The Saddest Thing I’ve Read in Months, Non-Fiction-Wise

Here’s a depressing piece on seeking refuge at work: “Why Do We Work So Hard?” — Subtitle: “Our jobs have become prisons from which we don’t want to escape.” Like I said: depressing.

And of course the author of said piece is an economist, writing for The Economist. And of course he writes, “Karl Marx had a different view: that being occupied by good work was living well. Engagement in productive, purposeful work was the means by which people could realise their full potential. He’s not credited with having got much right about the modern world, but maybe he wasn’t so wrong about our relationship with work.” Thanks for giving Marx some credit, I guess? (I would add that he is credited, even (or perhaps mostly) by capitalist-apologists, for much more than that.)

But then, to the point:

Here is the alternative to the treadmill thesis. As professional life has evolved over the past generation, it has become much more pleasant. Software and information technology have eliminated much of the drudgery of the workplace. The duller sorts of labour have gone, performed by people in offshore service-centres or by machines. Offices in the rich world’s capitals are packed not with drones filing paperwork or adding up numbers but with clever people working collaboratively.

And then, maybe the saddest (nonfiction) thing I’ve read in months:

The fact that our jobs now follow us around is not necessarily a bad thing, either. Workers in cognitively demanding fields, thinking their way through tricky challenges, have always done so at odd hours. Academics in the midst of important research, or admen cooking up a new creative campaign, have always turned over the big questions in their heads while showering in the morning or gardening on a weekend afternoon. If more people find their brains constantly and profitably engaged, so much the better.

Smartphones do not just enable work to follow us around; they also make life easier. Tasks that might otherwise require you to stay late in the office can be taken home. Parents can enjoy dinner and bedtime with the children before turning back to the job at hand. Technology is also lowering the cost of the support staff that make long hours possible. No need to employ a full-time personal assistant to run the errands these days: there are apps to take care of the shopping, the laundry and the dinner, walk the dog, fix the car and mend the hole in the roof. All of these allow us to focus ever more of our time and energy on doing what our jobs require of us.

There are downsides to this life. It does not allow us much time with newborn children or family members who are ill; or to develop hobbies, side-interests or the pleasures of particular, leisurely rituals – or anything, indeed, that is not intimately connected with professional success. But the inadmissible truth is that the eclipsing of life’s other complications is part of the reward.

Where to begin? I’ll just offer three things to think about:

  1. Do people like the author not notice the “duller sorts of labor” because it’s so hidden, or because they’re willfully ignorant of workers in plain sight? And that’s just pointing out the armies of janitors and electricians and paper-mill assembly-liners and maintenance workers climbing cell-phone towers at their own peril to make this creative, challenging, humming “refuge” of the office even possible. Let us not mention, ever, the even larger and more destitute armies of those—mostly children—who have to hunch in mines or toil in factories or arch in scorched fields, mono-cropped as far as the eye can see (the fields), just so creative and wanting-to-be-challenged economist types can “tele-commute.”
  2. If one were a janitor or an electrician or, say, a police officer or even better, a social worker, would one love “taking work home” with them quite as much? What if one were sewing soccer balls for 15 hours a day?
  3. Since when did we categorize human communication, “side-interests,” the “pleasures of particular, leisurely rituals,” or “anything, indeed, that is not intimately connected with professional success” as life’s “other complications”?

 

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4 thoughts on “The Saddest Thing I’ve Read in Months, Non-Fiction-Wise

  1. My friend, you sound depressed — when you should really be feeling ecstatic! You just figured out that there might be a bit more to life than your “professional life”, and indeed not many people seem to have figured this out, so congratulations for that.

    Also, don’t worry too much about the janitors and electricians: they are living much happier lives than the ones your imagination is fabricating they live. Put down you communist books and just go talk to them if you don’t believe me. I know this sounds incredible, but there are even people who are perfectly happy working their entire lives as shopkeepers (can you imagine the boredom lol?). Some of the nicest and most good-natured people I’ve met were shopkeepers.

    And don’t you also worry too much about the 7 year old Chinese kids working 12 hour shifts for a bowl of rice. Working 12 hour shifts is preferable to starving, and albeit far from “ideal” conditions, I can also assure you they aren’t feeling as sad as your depressed brain is imagining. After all they don’t HAVE time to get depressed (they need to workworkwork, eat rice and sleep, remember?). Yeah I know, shitty life huh? But what can you do? Compared to those Somalian or Angolan kids we see on TV they actually look okay, if you think about it. Compared to your or my life, to be sure, the Chinese kid is very underprivileged (where will he ever find the time, for example, to indulge in the pleasure of reading fellow civilized and depressed weaklings like Camus and us?). But as China grows stronger and richer, so too does its population, and perhaps this kid’s future son will have the privilege of demonstrating on Beijing’s streets and will get to blow a few cars up (can you imagine the fun!). So let’s not worry too much about these non-problems.

    And if you can’t stop yourself from worrying about all these complete strangers living halfway across the globe AND are unwilling to go check a shrink or psychiatrist, realize at least that complaining about these things on a random blog post will not change anything whatsoever. It’d be more productive if YOU YOURSELF worked 12 hour shifts for the rest of your life, in order to save up enough money to save 5 or 6 thousands of underprivileged African and Chinese kids. That’d actually contribute to changing their lives and it’d actually make you less depressed… I think.

    Or you could, you know, realize that the best thing to do about it is nothing, and go learn to surf or something.

  2. Nietzsche: “Moral fashion of a commercial society. — Behind the basic principle of the current moral fashion: “moral actions are actions performed out of sympathy for others”, I see the social effect of timidity hiding behind an intellectual mask: it desires, first and foremost, that all the dangers which life once held should be removed from it, and that everyone should assist in this with all his might: hence only those actions which tend towards the common security and society’s sense of security are to be accorded the predicate “good”. — How little pleasure men must nowadays take in themselves when such a tyranny of timidity prescribes to them their supreme moral law, when they so uncontradictingly allow themselves to be ordered to look away from themselves but to have lynx-eyes for all the distress and suffering that exists elsewhere! Are we not, with this tremendous objective of obliterating all the sharp edges of life, well on the way to turning mankind into sand? Sand! Small, soft, round, unending sand! Is that your ideal, you heralds of the sympathetic affections? — In the meantime, the question itself remains unanswered whether one is of more use to another by immediately leaping to his side and helping him — which help can in any case be only superficial where it does not become a tyrannical seizing and transforming — or by creating something out of oneself that the other can behold with pleasure: a beautiful, restful, self-enclosed garden perhaps, with high walls against storms and the dust of the roadway but also a hospitable gate.”

    Today’s class is over. Your homework is to throw all your Camus books and notes into the trash bin. Take care!

  3. Holy shit, it just struck me that you might be a girl. I mean, now all the flowers in the blog and your fixation with child labour make perfect sense. Searching around I could not find anything that positively proved you being a woman, but I’m 90% certain of it. Googling your pen-name I found a blog about soccer (which was cool, since I like soccer too), but lots of girls enjoy the sport anyway, and in the USA it’s even regarded as a girly sport, so all in all I’m still betting you’re a girl (seriously, I hope for your sake you are a girl!).

    Well, then, let it be said that you are a very smart and eloquent girl, but that your ideological and political views are decadent. Hopefully you’ll realize this one day. Take care.

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