Thursday, April 16, 2009


Most people hate theirs, and for good reason. I worked for eight or nine years in the corporate sector, and it was hard to generate much enthusiasm for it. To listen to my bosses — I had about eight of them when I worked for the paper — you would think that they spent every waking minute thinking up new ways to make the fantastically rich people who owned the newspaper fantastically richer. This usually involved "going the extra mile" and putting in unpaid overtime for people who did not know you existed and who eventually were going to lay you off. Yeah, that's smart. But people did it anyway, and, yup, they got laid off just the same.

"I believe there is far too much working being done in the world," Bertrand Russell wrote in 1932, "and that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous." He called for an "organized diminution" of work - an expansion of leisure time brought about by the rational allocation of resources and the mechanization of certain kinds of inescapable toil. If this sounds like some sort of utopian socialism it's because it is, but the basic point is a good one: for most people, their working lives are a form of tyranny - they do their jobs not because they want to but because the alternative is poverty. A choice between work one hates and starvation is not a free choice, however much corporate propaganda might tell us otherwise. Our time is the most precious resource we have — it is also the one we have less of with every passing second — and no society is truly free that compels its members, en masse, to sacrifice their time to work that they hate merely in order to survive.

Work is part of life, and, as such, the key to being happy in it is to do things that you find interesting and important, and to have a healthy degree of autonomy in how you're permitted to go about doing them. In the 10th grade, my English teacher instructed us to write a letter to our future selves, a letter that would include a prediction of what we'd end up doing for a living. We were told not to open them until our 40th birthday. I cheated and opened mine a couple of years back. I predicted that by age 40 I would be teaching and be a "big time novelist". Well, damn. Neither a novelist nor "big time", but I do teach and write, and that's not a bad prediction for a 15-year-old who was adamant that people would never give up vinyl for CDs because they liked album covers too much.

I can therefore count myself among the lucky few whose working life functions harmoniously with their leisure time. Most days I look forward to my "work" with renewed pleasure, because it entails doing many of the things I would pursue in my leisure hours if I had some other job. Oh, there are stresses and strains and sacrifices to be made; and, of course, there's petty politics and pressure to publish, but, in effect, I get to do my hobbies for a living. Not many telemarketers, cab drivers, or nursing home laundry workers can say the same.

But with great jobs come great responsibilities - especially when those jobs are paid for by the community. Above all, such jobs entail a responsibility to do them well and to give something back to the people who make them possible.


Graham Broad said...

The photograph is of the famous statute of Atlas in the Rockefeller Center. Now there's the worst job ever: holding the world, for all eternity, on your shoulders.

Alison Hunter said...

I dunno ... Sisyphus had a pretty bad job too ...

gwarder said...

Does this mean I'm not going to ever read the published version of Katie and Andy's adventures in Queens Quay?