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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“All political and economic arrangements are not worth it, that precisely the most gifted spirits should be permitted, or even obliged, to manage them: such a waste of spirit is really worse than an extremity. These are and remain fields of work for the lesser heads, and other than lesser heads should not be at the service of this workshop: it were better to let the machine go to pieces again.”  – Friedrich Nietzsche

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“It is apparent that one of the primary reasons we have not experienced a revolution of values is that a culture of domination necessarily promotes addiction to lying and denial. That lying takes the presumably innocent form of many white people (and even some black folks) suggesting that racism does not exist anymore, and that conditions of social equality are solidly in place that would enable any black person who works hard to achieve economic self-sufficiency. Forget about the fact that capitalism requires the existence of a mass underclass of surplus labor. Lying takes the form of mass media creating the myth that the feminist movement has completely transformed society, so much so that the politics of patriarchal power have been inverted and that men, particularly white men, just like emasculated black men, have become the victims of dominating women.”  – bell hooks, from Teaching to Transgress

On Dream Jobs

I think it’s hard to do what you love for a living—not because getting paid to do something enjoyable kills the fun or authenticity of the activity, nor because it’s hard to find little moments of enjoyment in almost any job someone of my background and with my education would typically get in our rigid class hierarchy, but because, at least for me anyway, what I love changes so often—and so drastically—that I can’t imagine doing anything for a very long period of time without it getting stale. I mean, I love to visit my garden, but would I want to garden day in and day out, as if my livelihood depended on it? Would I want to teach others how to garden, or travel around the state or country talking about gardens? Not for very long, no.

The goal, then, for a “dream job” would be one that has a lot of variation, or that fluctuates in intensity. Being busy all the time blows, but a sinecure would be ten times worse.

It’d be great if we didn’t have to have jobs that lasted all day; I’m sure the people below me in our caste system (er, freedom and democracy system) would agree.

The Burnt Out Generation?

“Given that most exhaustion theorists’ arguments ultimately rest on the claim that their own age is the most exhausted,” writes Anna Katharina Shaffner in German burnout, “is it not time to concede that exhaustion might indeed be universal?”

Well, yes and no (sorry for the cliché.) It’s most likely true that people work too hard in pursuits that are ultimately fruitless, no matter the context, but perhaps it’s also true that to be burnt out is becoming something of a requisite. If you’re not too busy, you’re doing something wrong. Isn’t that messed up?

And isn’t it strange that the Germans, of all people, are preoccupied with exhaustion? It’s almost as if stereotypes aren’t true.

Maybe people have always been overworked. Shaffner writes:

Given that most exhaustion theorists’ arguments ultimately rest on the claim that their own age is the most exhausted, is it not time to concede that exhaustion might indeed be universal? If we were to venture further back into the past, crossing the frequently evoked modern/pre-modern threshold, we would find that many medieval men and women suffered from a lack of energy and spiritual weariness too, which might simply have been articulated in religious language – the numerous works written on melancholia and acedia (diagnoses that are also essentially structured around mental and physical exhaustion) suggest as much. Werner Post, in his beautifully written treatise on acedia (Acedia: Das Laster der Trägheit, 2011) has recently presented this argument in the most persuasive of terms. But one could look back further still: the weariness of the melancholic was a condition already theorized by Hippocrates and Galen. Rather than lamenting the horrors of modernity, perhaps it is time to acknowledge that exhaustion is simply an essential part of the human experience. Indeed, the fact that our energies are limited, and that this worries us, is very much part of what makes us human. What changes through history is not the experience of exhaustion as such, but rather the labels we invent to describe it, the causes we mobilize to explain it, and, of course, the specific cultural discontents that we tend so readily to map onto it.

But this also strikes me as a kind of cop out; it’s the Pleistocene-Overkill-Hypothesis apology of modern capitalism. People have always been burnt out, so stop complaining, will ya?

I think people have always been overworked, sure. But overworked is now the norm. If you take a moment (or a sick day) to relax and go for a walk, you’ve got problems. You’re unprofessional. You’re not managing your time well. See what I mean?

Surprise! People Hate Their Jobs

Here are some completely predictable statistics I read in “Living in America will drive you insane—literally,” a post on Salon:

  • According to June 2013 Gallup poll, 70% of Americans hate their jobs or have “checked out” of them.
  • In 2011, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that antidepressant use in the United States has increased nearly 400% in the last two decades, making antidepressants the most frequently used class of medications by Americans ages 18-44 years.
  • Another Gallup poll “The School Cliff: Student Engagement Drops With Each School Year” (released in January 2013), reported that the longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become. The poll surveyed nearly 500,000 students in 37 states in 2012, and found nearly 80% of elementary students reported being engaged with school, but by high school, only 40% reported being engaged.

The first statistic in the list should really tell you everything you need to know about not just America but the whole industrialized world. It’s become a truism that “life’s a bitch,” and in fact we print that phrase on coffee mugs and carry those mugs to places we hate to do things we hate with people we generally at least mildly hate, at least most of the time. But this truism is bolstered by other corollary truisms: everyone’s gotta’ eat, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, life’s not fair, life is hard work.

The part in the aforementioned article about eating shit reminds me, of course, of Kafka, and of David Foster Wallace’s writing on The Metamorphosis and A Little Fable. Of even the most regimented, caste-society insects, at least it could be said that they get to go outside once in a while.

A Note About Sleep

This little blurb was written by a friend of mine who has recently moved to the woods, so to speak (she currently lives with her boyfriend in a trailer on a plot of land they bought):

*A note about sleep: We get a lot of it. 9-10 hours every night. This is my idea of luxury. More interestingly, the dream giver visits us every single night. I’ve christened our room the dream emporium because of the vivid and detailed late-night visions it grinds out. I routinely traverse nocturnal dreamscapes that would spur jealousy from Kaufman and Burton. The frequency of dreams seems to have in inverse relationship to stimulation. Not being in front of a television or computer constantly bombarded by a streaming flow of images, words, exclamations, messages,opinions, memes, ads, seems to have allowed my brain to slow down and take in a little more DMT. 

You can read more about them here. Their blog is probably some of my favorite writing on the internet at present. I thought the blurb about the bombardment of images was apropos, seeing as how I read blogs all day and, more to the point, that I’m writing about this on a blog that you’re now reading (and thank you for that). While I’m not quite sure that sleep itself is a prize (“Sleeping is no mean art,” Nietzsche once wrote, “For its sake one must stay awake all day”), it is true that without sleep humans will die, and in fact, humans will die from sleep deprivation faster than they will from food deprivation. If taken at the value of survival alone, water and sleep are the two most important things to humans. But what I mean here is that I’m not sure sound sleep or vivid dreaming are specifically to be sought; rather, one will sleep well if one is at equilibrium and if one has worked hard on meaningful tasks.

That’s what I think my friend was writing about. In that same post she later writes about the freedom to choose her own tasks at her own pace. I think that her definition of freedom is the correct one, and that any other definition is most likely an insidious or at least mendacious hawking of some product or political party.

Ask yourself what aspects of your life you’re actually able to choose. That list, if you’re able to generate one, will tell you how free you are.

And the last thing I’ll write about this for now: I really hate the quote attributed to Malcolm X: “If you’re not ready to die for it, put the word ‘freedom’ out of your vocabulary.” Of course we know the context with which it was said, but think about that for a second. What a strange concept, that if one wants to choose what they do with their precious time, one must fight someone else, to the point of death. Not to sound facetious, but why can’t I choose what I do without having someone trying to kill me for it?