Failing the Marshmallow Test

It’s a slow day at Amazon. At most jobs this would mean an easy day. At Amazon it means more stress. As an Amazon Sortation Associate, I’m expected to scan at least 180 boxes an hour. That’s difficult enough when the conveyor belts are overloaded with freight, but nearly impossible when everybody on the shift is competing for the same few packages.

It’s two hours into the shift and I’ve only done 200 items. Depending on the supervisor on duty, not meeting your “sort goal” can mean anything from absolutely nothing to a written warning and even termination, but whatever the management does, not meeting it also means going home with a sense of failure and anxiety. Will I get fired? Am I being lazy? Is there anything I could have done to have worked more efficiently? Will I make it tomorrow?

A middle aged man approaches me. I suppose he’s about my age, but for some reason he considers me a young, able bodied slacker who doesn’t want to pull his weight. “Why are you only doing the jiffies (envelopes),” he says. “Why don’t you do the big boxes?” He knows damn well why I’m competing for the smaller, high volume items. I want to meet my sort goal like everybody else, but he’s hoping I’ll take some of the heavy workload off of his back so he can meet his, so he picks a fight, hoping to bully me into giving him the advantage. I try to control my anger. I don’t want to get written up. Just then I’m saved.

“VTO, VTO, VTO,” the supervisors all start shouting in unity, “VTO, VTO, VTO.”

There is a famous psychological study called the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. At the Bing Nursery School of Stanford University, a group of 32 children, 16 boys and 16 girls, are given a choice. According to Wikipedia “the children were led into a room, empty of distractions, where a treat of their choice Oreo cookie, marshmallow, or pretzel stick) was placed on a table. The children could eat the treat, the researchers said, but if they waited for fifteen minutes without giving in to the temptation, they would be rewarded with a second treat.” It was later found that the children willing to delay gratification and wait for the second treat were most successful in life, both at school, and later as adults when they entered the workforce.

VTO is Amazon putting what was learned in the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment to practical use. Amazon will hire anybody who can pass the drug test. Their business model is all about throwing interchangeable bodies at their massive workload, squeezing every precarious worker out of all they can get, and then getting a new one. Often this means they have too many people on hand for the work they have to do for that shift. That means getting rid of a few people, not permanently but only for the day, a kind of micro, voluntary layoff. So they offer “VTO” or “Voluntary Time Off.” In other words, Amazon’s system of labor management divides us into people who want to eat one marshmallow now or do a few more hours of work and get another marshmallow, few more hours of pay, later. 

I choose not to take VTO. The reason I wound up as and Amazon Warehouse Slave in my 50s is that I failed the marshmallow test in my 20s and 30s. I studied the wrong subject in college. I failed to put aside money for the future. I didn’t establish myself on a career path. I didn’t get married or buy property. As far as my position in the world goes, I’m a 25-year-old millennial in the body of a middle-aged man.

I applied for the job at Amazon after a long stretch of unemployment because I had read an article in Mother Jones where Amazon had worked a 28-year-old man so hard he died of a heart attack. “Wow,” I thought, “if you can die there, they’ll probably even hire a completely loser like me. They won’t care about the gaps in my resume. They’ll just drug test me then work me to death.” But if anything is going to change, if I’m going to escape from the Amazon Warehouse, I have to pass the Marshmallow Test this time, work every shift to its completion, save money, live frugally, wait an extra 2 hours for that extra 30 bucks, and do it consistently.

2 hours later I go home. I’m exhausted, but since so many people took VTO, accepted the mini-layoff, I managed to make my “scan goal” for the day. The final tally? 925 items in five hours.