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Work • Sorrows of Work

On the Sorrows of Work

Almost certainly, you’ve been having a bad time at work. In a perfect world, work should do so much for us: lend us purpose and a sense of achievement, offer us meaning and comradeship. But invariably, something goes wrong: our talents feel like they’re not being recognised, the company seems unfit to sacrifice a life for, the day-to-day tasks are mundane and stressful and many in management are like grown-up versions of playground bullies.

Office Reprimand

© Getty

We are readily drawn to blaming ourselves for the mess: we were impulsive in our career choices, we were vain and lazy; we haven’t got the drive of a classmate from university (she now runs an empire). Yet for all the truths that self-condemnation might contain, many of the factors that cause our dreams to run into the sand in fact lie outside of our direct control, in the very structure of employment within the capitalist system. To blame ourselves is to misunderstand the nature of reality.

What follows is a run-through of some of the factors that might explain our unhappiness at work outside of individual failings:

1. I’m in the wrong job

You feel – often on Sunday evenings – that at some point you took a wrong turn. Becoming an architect was, in retrospect, an insane focus for your talents. It was a piece of babyish absurdity to confuse the pleasure of reading magazines with the hell of working on them. At the outset, commercial litigation seemed glamorous; now you know it is an excuse to turn your clients’ entanglements into obscene sums for the partners on the 46th floor.

If you wonder why you made such momentous errors, the reason is painfully simple: you simply had no idea what was at stake. Long ago, you were left alone with a decision that you had no capacities to address sensibly. And now you are trapped in a cage built for you by a blind 20-year-old version of yourself.

Our culture is mesmerised by the experiences of a small number of exceptional people who know from a young age what their talents and inclinations are and how best to direct them in the adult world. These people – the writer, the orchestra conductor, the priest, the scientist – are propelled by a calling and apparently guided by the hand of destiny.

Impressed by these characters, our societies have fallen prey to the charming but reckless democratic idea that everyone has a professional destiny – and should be left alone to discover it. But, in truth, almost no one does have such a thing. Most of us hover weakly between multiple possibilities; we have no sense of what we would deeply enjoy, what is available and what we would be best suited to. Panicked, we therefore choose blindly, in a hurry, under pressure – and, inevitably, erroneously.

Before choosing, we are often sent to a career counsellor for a session or two – in order to decide the nature of our work on this earth for the next 40 years. We spend more time choosing a car or a holiday.

Career counselling should have become one of the major growth-areas of our times. Scientists should be competing to develop ever more accurate technology in the field. The stars of the profession should be on television. Yet currently, the job feels on a par with being a brain surgeon in medieval times, a mixture of quackery and guess work.

As a result, we stumble and drift – or rush headlong into a career on the basis of uncertain insights. What happens as a result is not principally our fault. We are just very poorly advised.

2. This is just meaningless

Every day, in large corporations, people daydream about leaving to run a little B&B somewhere in the countryside.

It mostly remains a fantasy (fortunately), but it’s one that all the same tells us something very important about what we want from work. We long to find it meaningful.

Work becomes meaningful whenever we feel in some way able to help another human being to be happier through our labour, either by reducing their suffering or by increasing their pleasure. It may be a major intervention, like repairing a heart valve. Or it could be a minor one, like bringing them a cup of tea, showing them a sunny spot in the garden or suggesting a great place for dinner nearby.

Almost all corporations make promises about happiness to their customers. But the demands of Profit have a grievous tendency to conflict with the Promises of Happiness. From a corporate point of view, it makes perfect sense, for instance, for a computer company to design obsolescent software or for a biscuit company to soak their products in glucose. It’s the logic of the market. But from the point of view of employees, it is disastrous at the level of meaning.

A business can only feel meaningful when its employees are able to take a degree of pride in what the entity is setting out to do. The tragedy of most businesses is that their true objective – their deepest aim – is not to help or be genuinely useful, but first and foremost, it is to reward their shareholders, a goal which employees must always rightly resent sacrificing their lives for.

3. What have I achieved today?

We reach the end of the working day and wonder what we have really done. We are one of 15,000 people in an organisation on three continents working on projects that will come to fruition in five years time. The vast time horizons and huge corporations of modernity contribute to destroy any tangible impression of being able to make a difference.

In the olden times, it was easier on this score. In a matter of hours, the cobbler could produce the shoes that he would see other people walking about in with satisfaction for months afterwards. The baker produced the rolls in the middle of the night that were sold at breakfast time, lending him a direct feeling of the way his work impacted positively on the lives of his neighbours.

Yet, for reasons first explained by Adam Smith in the latter part of the 18th century, that way of experiencing work has disappeared from modern economies. Capitalists recognised that it would be a great deal more profitable for them to split the tasks formerly done by one person in a single day into hundreds of tasks carried out by thousands of people over whole careers. The age of specialisation had begun and with it, gradually, the mania for incomprehensible job titles: Logistics supply manager, Packaging coordinator, Communications and learning officer…

Certainly things have grown more efficient. Customers get things more cheaply. Profits have risen. But for most of those working in the businesses themselves, it has become ever harder to feel what the point of work might be.

The regional deputy packaging manager of a gargantuan biscuit manufacturer is in truth connected by precise steps to the moment when a customer consumes a chocolate biscuit with her morning tea. But the extreme specialisation of work means that neither the employee, nor anyone else in the firm, ever really feels that they have made the decisive difference to the tea-break of a customer.

4. Why are my salary and benefits so low?

A crucial promise of Capitalism is that things will be cheap. Competition looks great when we want to pay less for an air ticket to Toronto or for a ready-made penne chicken alfredo. But if you are the cabin crew or a chicken farmer, competition is misery. Bargain prices mean less security, fewer benefits and lower pay scales.

There might be other ways. Governments could insist on minimum prices, determining a level that ensured decent employment and products. A single egg, for instance, might have to cost 35p if a chicken were to be properly fed, and live in an adequate environment and if the farmer and his team were to make a proper living. At present eggs sell at 16.3p. We call it a ‘bargain’: a euphemism for someone else taking on an unfair burden of suffering.


© Flickr/Tobias Mandt

The other solution would be public education. The economy is ultimately driven not by businesses but by consumers. Corporations just supply whatever customers are willing to pay for. There’s a mass market in cheap eggs because so many people don’t much care about the suffering of chickens and farmers. But what people care about is not a dictate of nature. It can change. We can be led to weep over the fates of strangers and feel sympathy for subjects we might previously have never known existed. Our behaviour is a cultural creation, open to education – and through education, someone might come to the conclusion that they fervently wouldn’t want to breakfast on an egg from a bird that had been manhandled by a degraded workforce.

5. There’s too much to do

We are so busy. If we stop for a moment, we feel guilty. We can’t relax in the evening – except with too much alcohol. We are constantly emailing and checking websites.

It’s tempting to blame the technology which keeps us on call all the time. But there’s something beneath our addiction to technology: fear.

We are busy because we are afraid and we are afraid for good reasons. We stick to our desks because it appears, and may even be, excessively dangerous to leave them. We experience life as something akin to a battle. The suggestion that we relax and take more holidays can sound as though a medieval knight were being advised to take his helmet off during combat and enjoy a picnic comfortably within range of the enemy archers.

The world is so deeply competitive, the penalties of underperforming are so harsh, an addiction to work is not an unreasonable response.

The workaholic doesn’t need to be upbraided for their compulsive behaviour, as they often are (particularly by spouses). They require sympathy; they need the rational basis of their anxieties to be respected. Though people’s excessive commitment to work may place an intolerable burden on their health and their relationships, it sadly isn’t unreasonable. The constant commitment is the logical consequence of a murderously competitive commercial environment.

6. I can’t bear my colleagues

Every job requires interactions with people who, given a free choice, we would carefully avoid.

We are all easily hurt. We might not be keen to admit it, but a single cruel word or snide remark can throw us off balance for the day. In private life, we can show our wounds. We can complain, we sulk, we argue. But at work, we can do nothing. We are at the mercy of others, with very little protection against low level infringements of our dignity, peace of mind and self-esteem.

Work makes us submit to power. The person in charge doesn’t have to care about our feelings. We have exchanged our right to communicate our pain for a monthly paycheck.

7. Why have I been passed over?

There are more fantasies of great destinies than there are great destinies themselves. Almost all businesses are structured like pyramids, and every passing year, brings us closer to the summit – or not.

Wall Street Economic Crisis

© Getty

The structure of corporations writes disappointment into the contract for almost everyone. There can only be one winner in every cohort filled with potential leaders. Who will get the job won’t even hinge on pure talent, there will be no race we can enter and be judged fairly in. It will be shockingly haphazard: who happens to click with a particular board member; who recently had a nice lunch with whom… These are not scurrilous factors; but they are arbitrary enough to be responsible for decades of extraordinary resentment and injury in the hearts of all those who won’t succeed.

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None of these problems can be easily removed. But once we understand their structural nature, we should be allowed to feel communally distraught over, rather than individually persecuted by them – and by all the agonies and stresses that work inevitably directs our way, on this long, wearying day as on so many others.


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