What Is It About Work?

Symbolic of my Tuesdayphoto © 2008 Elizabeth M | more info (via: Wylio)
I got my first ‘real’ job at 15, the summer before my junior/senior year of high school. I proudly commuted on the train into New York City to work 9-5 as a ‘floater’ secretary at the company my mom worked at – Philip Morris. Yes, the tobacco giant.

As an interesting aside, at that time the company provided each employee with a free carton of cigarettes a week! Yep, even their 15-year-old employees carried home their carton each Friday. Talk about corporate security. Make sure your thousands of employees are addicted and you’re golden. But that’s all another story…

This story is about Work. With a capital “W”  – because it is Almighty in our society. Valued beyond all else, (except money of course, but in most cases it is our work that gets us more of it) work hounds and haunts us all.

A recent article in Harpers, spoke much more eloquently than I can about this topic – why we’re so obsessed with work, its relationship to our capitalist values, and the much under-rated value of idleness. I would link to the article, but  it’s only available online to subscribers.

And I’ve actually been ruminating on this one for quite a while. For almost the entire duration of my travels through Indonesia and Thailand, I battled a pervasive feeling of guilt to be spending so many weeks Not Working. While I gallivanted around Southeast Asia, truly serious people were clocking in, sitting at their desk (or pulling out their tools, maybe firing up their machinery) and really Working.

Now of course I met many fellow travelers who’d either managed to avoid the overly active work ethic, or  to make peace with that clamoring Western voice that insists that one is worthless without  a full day’s work to show for one’s self. Others brought their work with them – they were import/exporters, or running overseas businesses, writers, etc. I studied these people carefully because I wanted to learn about making a living while spending a good part of my time overseas. But that’s also another story.

What I’m trying to get at here (with difficulty apparently) is deciphering just what has implanted this mentality that I must be working to be a worthwhile person. And not just any type of work. Paying work. I should be trading my time for money. Putting in my eight hours a day, the way most people do. “Working” in the garden doesn’t count, because that’s play, “working” out doesn’t count of course, and certainly “working” for myself is just aimlessly frittering away my time – unless of course the dollars are rolling in.

There’s a big, mean voice in my head telling me these things – and I’m trying to figure out how to turn it off. It started of course in childhood – somehow I ended up with a combination of that Protestant work ethic and the Catholic guilt. I actually started earning money well before that Philip Morris job – babysitting for my sisters (starting at age 10), lemonade stands even earlier, raking leaves, etc.

Working was good, working made people smile, nod and approve. I was a good worker and got lots of strokes for that.

But work isn’t everything. Intellectually I know this. Creativity and the development of bold ideas are not stoked by mind-numbing hours at a computer. Piles of cash are usually not generated either. In fact the folks making the biggest piles are not the ones trading all their time away for a paycheck.

So, why is it that we love our work-focused world so much? And yet, we also love to hate it. All those jokes about Monday morning, Wednesday “hump day,” and the wild Friday nights so shortly followed by melancholy Sunday afternoons when another work week is staring us down.

But as much as we love to hate it (as a society), we also place it above all else when evaluating a person’s worth.

“So, what do you do?” The prime cocktail party question. Luckily, here in Humboldt County  the question is not quite so ubiquitous because the region is home to so many creative types who have found alternative incomes or figured out ways to cobble together a living with a mixture of activities. I do feel fortunate to live in a place where one’s occupation is not their primary identity.

Yet even so. Well-meaning friends and acquaintances are constantly asking me a version of “What do you do,” in the form of “So, what are you up to these days?” And every time it happens I have to fight that upwelling of guilt and embarrassment that my answer does not involve a Job, or something else indicative of Real Work.

I’ve been working full-time most of my adult life. The only times I’ve felt okay about not being so occupied was while attending school. Somehow this activity is sanctioned as an acceptable alternative to Work (at least in the twisted logic of my own mind.)

I was lucky that most of those working years were spent in my own business  – so I was the only boss to answer too (and I sure was a mean one!) But as anyone who has done the same knows, most businesses demand even more hours than a job.

It wasn’t until the last couple of weeks of my travels that I began to feel a little more comfortable with an ‘idle’ lifestyle. But now that I’ve been back in the ‘real’ world for a few months I’m once again whipping myself if more than a couple of days go by without harnessing myself to a work project.

Why is it so difficult to enjoy time spent with friends, family, outdoors, new people, just sitting around, if it’s not a sanctioned time off like a weekend or evening? If my daytime hours are not spent on some sort of ‘productive’ activity I am down on myself.

The acknowledgment of my privilege to even have the option of not working for a day or a week or a month is part of the guilt of course. But if you are just working all the time you are not creatively generating ideas to change that status quo for others in the world – nor do you have much time to for activism or even deep analysis.

So… if you’re still with me I apologize for a bit of a ramble. This has been rattling around in my brain for a while and it’s such a big subject – class issues, religious influence, economics, the differences between work and productivity – I’m having difficulty wrestling all the components into some semblance of sense.

I’m not the first to come up with a critique of our obsession with work  of course. Such conversations have been going on since dawn of the industrial age, if not before. Bertrand Russell wrote a famous essay on the subject in 1932, In Praise of Idleness and entire books have explored the value of idle stillness.

Now a new wave of entrepreneurs are touting the viability of a 4-hour work week – and of course most of us would be happy with a 4-hour work day. But, would we really? Still pervasive inside many of us (at least of my generation) is the misguided notion that not working is somehow evil. You know all that stuff about idle hands and the devil’s playground.

I’m not about to give up my business projects. But I would like to access some creativity.

Perhaps it’s time to turn off that sarcastic voice in my head that likes to say I’m a “lazy bum.” To embrace the art of dreaming as a worthwhile past time.

We’ll see how that “works” out.

7 Responses to What Is It About Work?

  1. Sarah,

    We truly have been brain-washed to feel unworthy if we don’t sacrifice health, family, creativity, self-indulgence to the almighty job and dollar. I feel every word you wrote; I’ve thought all these thoughts; wrestled with all the concepts.

    For the last eight years, I’ve reached a happy medium that allows me to work just enough to pay my bills (thirty easy hours a week) with plenty of time left over to feed my creative streaks. The one thing that makes me sad is that I no longer hold any hopes of ever being able to retire; oh, would I love to have all day, all week to pursue my creative interests.

    I recently finished an excellent book by Margaret Heffernan, “Willful Blindness”. http://www.mheffernan.com/book-wb-summary.shtml
    Through scientific experiments and historical evidence, she explains our corrupted view of values in work and society; one of the corrupted values is how we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s “good” to overwork. It’s eye-opening.


    • Thanks for the book recommendation Debi, I will definitely check it out! There are so many different takes on this subject. What is “work” really anyway? I think we all enjoy ‘working’ on projects that excite us and stoke our creativity. But, unfortunately, in this culture most of us have to spend most of our time working on things we’re not passionate about. I’ll look forward to checking out Hefferman’s book.

  2. From another fan of ‘Not Working’, thanks for writing this. I’ve gone through periods of working and not working whilst travelling and what is great to realise is that whilst I will need to work in the future, it’s not nearly as much as I was conditioned in London to believe. The absence of TV (not just ads but programmes that present acquisitive lifestyles) the guilt for Not Doing and Just Being has largely worn off – the 4 hour work week sounds just fine to me!

  3. Love this post, Sarah. I’ve heard that the average amount of paid vacation time for Europeans is 6 weeks! Can you imagine if that was the standard here in the United States? We are lucky to get one or two weeks paid vacation. And I imagine that is why they go on “holiday” so much, using a rail system that can easily take them to other countries and cultures. This habit is good for the local economies, by spreading the money around. And it also makes for a more open-minded, relaxed population too. I often think the reason why Americans are so overweight has to do with our work ethic. We overwork ourselves, eat lots of convenience foods, binge on comfort foods for our stress levels, and make no time for exercise. This might change if we gave ourselves more time to relax and recharge our batteries. Maybe we would engage in less of the rampant consumerism as well! You definitely swam against the cultural current when you took time to travel, but I think more of us should follow your example. I find your choices inspiring!

    • You make some great points Peri. It’s so interesting that here in the “land of the free”, we don’t allow ourselves the free time that most other cultures enjoy. Even the Europeans, who also celebrate capitalism and Western values, give themselves that longer vacation break. I can only imagine how productivity must be increased by that! But I also think the standard 8-hour day is excessive and results in many hours spent doing unproductive ‘busywork’. This might not be so much the case in the teaching profession, but certainly in a lot of other fields. Imagine if we were able to work 4-6 hours per day, would we actually get more done? We’d certainly have more time to pursue our own passions.

  4. Sarah,

    I totally relate to you, Peri and Debi. Americans are considered workaholics and slaves to their jobs. Almost everywhere else people have a more balanced lifestyle, incorporating “play”, holidays, vacation time, siesta, and family-time with the work. In Puerto Rico, Americans may consider it more flakey having so many more holidays, but I think it’s awesome, now that I’m here! (I’ve been a little inconvenienced, but I don’t care!) Traditional hunter-gatherer societies had much more free time. We need to protest against our corporate brainwashing!
    Love, Maria

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