Some of what makes office life awkward is that it asks us to tread a fine line between being, on the one hand, efficient and focused, and on the other, genial and human. We mustn’t appear robotic but nor should we gush naively in a boundary-less way. This is especially important in relation to a number of stock enquiries that we are likely to face, one of the most inevitable of which is: Did you have a nice weekend? How we handle such a question is a minor but key indicator of how well we have made our peace with the delicate compromises and hypocrisies of professional existence.
On the surface, this is exactly the question that you could be asked by a close friend – or your psychotherapist. Chatting in a cafe, or lying on the couch, you might explain that things were not going quite so well with your partner. The painful issue is that you’re not having so much sex any more. You can easily go for three weeks without anyone taking the initiative. This has been leading to a lot of arguments. On Saturday morning, feeling rejected, you picked a fight about how dirty the kitchen was, focusing on the fridge especially. That meant they were resentful about needing to see your friends from Canada in the evening. By Sunday afternoon, you were rethinking your whole relationship, questioning your career, doubting what happened to you in your childhood and wondering – in a way – if life wasn’t essentially a cruel joke, a random painful stretch filled with incompleteness and anxiety. You also had a very bad stomach upset because of a prawn sandwich you had at lunch on the Sunday. And how was your weekend?
Evidently, if you were to launch into such a rendition at 9.03am with your genial colleague from sales, you’d soon overstep the limits of their curiosity and goodwill and would be marked down as a garrulous, naive, frightening, depressive egotist. Being professional means, in essence, willingly denying the complexities of human nature.
One response to the tension between the sincere and the professional is to treat small-talk with utter disdain – and give almost nothing away. In response to your enquiry about the weekend, you might look at your colleague as if they had said something highly inappropriate and enquire, with a cold degree of puzzlement: Why do you ask? Getting inquisitive about a colleague’s weekend could be framed as a species of sinister inquisitiveness, as if a police officer had asked what you’d been up to on your Saturday afternoon.
Office life does make some peculiar demands on us. We cannot be properly ourselves, but nor can we be entirely faceless either. We may, for example, be asked to attend a meeting with colleagues to discuss the launch date for a new range of garden furniture or to present an analysis of the market for electric toothbrushes in Portugal – topics in which we all have a purely financial interest. We are likely to be a group of almost random strangers of varied ages and backgrounds who have only been temporarily aligned in the determined pursuit of money. But we are nevertheless, in the few minutes before the start of proceedings, called upon to treat each other with a high degree of tolerance, kindness and empathy. We are meant both to care – and not really to care. It’s a dance – and an especially taxing one for those among us who prize sincerity and authenticity. What is going on in someone’s inner world, how their new puppy is getting on or the state of their relationship is neither directly relevant to anything on the agenda – and yet, because these belong to the reality of the participants, nor are they wholly beside the point either. They need to be touched, but not settled, on.
The question about what sort of weekend one had isn’t purely fake; the asker isn’t just complying with a convention that they regard as ridiculous; they do want to know something. Calibrating the answer well emerges from an understanding of the point of the question.
Your colleague isn’t keen to know the elaborate details of your life outside the office. But just below the surface, small-talk is performing a very important function. It is a tool of orientation. It allows the bare bones of another’s situation to emerge, so that – were it to be necessary – one would know who to call and what guesses to make about someone’s behaviour. It allows for a rough estimate of character, it tells us how attuned someone might be to group dynamics, how they might react in a crisis – and how competitive or trustworthy they could prove. Not least, both the raising and the answering of small-talk signals a mutual commitment to civility within the otherwise chilly bounds of commercial life.
Pretty good; I was down on the water with some friends. Lovely to get away from it all. And you?
Modern capitalism has moved work in two contradictory directions. On the one hand, it has made it evident that we’re individuals competing for economic survival in a ruthless and unforgiving environment; on the other hand, it has identified that the psychological well-being and mental health of employees has a minor but critical role to play in the success of every firm.
We shouldn’t resent our colleagues for not being our friends but nor should we (mostly) make the mistake of thinking that they are. We should forgive the world of work for placing us at a tantalising midpoint between the human and the instrumental.
Do you think you’ll be doing anything nice next weekend?
I. Office Victorians
In the 19th century, British explorers were famous for not getting stressed. They might – like David Livingstone in his travels in central Africa between 1851 and 1883 – get attacked by a lion, suffer pneumonia, see most of their companions die of malaria and dysentery – and yet remain calmly optimistic. Livingstone’s journal (written in berry juice when the ink ran out) isn’t a record of his gripes or personal anxieties. It’s filled with tranquil speculations about central African water-systems and careful observations about goat trading.
After going missing for several years, when Livingstone finally met up with his fellow explorer Henry Morton Stanley, there was no great show of emotion. For Victorian missionaries and explorers, stress was not an acceptable state of mind. One had to be positive and in control at all times.
This attitude didn’t disappear at the end of the 19th century. Of course, it is now quite unacceptable within relationships, but it flourishes in another major area of life: work. Modern business is full of people who deny their inner suffering – and who are, despite lots of surface differences and outward markers of casualness and openness, in their own way just as buttoned up as legendary Victorian explorers enduring the tropics in crisply-ironed khaki.
Whatever the rhetoric, being tough is currently crucial at the office. There’s a prevalent and distinctly brutish idea at large that one should be hard to impress, harsh in identifying people’s defects and unmoved by failure in others and oneself: empathy for the weak is itself a fatal weakness.
Because self-doubt is taboo, it can be hard to recognise that it even exists. The world’s offices are full of people (let’s call them Office Victorians) who come across as unyielding and coldly confident, when the strange, underlying fact is that they are terrified – and yet they see business as too dangerous a place in which to own up to being afraid and in doubt. It takes a courage and a trust in one’s own authority which is easy to lack in order to admit that things may be spinning out of control. Far easier to settle into a composure of grim stolidity.
For those of us who have to work around Office Victorians, it is useful to know that outwardly very intimidating people might be scared, rather than mean. If we have to deal with their rigid certainties and barked orders, we shouldn’t respond to the iciness, but need to go beneath the surface behaviour in order to try to deal with the frightened child within. It will be tricky, though, because they’ll make that interpretation feel entirely inappropriate. That’s part of their self-defence.
Office Victorians give the impression that stress is something one should be ashamed of when in fact, real bravery involves a capacity to admit to worry and fragility.
Once one looks at the office as a place full of the walking wounded, there’s no shortage of evidence for how hard it is to cope. Someone who has been doing well in the company for a few years starts, perhaps quite suddenly, to be beset by large worries about the purpose of work, the direction of their career and the state of their relationships. They get very interested in travelling; they’re always checking up prices of flights to Istanbul or Airbnb options in Sao Paulo. They make some weird remarks: ‘We’re all going to die, so why are we worrying about the China market?’ They mention ‘the death of God’ at a meeting of regional sales reps. During a break in a planning session, while pouring a cup of coffee, they ask a colleague ‘Are you ever struck by the thought that it might have been better never to have been born?’ or ‘What do you think it would be like to be a cloud?’ On two Monday mornings in a row they come in looking haggard. Emerging from the lift, it looks as if they have been crying on the way up to the 15th floor. They look out of the window a lot. They are going through what might be called an ‘existential’ crisis – named in acknowledgment of the mid-twentieth Century French philosophers, the Existentialists, like Camus and Sartre, who were especially interested in the panicked feeling that one’s current life is meaningless.
Albert Camus, 1957
The first instinct would be to say that these are all signs of a bad employee. Their work is definitely suffering; other people are getting bothered. The company might start to think about how much it’s going to cost to let them go.
But management shouldn’t be scared. An existential crisis doesn’t mean someone is a bad employee (though something does need to be done). We need to give ourselves much less alarming accounts of what’s going on when an individual falls into a state where they are puzzled, angry, worried or unduly thoughtful about the purpose and direction of their life.
Going through such mental anguish from time to time, at least every few years, is a natural, even inevitable part of being human. You don’t get confused and troubled because you are misguided, weak-willed or selfish, but because you are complex, thoughtful, fragile and – like everyone – slightly broken.
At a collective level, we’ve given ourselves unfrightened accounts of what’s going on when teenagers sit moodily staring out of the window and can’t answer when someone asks them what is going on or requests them to pass the salt. We know these young people aren’t heading directly for a life of delinquency; we can stay confident that a reconciliation with the demands of the world will emerge.
We should expect analogous periods of confusion and loss of direction to punctuate the lives of every employee. We are not automatons, but highly complicated volatile collections of protein that need careful and sympathetic administering. The good, mature corporation makes room for the fact. They see their task not as that of shepherding an army of the mentally invulnerable, but rather of stopping periods of angst from turning into full-blown disasters.
A lot of large companies now recognise the need for a gym. They realise there isn’t a conflict between health and working hard. Stretching your biceps of course doesn’t have direct, immediate pay offs for work. But there’s an acknowledged correlation between being a good employee and taking time to administer to the needs of the body.
Something similar must eventually develop around mental health. Setting up an employee gym for the mind, otherwise known as a therapy centre, wouldn’t directly close a deal or pep up a presentation. But it would signal that a company understands and affords legitimacy to the needs of the emotional self. We need companies that can calmly take on board the idea that total sanity won’t be possible for any of us all the time.
II. Sensitive Souls
Human beings are astonishingly sensitive creatures. Our ears can pick up sounds between 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz: which means anything from the rustling of a sheet of paper in the room next door to the minute sound of water dropping into a can five floors away. Our eyes are no less acute, with a capacity to detect a luminance range of 1014, or one hundred trillion (100,000,000,000,000) (about 46.5 f-stops), from 10−6 cd/m2. At the end of our fingertips are 2,500 receptors per cm2, ready to appreciate the contrast between Central American cotton (gossypium hirsutum) and its slightly smoother Egyptian cousin (gossypium herbaceum). As for the 40 million olfactory receptor neurons in our noses, they can distinguish between one trillion different odors. The memory storage capacity of our mind is no less prodigious: the brain contains one billion neurons, each of which makes around 1,000 connections with other neurons, resulting in a total network of a trillion connections. Our computers may be impressive, but our brains continue to be more so, for they can hold about 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes) of memory: which means that if it worked like a video recorder, you’d need to leave the TV on for 300 years to fill up your mind.
These capacities have been wonderful for politics, engineering, chemistry, biology – and especially for art, where the results of human sensitivity are perhaps easiest to notice and marvel at. Only an animal as well sensorily-well-equipped as we would have bothered to arrange the 10,000 pieces of coloured glass that go into the large rose window of Chartres cathedral.
Rose window in the Notre Dame cathedral, Paris
Or would have been able to manipulate five different kinds of blue to produce an extraordinarily life-like sleeve, as Titian did:
Titian’s Portrait of a Man
Only an animal of dazzling neuronal complexity would be able to read (let alone write) a passage like the one below from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, where the central character, Swann, finds himself deeply moved by a piece of music:
But tonight, at Mme. Verdurin’s, scarcely had the little pianist begun to play when, suddenly, after a high note held on through two whole bars, Swann saw it approaching, stealing forth from underneath that resonance, which was prolonged and stretched out over it, like a curtain of sound, to veil the mystery of its birth—and recognised, secret, whispering, articulate, the airy and fragrant phrase that he had loved. And it was so peculiarly itself, it had so personal a charm, which nothing else could have replaced, that Swann felt as though he had met, in a friend’s drawing-room, a woman whom he had seen and admired, once, in the street, and had despaired of ever seeing her again. Finally the phrase withdrew and vanished, pointing, directing, diligent among the wandering currents of its fragrance, leaving upon Swann’s features a reflection of its smile. But now, at last, he could ask the name of his fair unknown – and was told that it was the andante movement of Vinteuil’s sonata for the piano and violin.
This is the good side to being human. Unfortunately, we buy our sensitivity at a very high price. Our capacity to notice, remember and imagine so much is responsible both for the glories of civilization and for an awful lot of everyday frustration and stress.
Marcel Proust was driven almost to madness by his sensitivity. The writer Andre Gide once described him (with compassion) as ‘a man born without a skin.’ He was capable not only of arranging words with superlative grace on the page, but also of hearing noises three apartments below his (requiring him to line his bedroom with cork) and of suffering from a difference in altitude between Versailles and central Paris (83 meters).
Even when we’re not Proust, we notice rather too much. Moment by moment you might be aware of a sound in the next room, traffic outside (a car slowing down, another going over a speed hump, the tiny variation in sound as a vehicle turns a corner); you’re aware there’s a meeting coming up next month that needs special attention, that you’ve got to pick up the dry cleaning tomorrow; that you never heard back from X; that Y didn’t smile this morning; that the take-away coffee was a bit weak and your brain feels a touch slow; that’s there’s a slightly dry patch on the roof of your mouth, that your left shoulder feels tense, that you never heard back from Z, that there’s a package waiting for you at home, that you don’t really like the shoes you are wearing … The list could be extended indefinitely.
Stress is the over-stimulation of the sensory apparatus. Because stress is so unpleasant, it’s tempting to hate ourselves for suffering from it and to see it as some form of unique curse or personal weakness. But at the level of our very organs, we are creatures fundamentally predisposed to over-stimulation. Stress is intimately bound up with our strengths, it’s a weakness related to our talents as a species. That we are prone to mania, can’t sleep, feel weary, crazy or burdened by strange thoughts is not unusual or motive-less: it’s a logical outcome of, and a heavy price we all have to pay for, our astonishing mental capacities.
At the heart of how modern individuals work, there is a dream of security: security from humiliation, penury, dependence, arbitrary dismissal and uncertainty.
At the heart of how a modern capitalist economy works, there is a dream of competitive advantage: one based on the intelligent maximisation of invested capital, on the effective deployment of technology, raw material and labour to reduce costs and improve quality and the triumph over competitors so as to maximise shareholder return.
At certain points, the two longings, those of individuals and those of capitalism, seem inherently aligned. At other points, it can seem as if our own well-being has grown entirely irrelevant to the economic machine we have built. We generally don’t kick the machine. We’re far more inclined to blame ourselves. There is, after all, always enough evidence of people who thrive and succeed to suggest to us that the fault must lie with something we have done. But in our more politically engaged moments, we may dare to complain that the system really is not working ‘as it should’.
Ironically, at precisely such moments, it’s probably working very well indeed. It’s just that it was never intended to work in the way we would like, for our own well-being. Capitalism does not place the longings and aspirations of the labour force at the heart of its operations (the clue as to its essential concerns lie in its name). It wasn’t made to ensure that we had secure, good lives, plenty of time off and pleasant relationships with our families; it was made to maximise shareholder return. Labour has exactly the same status within capitalism as other production inputs, neither more nor less. Alongside rent, the price of fuel, plant, technology and taxes, labour (people) is just another cost. That it happens to be a ‘cost’ that cries, needs the odd weekend off, sometimes catches the flu and in extremis commits suicide is – at most – a puzzling inconvenience. We shouldn’t believe that there is anything faulty about the capitalist machine simply because we have minimal security of employment, very little time to see our families, a lot of stress and an uncertain future. These may belong to the very conditions that help the machine to work very well. Our mistake, which has imposed a heavy internal burden on us, has been to confuse our own ambitions for happiness with the goals of capitalism.
We have innocently viewed a range of anxieties and fears as incidental and solvable, when they are in fact basic necessities for the correct functioning of enterprise. The first, and largest of these is the Fear of Dismissal. A capitalist economy could not work well without it. It is a precondition of efficient business both that existing labour can be removed swiftly and cheaply and that there should always be a ready supply of cooperative replacements. Unemployment isn’t a tragedy for business; it contributes to a willing talent pool with low bargaining power.
Even the collapse and shuttering of whole firms isn’t – overall – to be lamented. Inefficient players who have failed to read market signals have to close and their capital has to deployed elsewhere. There is nothing more unhealthy for capitalism than an economy in which whole firms, some perhaps very long established and with thousands of loyal workers within them, can’t regularly and suddenly go bust.
The relationship we form to a company may last as long as a marriage and we may give it as much time and devotion as we would give to a partner. But this is a relationship that should, for capitalism to flourish, be close to abusive, because our ‘spouse’ must at any point be allowed, on the grounds that they could save themselves three percent a year, to fire us bluntly and take up with a more cooperative and flexible rival in Daegu, South Korea.
We have taken care to construct a world where, in many areas, there is an extreme sensitivity to upset and distress. We have rigorous health and safety requirements to ensure people don’t fall off ladders or strain their backs moving heavy boxes. We make sure that words aren’t used to demean or prejudice minorities. Kindergartens present a moving picture of our care for the next generation.
And yet in the core area of our work, we operate in a system which is – from an emotional point of view – nothing short of barbaric. But through more sober economic lenses, it isn’t anything as alarming: it is merely admirably competitive.
A second fear that prevails is that of not having done enough. We lie awake at night worrying about certain tasks we failed to perform. We cannot stop thinking about what certain competitors may be up to. We panic about the upcoming financial results. We don’t sleep very well any more.
This too makes sense. It used to be far tougher on businesses. Regular breaks used to be mandated. Religion was responsible for many of them; it told people that they should down tools and honour something far more important than their work, like the majesty of the creator of the whole world. This glance upwards to the heavens relativised and calmed the workforce, it put things in perspective and lent a relieving sense that those packages in the warehouse could probably be sent next week after all. On a bad day, there might even be a sermon reminding people to treat workers like God’s children and to respect the holiness of every individual, however lowly.
In certain countries, labour got itself organised and demanded that everyone in the company had to be given decent conditions and the odd holiday, or else everyone would walk out on strike. There were angry marches and some insane demands to restrict who could be fired and when.
There were some very frustrating limits to technology as well. There was the post, but it took an age. One might have to wait two weeks for a letter and there might be little to do in that time other than check up on the garden, go for long walks, read three Russian novels and talk to the children. Travel for work took an equal eternity. One might be sent to Hamburg by the firm, which could mean four whole days, three of them at sea, some of them spent slowly eating kartoffelsalat and a schnitzel, chatting to fellow passengers and staring out from the ship’s window at the wheat fields near Neuharlingersiel.
It has been a miracle and an unbounded relief for Capitalism that this painful age has at last passed. Religion now seldom gets in the way. Its irritating calming pieties have been replaced by far more alarming and motivating narratives drawn from social darwinism. The labour movement has been effectively pulverised by flattering ambitious workers that they would gain far more by ditching their fellow indians and aiming to become chiefs themselves – and relabelling labour organisers enemies of progress. Technology has at last made it possible for the machine to be on at all hours and therefore for the line between leisure and work to be thankfully erased. We’ve been able to give people devices to make sure they are findable all the time and cleverly incentivised them to see these devices as toys for their benefit rather than glorified tracking bracelets for the firm. Travel has been hugely speeded up too, so that it is now possible to squeeze in meetings on a few continents in just a single day.
The third and related fear is that we now have almost no time to invest in our personal lives. We constantly search for that elusive holy-grail quaintly termed by magazines ‘work-life balance’. Anyone who sincerely believes that such an equilibrium might be possible has not begun to understand the logic of capitalism.
Work and Love are our two greatest idols. But they are also locked in mortal combat. Work tends to win. The complaints against work from within love are notorious: that we are never around, that we are always tired, that we never give our partner our wholehearted attention, that we are obsessive about the office. Modern ideas of love were invented in the late eighteenth century by people who didn’t have a job and therefore made great play of the importance of spending constant time with a lover explaining and sharing feelings and recounting the movements of one’s heart. Unfortunately, combining Romanticism and Modern Capitalism together, as we are expected to do, is an impossible task. The impressive philosophy of Romantic love – with its emphasis on intimacy and openness – sits very badly alongside the requirements of working routines that fill our heads with complex demands, keep us away from home for long stretches and render us insecure about our positions in a competitive environment.
According to the Romantic ideal, a lover can be kind and good only when they readily communicate their feelings. But the level of openness this assumes is wholly at odds with the realities of modern work. After a tricky day (or week), one’s mind is likely to be numb with worries and duties. We may not feel like doing much besides sitting in silence, staring at the kitchen appliances, running through a series of dramas and crises. Such preoccupation is not pleasant to witness: it risks expressing itself in a range of not very endearing symptoms: grunting, sighing, brooding silence and a short-fused temper. The most innocuous sounding question about how the day might have gone can elicit a growl – then, if it is repeated, an explosion.
In the pre-Modern age, the basic character of most jobs was well understood by everyone. If you were a shepherd, a blacksmith, a miner or a housemaid, you were doing work that would have been familiar to everyone in the community over many generations. The advent of the factory system in the early 19th century brought new kinds of work – but often whole communities would be employed in roughly the same industries, so everyone would understand what it was like to glaze pottery (if you lived in Staffordshire) or operate a steam loom (if you lived around Manchester). Today’s jobs are weirder and more specialised. Explaining properly the reasons why one day was more enervating than another, why a particular project has become so stress-inducing or why relations with the Madrid office have broken down can require levels of forbearance we cannot muster – when one of us has spent the day advising on restructuring the billing system for the annuity collection fund of an insurance broker while the other has been attending to the data collection mechanism for the multi-platform design mainframe of a logistics company. When we do not properly explain, we risk coming across as closed, difficult and an enemy of true love, though we are usually no such thing: we are just tired and worried.
Another way in which modern work is at odds with the requirements of relationships has to do with domestic duties, the always fraught question of who should clean the bathroom or renew the household insurance (issues to which Romantics devoted scant attention). The modern ideology of work assigns the domestic sphere a low status. Work around the house isn’t paid, which means it can’t be important, and it is in any case associated, historically, with socially subordinate positions, like those of the scullery maid, the footman and the gardener. As a result we tend not to take household management seriously. We admire people who can drive fast, but not those who can make a bed perfectly at high-speed. In Modernity, unpaid work lacks all prestige. However, we cannot escape the domestic either. We live at a moment when pretty much everyone is involved (even if only a little) in housework. Having servants is an extreme luxury – even though for most periods of history, it was the norm for large sections of society to rely on help from others. In 1850 in Great Britain, for example, families with an income of GBP 300 a year (the basic income of any managerial job) would typically have two live-in servants. A clerk on half that (GBP 150 a year) would usually employ a full-time maid. Even just renting a room almost always involved access to a shared servant. But it has now become, in the most dynamic economies, prohibitively expensive to employ a fellow citizen to live in your house and make you cups of tea, dust the mantlepiece and clean the bath taps. We are left to squabble among ourselves about who will empty the bins. The technological developments of the 1950s and 1960s – vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, tumble driers etc. – certainly made domestic work a great deal less cumbersome, but they didn’t bring the chores to an end. We are still in the position of waiting for the long-promised robotic servants that finally will take domestic chores out of our hands entirely. They will become standard – eventually. They are sure to be cheap and common by 2050. Future social historians will note that there will have been a gap, running from around 1950 to 2050, in which domestic work was neither the province of servants nor of robots – but lay in the hands of almost everyone in the developed economies. A century is nothing in the big sweep of history. It’s just challenging that our lives have unfolded within it exactly.
After the taps and the dishes, and with equal challenges attached, come the children. Historically, it is very odd for business people – or indeed anyone with an executive role – to spend much of their day attending to the needs of their own children. People in the past weren’t heartless, they just didn’t think that it was particularly good for children to spend a lot of time with their parents. There was a prevailing fear of ‘spoiling’ one’s offspring by overt displays of affection and a shyness about spending too long in the nursery. It wasn’t until the early 1950s, first in the United States, then gradually across the rest of the developed world, that a new philosophy came to pass.
A number of researchers in the area of child development – especially the psychoanalyst, John Bowlby – stressed the importance for children of maintaining continuous and close relationships with their parents throughout their early years. Bowlby demonstrated the critical value of a warm, reassuring parental figure for the good development of every child. Playing on the carpet, bouncing balls, laughing over teddy’s antics, were, for Bowlby, no idle fun, these could be matters of psychological life or death for the child: “All the cuddling and playing, the intimacies of suckling by which a child learns the comfort of his mother’s body, the rituals of washing and dressing by which through her pride and tenderness towards his little limbs he learns the value of his own…all these are his spiritual nourishment.” A child’s sound development hung on the possibility of reliable, constant parental connection. “It is as if maternal care were as necessary for the proper development of personality as vitamin D for the proper development of bones.”
Bowlby didn’t mean for this to happen, but his insights into the principles of child development opened up a new landscape of pain for modern parents. Not making it back in time for bed became not, as it had once been, a minor inconvenience, but a potential new catastrophe. A tender, anxious part of every parent was awakened – and would now ache whenever he or she sat in gridlocked traffic or waited for a take-off slot on the tarmac at Heathrow. At the prospect of a business trip, a parent in the post-Bowlby era would have inwardly to fret at all the bath-times they would miss and the number of stories they would not have the chance to read. These were not worries that would have occurred to a knight returning from the Crusades. In 1095 – when his son Baldwin was two – Count Robert of Flanders, headed overseas on the First Crusade to the Holy Land. He came back home in August 1099. By which time he had missed 1,460 successive bedtime stories.
But this didn’t make Robert feel guilty or sad, because in 11th-century Europe, being a very good father was not assessed in terms of quantity of contact. Yet in the light of our improved understanding of the needs of the child, Robert was barbarous. Our best – and also most time-consuming – ideas about how to raise a child have arrived on the scene exactly when we’ve also discovered some crucial things about productivity, efficiency, the division of labour, transcontinental transport, 24 hour shift work and digital technology. Our best ideas about how to run an economy and our best ideas about how to raise families are squarely at odds.
Finding a comfortable, harmonious balance between the demands of work and the needs of children sounds like an obviously good idea – and we can always find a few people in the world who seem to achieve it with ease – just as there are people who are good at high-wire cycling. But it’s very unlikely that you will be among them. We end up getting frustrated and angry with ourselves (and our partners) for failing to attain what is, in reality, a highly elusive condition. One might – with similar levels of justice – berate oneself for not combining a job in the accounts department of a supermarket chain with giving piano recitals at the Gesellschaft der Musik Freunde in Vienna.
If there is consolation to be found, it lies in knowing enough history to realise that failure isn’t personal. It isn’t one’s own incompetence or lack of drive that has set one’s work and home life at loggerheads. We just happen to be living at a point in time when two big, opposed themes are powerfully at war, when we have demanding ideas about the needs of families and relationships and equally demanding ideas about work, efficiency, profit and competition. Both are founded on crucial insights; both aim to monopolise our lives. The essential drive of Capitalism is to provide more appealing goods at lower prices. While this is attractive for the customer, it is rather hellish for the producer: which of course means pretty much everyone in some major portion of their lives. The more productive an economy, the more conditions of employment will be less secure, less serene and more agitated than one might ideally like. We deserve a high dose of sympathy for the situation we happen to find ourselves in.
It descends, normally, between around 5pm and 7.30pm and can be at its height at six, especially when the weather is turning and the last of the daylight has burnished the sky a shade of crimson pink.
The Sunday evening feeling is ordinarily associated with work, and the idea of going back to an office after a pleasant break. But this doesn’t quite cover the complexity of what is going on: it isn’t just that we have some sort of work to do that is dragging down our mood, but that we are going back to the wrong sort of work even while we are in dire ignorance of what the right sort of work might actually be.
We all have inside us what we might term a true working self, a set of inclinations and capacities that long to exert themselves on the raw material of reality. We want to turn the vital bits of who we are into jobs, and ensure that we can see ourselves reflected in the services and products we are involved in turning out. This is what we understand by the right job, and the need for one is as fundamental and as strong in us as the need to love. We can be as broken by a failure to find our professional destiny as to identify an intimate companion. Feeling that we are in the wrong job, and that our true vocation lies undiscovered, is not a minor species of discomfort: it will be the central existential crisis of our lives.
We normally manage to keep the insistent calls of the true working self at bay during the week. We are too busy and too driven by an immediate need for money. But it reliably comes to trouble us on Sunday evenings. Like a ghost suspended between two worlds, it has not been allowed to live or to die, and so bangs at the door of consciousness, requiring resolution. We are sad, or panicked, because a part of us recognises that time is running out and that we are not presently doing what we should with what remains of our lives. The anguish of Sunday evening is our conscience trying to stir us inarticulately into making more of ourselves.
In this sense, Sunday evenings have a history. Until recently, the last hundred years or so, there was – for most of us – no question of our true working selves ever finding expression in our labours. We worked to survive and would be grateful for a minimal income. But such reduced expectations no longer hold. We know – because there are enough visible examples of people who have done so – that we could harness our talents to the engines of commerce. We know that we don’t have to be unhappy in this area, which adds a feeling of particular shame if we still are.
We should not be so hard on ourselves. We don’t yet have the mechanisms in place to reunite ourselves with our purpose. It is in the nature of our working selves to be both clear in their dissatisfactions and yet maddeningly oblique about their real direction. We can both be utterly sure that we are not doing what we should while wholly at sea about our genuine purpose.
The answer is patience, structure and steadfast intent. We need some of the discipline of the detective, or an archaeologist reassembling the pieces of a smashed jar. We should not dismiss our angst blithely as ‘the Sunday blues’, to be assuaged with a drink and a film. We should see it as belonging to a confused yet utterly central search for a real self that has been buried under a need to please others and take care of short-term needs for status and money.
In other words, we should not keep our Sunday evening feelings simply for Sunday evenings. We should place these feelings at the center of our lives and let them be the catalysts for a sustained exploration that continues throughout the week, over months and probably years, and that generates conversations with ourselves, with friends, mentors and with professionals. Something very serious is going on when sadness and anxiety descend for a few hours on Sunday evenings. We aren’t a bit bothered to have to end two days of leisure; we’re being driven usefully to distraction by a reminder to try to discover who we really are – and to do justice to our true talents – before it is too late.
For a little help in decoding the Sunday feeling:
For most of human history, what we did for a living was decided for us by our families. We would either directly copy what our parents did, or else we would reverentially accept their suggestions for what we might do.
Only for around the last 200 years have we been choosing jobs for ourselves – and we’re still at the dawn of learning some of the complexities involved.
On the surface, most families claim to have no interest in their children doing any job in particular. The standard line is that they simply want us to be happy.
But we are not as free as this sounds. We are always hemmed in by what can be termed ‘family work scripts’, scripts that guide us – often very subtly but also very heavily – towards certain occupations and away from others. Part of properly growing up – which may sometimes happen only in one’s 50s – involves learning to find a way round the scripts we’ve been handed.
At the most benign level, our family work scripts are the result of what our families understand of the working world. Every family has a range of occupations that it grasps, because someone has practiced them and in the process brought them within the imaginative range of other family members.
Yet it isn’t just a case that our families might not know about certain jobs and so cut us off from them. They might also be positively hostile or suspicious of other jobs. We’re liable to have received many little messages indicating that certain careers are inferior – and therefore beneath us, dangerous, phoney or not quite right for our sort of station in life.
Whatever lip service might be paid to gender equality, families are also highly talented at sending out covert messages about what a ‘real’ man or a ‘real’ woman should honourably do.
Yet more darkly, families may say that they want us to succeed, but would be highly threatened if we did so. A choice we make might remind someone of one of their failed ambitions. Our success might make them feel like a failure. We might try to sabotage our chances of winning so as not to leave a loved one feeling crushed.
Often without realising it, we are being heavily controlled by our families. Controlled not by harsh words but by something far more poignant and yet far harder to extricate ourselves from: by our ongoing desire to be a good child, to please those who brought us into this world, by love. Love can control us as much as force or the law ever did.
We are liable to try to be good children not just because we feel love but because we fear losing love, because we live in dread of being cast out if we were to dare to what we really want.
But here is the good news for timid good children. Parents very rarely disown their progeny. It certainly seems they might in our imaginations forged in childhood. But the adult reality is that families are extremely good at threatening to break apart, but then forgiving one another, and accommodating the most extraordinary challenges and tests.
We can’t know all families, but we can guess that almost anyone could do a lot more than they think, a lot more that might be a bit ‘bad’ in the eyes of the elders, and still be forgiven.
We owe our parents respect and kindness. We do not owe them our lives. We should dare, when the pressure has become unbearable, to leave their script aside.
One of the overriding reasons why modern work is so boring is that we keep having to do more or less the same thing every day. We have to be specialists, whereas we would – deep in our hearts – surely be so much more fulfilled if we could be wide-ranging, endlessly curious generalists.
You can understand the origins of restlessness when you look at childhood. As children, we were allowed to do so much. In a single Saturday morning, we might put on an extra jumper and imagine being an arctic explorer, then have brief stints as an architect making a Lego house, a rock star making up an anthem about cornflakes and an inventor working out how to speed up colouring in by gluing four felt-tip pens together; we’d put in a few minutes as a member of an emergency rescue team then we’d try out being a pilot brilliantly landing a cargo plane on the rug in the corridor; we’d perform a life-saving operation on a knitted rabbit and finally we’d find employment as a sous-chef helping make a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch.
Each one of these ‘games’ might have been the beginning of a career. And yet we had to settle on only a single option, done repeatedly over 50 years. We are so much more than the world of work ever allows us to be. In his ‘Song of Myself’, published in 1855, the American poet Walt Whitman gave our multiplicity memorable expression: ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’. By which he meant that there are so many interesting, attractive and viable versions of oneself, so many good ways one could potentially live and work. But very few of these ever get properly played out and become real in the course of the single life we have. No wonder if we’re often conscious of our unfulfilled destinies – and at times recognise with a legitimate sense of agony that we really could well have succeeded very well at doing something else.
It’s not our fault that we have not been able to give our ‘multitudes’ expression. The modern job market gives us no option but to specialise. We cannot be an airline pilot one afternoon a week, a tree surgeon two days a month, a singer-songwriter in the evenings, while holding down part-time jobs as a political advisor, a plumber, a dress designer, a tennis coach, a travel agent and being, additionally, the owner of a small restaurant serving Lebanese mezze – however much this might be the ideal arrangement to do justice to our widespread interests and potential.
The reasons why we cannot do so much were first elaborated at the end of the 18th century by the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith explained how what he termed the division of labour massively increases collective productivity. In a society where everyone does everything, only a small number of shoes, houses, nails, bushels of wheat, horse bridles and cart wheels are ever produced and no one is especially good at anything. But if people specialise in just one small area (making rivets, shaping spokes, manufacturing rope, bricklaying etc) they become very much faster and more efficient in their work and collectively the level of production is greatly increased. By focusing our efforts, we lose out on the enjoyment of multiplicity – yet our society becomes overall far wealthier and better supplied with the goods it needs. It is a tribute to the world Smith foresaw that we have ended up with job titles like: Senior Packaging & Branding Designer, Intake and Triage Clinician, Research Centre Manager, Risk and Internal Audit Controller and Transport Policy Consultant – in other words, tiny cogs in a giant efficient machine, hugely richer, but full of private longings to give our multitudinous selves expression.
One of Adam Smith’s most intelligent and penetrating readers was the German economist Karl Marx. Marx agreed entirely with Smith’s analysis; specialisation had transformed the world and possessed a revolutionary power to enrich individuals and nations. But where he differed from Smith was in his assessment of how desirable this development might be. We would certainly make ourselves wealthier by specialising, but we would also – as he pointed out with passion – dull our lives and cauterise our talents. In describing his utopian Communist society, Marx placed enormous emphasis on the idea of everyone having many different jobs. There were to be no specialists here. In a pointed dig at Smith, he wrote:
In communist society… nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes… thus it is possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner…without ever becoming a hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.
– Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1846)
It’s a beautiful but entirely unrealistic dream. We have collectively chosen to make work pay more rather than be more interesting. It’s a sombre thought but a consoling one too. Our suffering is painful but it has a curious dignity to it, because it does not uniquely affect us as individuals. It applies as much to the CEO as to the intern, to the artist as much as to the accountant. Everyone could have found so many versions of happiness that will elude them. In suffering in this way, we are participating in the common human lot. We can be sure that – whatever we do – parts of our potential will have to go undeveloped and die without ever having had the chance to come to full maturity – for the sake of the benefits of focus and specialisation.
It might be normal to imagine that a good society would be one in which a majority of people held optimistic views about themselves, their fellow citizens and their prospects for their collective futures.
But, in fact, quite the opposite appears to be true: deep pessimism seems a key ingredient for the maintenance of any good society.
At the core of pessimism is the idea that everyone, however outwardly normal, is severely flawed: short-term, blinkered, vengeful, sentimental and prone to reckless anger, fear, delusion and passion. We’re mad monkeys, with a few extra neurones.
From a brutal acceptance of this dark starting-point, there can flow a range of measures that together will make for exceptionally wise, calm and reasonable societies. Let’s consider a few:
In an ideally pessimistic society, rather boring and extremely steady politicians are the norm. No one believes the wilder utopian promises of firebrand leaders. The electorate is simply far too pessimistic to trust in easy, rapid solutions to any of the nation’s substantial problems. Dramatic promises at the stump are immediately discounted with a wry, dismissive shrug.
Because pessimists know just how flawed any one individual can be, the ideal pessimistic society invests heavily in strong, slow-moving, independent institutions that prevent too much power from ever falling into the hands of a single person. Furthermore, these institutions are insulated from the fluctuations of public opinion – which, pessimistically, are seen as being hugely prone to hysteria and overreaction.
In the ideal pessimistic society, there won’t be much appetite for singling out any particular group or class of people for blame. Our troubles, the electorate sadly admit, are caused mainly by big impersonal, historical forces – rather than by a few people who are easy to target and cathartically hate.
Because they assume that it’s natural to have rather dangerous appetites and desires, the citizens of a pessimistic society willingly put quite a lot of restraints on themselves, defining freedom not as the ability to do whatever they want at any point, but as the liberty to act in accordance with their wisest, most reasonable selves (which only appear every now and then). They therefore don’t see it as any particular loss of freedom to be gently nudged away from blowing their savings, overeating, doing no exercise, ruining their relationships or developing addictions. They accept a paternalistic society as the natural price for limiting their own self-destructive tendencies.
Pessimistic societies don’t have much time for celebrity culture, for they are dubious about whether anyone much deserves to be idolised: they know that from close up, we’re all a bit of a mess. And they’re not shocked by revelations of chaotic private lives, since this is assumed to be the norm. Spare energy is directed more towards forgiveness rather than adulation followed by denigration.
In pessimistic societies, the education system is elaborate, broad, ambitious and very well resourced; citizens assume that the raw human mind needs a huge amount of structured, targeted help in order to cope with life’s challenges. The curriculum isn’t merely focused on technical skills though; there is a lot of help around emotional issues too – which, it’s acknowledged, are at the root of so many of our tragedies.
Because they acknowledge that we’re all fragile, easily irked creatures, pessimistic societies place great emphasis on creating quietly uplifting and beautiful communal environments. Cities are marked by elegance, simplicity, rationality and harmony. A stridently ugly tower block, a depressingly chaotic airport, a squalid railway station – they darkly admit – could be enough to drive someone to despair. The rich have always recognised this for themselves; a pessimistic society merely differs in regarding this as a universal truth.
In optimistic societies, there are constant claims that everyone can be exceptional and, one day, awe-inspiringly successful. The charms and rewards of life are therefore fundamentally geared towards those who make it to the top. The best restaurants are superb, the private hospitals are outstanding, the most expensive schools magnificent, the richest residential areas delightful, the taxes for the rich very low. But, naively, such societies forget that, by statistical inevitability, most people are actually not going to be successful at all.
So in the pessimistic society, mediocrity and relative failure are assumed to be the norm and the goal of government is understood to be that of rendering an average life (that is, the life most people will actually lead) as attractive as possible. Public housing, state schools, public hospitals and transportation are all superb, because it’s assumed (with extreme realism) that we’re almost all going to be relying on them.
By following such pessimistic dictates, the profound consequence will be a society where – paradoxically – there will be rather a lot to be cheerful about – though, of course, the wary, gloomy and wise citizenry would never quite dare to put it like that.
One of the most frightening aspects of working life is that we will, unless we are the beneficiaries of extreme good fortune, be required to have colleagues. The colleague is a creature who, endured over any length of time in situations of high stress and procedural complexity, presents one of the greatest threats to calm, composure and soundness of mind.
It is a noteworthy that, in the nineteenth century, one specific working environment developed into a hugely popular subject for painters: the artist’s studio. Archetypal paintings of studios showed high ceilinged rooms with large windows, views over neighbouring rooftops, sparse furniture, messy tables covered in tubes of paint and half finished masterpieces propped up against the walls. There was one additional factor that particularly enticed the collective imagination: there was no one in the studio apart from the artist. At exactly the time when more and more people were being gathered into ever larger offices and experiencing for the first time all the attendant compromises and constrictions, there grew a craving for paintings of an alternative utopia, a place of work consolingly free of the damnable presence of the colleague.
Georg Friedrich Kersting. Caspar David Friedrich in his Studio, 1819
We’ve ended up in offices not by bad luck, but by the unavoidable fact that the mighty tasks of modern capitalism simply cannot be undertaken on one’s own. It remains (sadly) impossible to run an airline or manage a bank solo.
The problem with colleagues begin with the fundamental yet hugely tricky challenges associated with trying to communicate the content of one’s mind to another person. When we are doing things by ourselves, the flow of information is immediate and friction-free. If we could listen in to our inner monologues, they would be made up of a baffling speedy series of assertions and jumbled words: ‘narr, yes. come on! Do it till then, after no more. Ah, nearly, nononono, back…. OK got it got it… NO. Yes. That’s fine. So.’
But when we collaborate, we must laboriously turn the stream of consciousness (which only we can follow) into unwieldy externally-comprehensible messages. We have to translate feelings into language, temper our wilder impulses, affix paragraphs to intuitions – all in order to generate prompts and suggestions that have a chance of being effective in the minds of other people.
By a horrid quirk of psychology, others simply can’t by instinct alone understand what we need and want – though it can seem as though surely they must. The realisation that other people are not like us and can’t guess what we want takes a long time to sink in – and the idea perhaps always remains a bit foreign and unjust. In their earliest days, babies simply don’t realise that their mothers are in fact separate beings – and so get very frustrated when these reluctant appendages don’t by magic obey their unstated wishes. Only after a long and very difficult process of development (if ever) can a child realise that a parent is truly a distinct individual – and that in order to make themselves understood by them, they will have to do more than grunt and imagine solutions in their heads. It can be the work of a lifetime, in which the office occupies a particularly painful passage, to gradually accept the impossibility of mutual mind reading.
If this were not bad enough, many colleagues are at high risk of not sharing our underlying vision of what should be done. They have contrary opinions, their own quirks, pet peeves and obsessive interests. To get our point across and assuage their resistance requires us to deploy a battery of diplomatic skills. At the very moment when – agitated and overwhelmed – we would ideally like simply to shout or bark, it turns out we have no option but to charm.
This is because the colleague is, on top of it all, extremely sensitive. They will – unless they are spoken to correctly – become offended, develop grudges, start to cry or report one to a superior.
The imperative to be pleasant at work is a novel one we are still getting used to. In the olden days, brusqueness used to be the norm: it was a good way to get people to turn a boat swiftly starboard, push coal trolleys faster, or increase the rate of production at the blast furnace in a steel mill. When most work was physical, management could be abrupt; workers could feel underappreciated or bullied and nevertheless be able to perform their required tasks to perfection. Emotional distress didn’t hold things up. One could still operate the brick making machine at maximum speed, even if one hated the manager, or clean out the stables thoroughly even if one felt the foreman hadn’t enquired deeply enough into the nature of one’s weekend.
But nowadays, most jobs require a high degree of psychological well-being in order to be performed adequately. A wounding comment can destroy a person’s productivity for a whole day. Without ample respect, recognition and encouragement, huge sums of money will be wasted in silently resentful moods. If one has any concern for the bottom line, one has no alternative but to try to be a bit nice.
At the same time, the inability to speak frankly has its own enormous cost. A huge amount of valuable information that should make its way around a company is held back by the imperative not to cause offence. One holds one’s tongue because one is scared to upset juniors, to alienate colleagues and to ruin one’s relationships with superiors – and in the process, insights that might help an organisation to thrive stay locked in individual hearts.
Work relationships are no less tricky than romantic ones, but at least in the latter, we have a basic sense of security that enables one to speak one’s mind and make the necessary cathartic moves – to call them fuckwits and compress a range of ideas in the occasional expletive loaded outburst. The office environment misses out on the cleansing frankness seemingly possible only when two people know they will have the option of having sex together after the bust-up.
At the heart of our office agonies is the complaint that we seldom like our colleagues as people. In a better world, we would be unlikely ever to want to spend any time at all with such disturbing, and often unlikely, figures. We shouldn’t be surprised by our daily discomfort, given that these people were never picked out on the basis of psychological compatibility. We were formed into a unit because they had a range of technical and commercial competences necessary for a task – not because they were fun lunch companions or were graced with a pleasing manner. We are like the unfortunate bride in a power-marriage in the middle ages. A princess would be obliged to marry a certain prince because he owned an important lead mine or the archers in his country were especially proficient. It would have been nice if the two liked each other a bit as well, but the stakes would be too high for this to be a relevant factor. The success of the realm depended on such matters as access to raw materials and military strength, not on whether the partner had a maddening giggle or a daunting overbite.
There is yet another challenge posed by colleagues. Corporations and businesses are fundamentally hierarchical, with an ever smaller number of desirable, better rewarded places at the pinnacle. A naive outsider might imagine that career progression would be determined by clear, precise and public determinants of merit, probably of a technical or financial sort, akin to the straight-forward nature of the sort of examination results we all grew up with. But the reality is that in many occupations, no verifiable measure of performance is available. Factors of success are too numerous, opaque and shifting. What therefore decides who is promoted is not talent per se, but success at a range of dark psychological arts best summed up by the term ‘politics’.
Political skill has woefully little in common with the reasons we were trained and hired to do our jobs in the first place. We may, as part of a good business education, have spent years studying the way to navigate a balance sheet, analyse competitors, negotiate contracts, and administer a logistics chain. But when we reach the office, we will be confronted by other, less familiar kinds of challenges: the person at the desk opposite us with the charming manner who enthusiastically agrees with whomever they’re speaking to, yet who harbours a range of toxic reservations and privately pursues their own undeclared agenda; the person who responds to polite criticism or well-meaning feedback with immediate hurt and fury; the person who pretends to be our friend but knows exactly how to take the credit for our best efforts.
In such situations, the most unlovely qualities may turn out to be the most necessary ones: the capacity to quietly accept glory for things that were not truly our doing; to distance ourselves from errors in which we were in fact implicated; to subtly foreground the failings of otherwise quite able colleagues; to turn cold at key moments towards emotionally vulnerable superiors; to flatter while not appearing to do so; to mould our views to suit the currently ascendant attitudes.
Such grey, underhand strategies are not easy to pick up and they may feel plainly impossible for us to practice if we pride ourselves on being straightforward, direct or even just somewhat ethical. Yet we can be certain that any high-minded refusal of duplicity will carry a heavy cost indeed.
Our problems with the collegial nature of work are compounded, as ever, by the implication that matters should in fact be rather straightforward. Our inevitable difficulties are aggravated by notions that offices are at heart really giant families, that colleagues can be friends, that honesty is rewarded and that talent will win out. Kindly sentimentality is in the end, just a disguised version of cruelty. It might be a lot simpler if, in dark moments, we could simply admit to what we know in our hearts: that it would obviously be a great deal better if we could be shot of the whole business of colleagues and spend our days, as we used to so well, comfortably on the floor in our room assembling cargo planes, city car parks and picnics for families of bears.
A complaint regularly aired around many careers is that, in order to succeed at them, there is no option but to ‘sell out’ or ‘dumb down’. It appears that we will inevitably face a choice – between authenticity and penury on the one hand, and idiocy and wealth on the other. We are familiar with the complaint in the arts, of course. But the same dilemma shows up when an interesting restaurant seems unable to make a profit; when a specialist bread company goes into receivership; when a garden supply firm focusing on rare native plants can’t get a foothold in the market; when a sincere news site can’t turn a profit and when an ethically-based investment firm is doomed to operate on a tiny scale in comparison with its less high-minded competitors.
Behind the complaint lies a very understandable but at the same very ambitious yearning: that our most passionately-held beliefs and enthusiasms should relatively painlessly, simply by virtue of their merits, become high priorities for others. Our instincts lead us to suppose that what we’re convinced of should swiftly prove equally compelling to strangers. Young children are particularly prone to this touching assumption. They may, on meeting a new adult, enthusiastically suggest that they join them in playing a favourite game, perhaps spending time brewing something on the miniature kitchen or role playing with their dolls, which shows how hard it is for a child to grasp how alien some of its pleasures might actually be to another person. The child isn’t silly, they are just highly attuned to their own nature and spontaneously convinced that others may share it. They are, in a naive but representative way, illustrating an instinct that stays with us all of our lives: the supposition that others must be moved by what moves us, that their value system is, or should be, like ours; and that they can inexorably love what we love.
But the reality is often very different and rather more humiliating. A novel filled with subtle character analyses which takes inventive risks with plot structure might sell only very modestly, while one that pits good against evil in a predictable manner, relies on well-tried narrative tricks and arrives at an implausibly happy ending will dominate the bestseller lists. A high-street chain might do a fabulous trade in cut-price dark grey polyester-cotton socks, while a thoughtful, original brand involving striking colour combinations and material sourced in Peru will fail entirely to win market share.
It can seem maddening that the economy so regularly favours the less impressive over the refined; the unsophisticated over the intellectually serious; the splashy over the classic. It’s tempting to arrive at the despairing conclusion that the economy is inherently devoted to delivering a personal affront to the better aspects of human nature. The truth is likely to be a lot less vindictive and intentional, but the tendency for the market to overlook our more sincere and high-minded efforts is real enough – and founded on a raft of identifiable and stubborn forces in economic and psychological life.
One of the most basic of these forces is choice. It is in the nature of growing, successful economies perpetually to expand the range of choices offered to consumers – and in the process to minimise the entrenched, a priori claims of any given product or service. We can track the characteristic features of this development in relation to media. In 1952, a BBC radio broadcast of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony attracted an audience of five million listeners: approximately 16% of the UK’s adult population. Today, such a broadcast would claim a fraction of these numbers. What explains the difference is not – as some cultural pessimists might claim – that the UK population has over a few generations become a great deal less sensitive to the emotive force of German Romantic music; the fundamental difference is that today’s audience has more options. In 1952, there were few competing sources of entertainment. People listened en masse to the classical end of BBC radio because there was simply nothing much else to turn to. A producer who worked in the corporation had a great deal more authority than today’s equivalent not on the basis of superior genius, but because it was preternaturally hard for listeners to track down viable alternatives. This, rather nicely, gave certain high-brow things more opportunity to be attended to; but it also meant that many substandard services and products could enjoy a far larger role than was truly warranted.
We know from the study of certain natural habitats that in situations of abundant choice (the warm seas around the Seychelles, for example), attention will naturally go towards members of the species who can appear colourful, variegated and theatrical.
Much the same holds true for companies amidst the din and buzz of the human marketplace. What is brusquely called ‘selling out’ typically refers to a series of moves no more and no less sinister than the elaborate signalling to which all living things in compex environments must submit themselves in their efforts to be noticed. Amidst plenty, products and services must throw their qualities into dramatic relief, puff out their virtues, sound more confident than they perhaps are and lodge themselves in the minds of their distracted audiences with unabashed insistence.
Those of quieter temperament, with an earnestness of mind and a commitment to higher values, may particularly baulk at the demands, and bitterly refuse the exigencies and compromises of the market.
There is another reason why modern audiences are likely to sidestep opportunities for high-minded consumption: because they are so exhausted. Modern work demands a punishing amount from its participants. We typically return from our jobs, at the day’s close, in a state of severe depletion; frazzled, tired, bored, enervated and sad. In such a state, the products and services for which we will be in the mood have to be of a very particular cast. We are likely to be too brutalised to care very much about the suffering of unfortunates in faraway tea plantations or cotton fields. We may have endured too much tedium to stay patient with intelligently reticent and studiously subtle media. We may be too anxious to have the strength to explore the more sincere sections of our own minds. We may hate ourselves a bit too much to want to eat and drink only what is good for us. Our lives may be too lacking in meaning to concentrate only on what is meaningful. To counterbalance what has happened at work, we may be powerfully compelled towards what is excessively sweet, salty, distracting, easy, colourful, explosive, sexual and sentimental.
This collectively creates a vicious circle. What we consume ends up determining what we produce – and in turn, the quality of jobs that are on offer. So long as we only have the emotional resources to consume at the more narcotic and compromised end of the market, we’ll only be generating employment that is itself challenged in meaning and compromised in dignity – which will breed a mindset that further increases our demand for lower-order goods and services, which then creates ever more of the wrong sorts of jobs. We are trapped by our existing conditions of employment from properly developing, on a mass scale, the sort of temperaments that could strengthen the sincerity and seriousness of our appetites and so decisively expand the range of meaningful and non-depleting jobs open to us.
The price of marketplace that demands constant commercialisation is at some level an emotional one. We harbour a basic craving to be recognised and accepted ‘for who we are’ free of artifice or decoration. We long for careful, insightful appreciation of our characters and interests as we define them. This was, if things went tolerably well, a little like what happened to us in earliest childhood, when a kindly adult, through the quality of their love, spared us any requirement to impress, or as we might put it, to market ourselves. We did not, in those early years, need assiduously to ‘sell’ who we were: we did not have to smile in exaggerated ways, sound happier than we were, put on seductive accents or compress what we had to say in memorable jingles. We could take our time, hesitate, whisper, be a little elusive and complex and as serious as we needed to be – sure that another would be there to find, decode and want us. Everything we learnt of love in those early days ran conceptually counter to the subsequent mechanisms of Commercialisation.
No wonder if we harbour within us a degree of disenchanted, instinctive revulsion against commercial strictures: against the need to find out what others want, to pander to their appetites, and humour them in their obsessions. The freedom not to have to sell ourselves so aggressively was not just part an earlier, simpler era in the history of the world, it was – more poignantly – also a moment in each of our personal histories, to which we at some level always long to return.
When we speak of an interesting job, we tend to refer to work that allows for a high degree of autonomy, personal initiative and (without anything artistic being meant by the word) creativity. In an interesting job, we won’t simply be following orders, we will have latitude about what path we select to meet an objective or what we think the right solution to a problem might be. A good job, defined like this, is one that allows for a good measure of personalisation: who we are has an opportunity to be directly imprinted in the work we produce. We end up able to see the best parts of our personalities in the objects or services we generate.
A lot of the writing about the nature of work produced in Europe and the United States in the 19th century can be read as an attempt to understand how personalisation was disappearing from the labour market. The English art critic and social reformer John Ruskin proposed that the Medieval building industry had once been marked by a high degree of personalisation, evident in the way that craftsmen carved gargoyles – grotesque animal or human faces – in distinctive shapes high up on cathedral roofs. The stone masons might have had to work to a pretty fixed overall design and their toil was not always easy, but the gargoyles symbolised a fundamental freedom to place one’s own stamp on one’s work. Ruskin also added more ruefully that the new housing developments of the industrial age were allowing no such freedom or individualism to flourish in the workforce.
Ruskin’s most devoted disciple, the poet and designer William Morris extended the range of this idea of personalisation in discussing the making of furniture, his own area of expertise. Morris argued that the traditional way of making chairs and tables allowed artisans to see parts of themselves reflected in the character of the things they were making. Every chair made by hand was as distinctive as its creator. In the pre-industrial age, thousands of people had been actively engaged in designing chairs across the land and every worker had been able to develop their own ideas about what a nice chair should be like.
William Morris, Sussex chair, 1865
But an inevitable part of Capitalism is a process of concentration and standardisation. There is a tendency for money, expertise, marketing clout and sophisticated distribution systems to be pooled together by a few big players, who outcompete and crush rivals and so achieve a daunting position in the market place. Barriers to entry rise exponentially. A well-financed operation can cut costs, assiduously research the preferences of consumers, marshall the best technology and provide goods that can be of huge appeal to consumers at the best possible price. And as a result, the artisanal mode of production cannot possibly compete, as Morris himself discovered when the quaint workshop that he had established to make chairs for the Victorian middle classes was forced into receivership.
Today, there are – of course – still a few furniture designers around, some of them very well known, but this cannot disguise that what we call ‘design’ is a hugely unusual, niche field employing only a miniscule number of actors. The majority of those involved in the making and selling of furniture will have no opportunity whatsoever to put their own character into the objects they are dealing with. They belong instead to a highly efficient army of labour that aims for rigorously anonymous execution.
Without intending to be mean-spirited or inherently hostile to the pleasures of work, capitalism has radically reduced the number of jobs which retain any component of personalisation to them.
For example, the Eames Chair, designed by Charles and Ray Eames, went into production in 1956. It is a highly distinctive creation that deeply reflects the ideals and outlook of the couple who designed it. If they had been artisans, operating their own small workshop, they would perhaps have sold a few dozen such chairs over the years to their local customers. Instead, because they worked under Capitalism for Herman Miller – a huge commercial office and home furniture manufacturing corporation – hundreds of thousands of units have been sold. A side-effect of this triumph has been that the demand for well-designed, interesting chairs has been substantially cornered. Anyone wanting to make an office chair now has to face that fact that it is already possible to buy a very nice example, designed by a genius couple, delivered by a global company at a competitive price down a highly efficient network of local branches.
We are familiar with the idea that the wealth of the world is being ever more tightly concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of people – the infamous 1%. But capitalism doesn’t only concentrate money. There’s a more poignant, less familiar, fact that it’s only a small number of people – a sometimes overlapping, but often different 1% – who can have interesting, that is ‘personalised’, work.
It’s telling that we are nevertheless, at the very same time, obsessed with individual genius. Our society has developed a near fetishistic interest in stories of the exploits of brilliant startups, colourful fashion gurus and idiosyncratic film-makers and artists, characters who flamboyantly mould parts of the world in their own image and put their individual stamp on the things they do and make. We might like to think we’re turning to them for inspiration. But it may be more the case that we are using them to compensate us for what’s painfully missing in our own lives. The stories of successful personalisation have come to the fore just when the practical opportunities for personalised work have diminished – just as it was in the 19th century, during mass migration to cities, that novels about rural life achieved unprecedented popularity among newly urban audiences. We may, through our addiction to stories of lone creative geniuses, be trying to draw sustenance from qualities that are in painfully short supply in our own day to day working lives.
The prevalence of stories of individual creativity feed the illusion that personalised work is more normal than it really is. The many interviews and profiles mask the fact that – for almost all of us – it will prove almost impossible to compete against the great forces of standardisation. For this reason, far more than because of anything we may ourselves have done, most of us are highly likely to find a considerable portion of our work rather tedious and dispiritingly free of any opportunities for gargoyle carving.