning the breakout room walls.

In Berlin these people are everywhere, especially at business-social meetups, fiercely networking and surreptitiously trying to jump ship, not yet realising that the entire fleet is on fire.

Working on the questionable basis that parodies emerge once a trend has peaked, because maximum awareness promises the biggest audience, this state of affairs may be about to change. The Daily Mash (no link as it may not be safe for all work environments) recently ran a story entitled, "Quirky start-up is based in normal office and pays its staff with money." As you'd guess, this article satirically pokes fun at the startup culture to the point of exaggeration, although it's hard to exaggerate some of the worst excesses of delusional management techniques employed in such environments.

Actually, 'delusional' isn't fair. The management techniques in such offices have been carefully honed over the years to extract the maximum amount of work from employees in return for the minimum actual expense. What's offered is the appearance of reward but little to none of the actual value. The employees buy into this exaggerated hive-mind cult reality, their own brains working to convince them that it must be a great place to work because everyone's telling each other how great it is. Startup employees feel part of something wonderful, something world-changing, making it that much harder to question why they can't afford their rent. It's a genius system and not a little disturbing - just like a cult. There's a reason why the average age is so young. Age brings experience and the ability to realise when one is being shafted.

However, the days of this startup Stockholm syndrome may be numbered, because reality is changing.

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