Some thoughts on work

It’s not just about me and my dream of doing nothing. It’s about all of us. I don’t know what happened to me at that hypnotherapist and, I don’t know, maybe it was just shock and it’s wearing off now, but when I saw that fat man keel over and die – Michael, we don’t have a lot of time on this earth! We weren’t meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements. From the film Office Space.

 

To find joy in work is to discover the fountain of youth. Pearl S. Buck

 

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. C. Northcote Parkinson

 

This boundless region, the region of le boulet, the job, il rusco – of daily work, in other words – is less known than the Antarctic. Primo Levi.

 

The meaning of work has been constantly under discussion for millennia now. For Aristotle all paid jobs absorbed and degraded the mind. In the Bible work was a curse for man’s disobedience to God.  In the sixteenth century with the Reformation we got the protestant work ethic; hard work was seen as a blessing as a way of showing love for God. In Karl Marx’s communist utopia there would be no limits to what humans could choose. One could be a painter in the morning, a fisherman in the afternoon, a writer in the evening, and a lover at night. Sounds bloody tiring if you ask me. More recently has come the idea of work as being a place to find meaning. Getting a salary is not enough we need to be self-actualised. 

At the centre of much of modern work is the office. In his book about everyday life, Queuing for Beginners, Joe Moran identifies three kinds of office:

 

  1. Cells – individual offices for people such as barristers or academics who need to work quietly on their own or have one-to-one meetings.
  2. Dens – busy places where people need to exchange ideas. The classic example is the newspaper office.
  3. Hives – places like call or data-entry offices, where employees just get on with their jobs like busy worker bees.

 

An integral part offices is the desk, another one of those American inventions that has come to dominate our lives. In 1915, the Steelcase Corp. created a newfangled piece of office furniture they called the Modern Efficiency Desk. It was such a simple design – a metal slab atop three drawers – that we may not fully appreciate its significance. It limited individual privacy and was essential for the evolution of the open-plan office. With IBM’s desktop computers we got the workstation. The workplace is then constantly evolving although innovations such as hot-desking don’t seem to have caught on; they are a victim of our strong sense of territoriality.

            The division of labour, described by Adam Smith in his famous account of the pin-making factory in The Wealth of Nations, has become a dominant factor in our societies. Some people lament this. Undoubtedly it can be dehumanising – we all remember those dystopian images from Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece Modern Times, where the main character spends his day tightening the same bolt over and over again. But this enormous specialisation, only possible in a sufficiently large market, has enabled wealth creation never before seen in history. We now have a dazzling variety of things people do, activities which are often difficult to describe in a single word, unlike those traditional jobs reflected in many a surname. Can you imagine trying to make surnames out of some of today’s professions?

Work has become much more unstable in the last thirty years. The idea of The Organisation Man seems to be a thing of the past. We have gone from six generations of blacksmiths in a family to today’s friction-free capitalism. This is a question of balance. The kind of stability we saw in the past could be oppressive. We want a dynamic society but we are afraid of the destructive consequences of  change. We would like growth without change but we are always going to face this kind of trade-off.

Many now see work as a source of meaning in life. This is an incredibly ambitious goal and mirrors the way love has become a central part of marriage. Both of these ideas would have shocked our forefathers and are difficult to live up to and a sure recipe for dissatisfaction. We need a more realistic basis. Organisations do not love us. We are probably not going to find nirvana at our workplace. Moderate contentment is more attainable. Maybe the Bible was right – work is our curse and we just have to make the most of it.

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