This working life

I’ve written on many previous occasions about this thing work that we all feel obliged to do, largely to keep the proverbial wolf from the door, but also to keep us occupied, to fill our time and engage our interest.  So often it defines who we are, from the drudge jobs paid by the hour to the wage slaves tied to their desk, the career professionals, the high earners who do it for fun – wherever you are in the chain, your view of work will be different.  Sometimes it can reward us in the various ways defined by Abraham Maslow, other times we hate it but have to keep going for the money.  And then sometimes we are working to attain a greater goal, putting up with the indignities of whatever occupation we presently have in the knowledge that sooner or later there will be a massive change for the better.

Success for the economy, we are told, depends on growth and output, investment by business. We cheer if new jobs are created, even when on closer inspection they turn out to be jobs on the minimum wage, part-time jobs and others that will reinforce poverty for those already on the breadline.

But does it have to be like that?  We will always need people doing the menial “dirty jobs” and some of the most important are the ones with least financial reward – particularly carers in a society where people live longer and potentially more active lives – so we all theoretically have the ability to work for a greater number of years – and the pensions crisis means we may have no choice but to do that (pray that your limbs and mental faculties hold together long enough to keep you employable in the meantime.)

But if we did not have people who were so dedicated to do the really dirty jobs for the worst money, how would society function? Perhaps the unwritten law in our education system is to suppress the expectations and aspirations of children so we don’t all want to be doctors, bankers and lawyers and won’t be sniffy about doing work for the minimum wage?  Remember these are occupations that can’t be automated, that need human intervention but at the lowest skill levels.

Is a job, any job, better than none?  The government thinks we should be glad to work, for nothing if needs be.  A geology graduate’s legal objection to working on a Work Programme placement stacking shelves in Poundland to justify receiving her Jobseeker’s Allowance was met by the Secretary of State, Ian Duncan Smith promising to change the law rather than listening to the court’s decision and find better solutions.

Would IDS stack shelves if ordered to do so, I wonder?  Arguably politicians are politicians because they failed at everything else, though they would dispute that verdict.  But this gives rise to a wider debate about whether we have any right to utilise our professional skills in an appropriate way, or should be glad merely to find work of any description? Does the act of claiming benefits mean we forego any right to find work which gives us pleasure and fulfilment?

There are days I desperately wish to be working and the heady feeling of status and influence, but others when I yearn to chuck in the rat race and write regardless – be one of those writers who dies in poverty but is then rediscovered and feted long after his death.  The romantic image of a writer running a bar in some warm clime with a mañana attitude to life while tapping out his bestsellers does sound exceedingly attractive.   Many of us seem to have a dream of being paid for something we enjoy, but how many people actually manage it?  Do most people treat their work as a job to make ends meet, a career or a vocation?  It’s important but I don’t think it should ever dominate your life any more than alcohol or gambling should dominate – being a workaholic is often bad news for your health if it also brings stress and addictive behaviours.  And it’s also not what life is about.

So here’s another chestnut:  should we work longer hours?  The working time directive says no, but many opt out – me included.  There’s way too much macho posturing about this issue, to the extent that if you work for an American corporate you stand little or no chance of promotion unless you’re at your desk at 6 and staying well into the evening.  If you’re a corporate type in Japan you’re expected to go off to socialise with the bosses after work too, enjoy geishas and do whatever else.

And so on – the working culture differs in every country, though many do put in fewer hours than the UK, but are not necessarily any less productive.  The evidence indicates that we are generally less productive for doing so, and certainly when you are trying to accomplish things it works well to have a strict deadline by which to finish them.  Then to have a life outside work is positive and healthy: work-life balance is what keeps us human.

However, just think of the people who have no choice in the matter, who have to do two or three part time jobs, work all hours not through burning motivation but because they cannot physically survive any other way.  Creating jobs is one thing, but if they are part time, low-paid, degrading and generally lacking in fulfilment then is it any surprise that people are reluctant to do them unless they would otherwise starve?  The way the welfare system is going, that may be how we are looking.

For me, giving more people the opportunity to build a better life and be socially mobile has to be good.  Reinforcing the divide between those who can be paid stupid sums and those whose talents give them next to no opportunity to reach their potential is contrary to the principles any government should ever take – though they are all great at saying one thing in public and doing something entirely different in reality.

Remember also that working and the risk of losing your livelihood are both intensely stressful, but as the picture above says “hard work is not enough to survive” – when the reasons for getting rid of jobs can be merely on a whim.  A hire and fire culture does not prompt loyalty on the part of the employees either, which surely is what we want and need.  Paying people a living wage and incentivising them to do more and progress is the only real way to progress, but punishing them and forcing them into jobs that destroy the morale helps nobody.

Meanwhile, I’m working in Warwick for a total of 12 weeks.  It has its highs and its lows, though ultimately it’s an anticlimax, not unlike acting in a show.  Leave ’em laughing when you go!

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