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:
- 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.”
- 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?
- 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”?