Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Employment does the strangest things to people. People spend their early lives in the United States educating themselves, which in turn allows them to advertise themselves to employers. After some struggles and interviews, they "get their jobs" and spend the rest of their youthful years working. Then they hit middle age and keep working. Finally, they get too old and laid off. After all, they can't work as many hours as a 25-year-old graduate who has a studio apartment, debt and no family obligations. After the lay-off, they do not even bother looking for a job, because nobody hires people over 60.

During their work years, people have a strange relationship with their jobs. They spent their young lives preparing for work, so when they actually begin working, they take pride in the fact that they are fulfilling what they lived to do. This pride manifests itself in many subtle ways, such as talking excitedly about what they do, spending extra time at the office and even wearing their company's logo on leisure clothing after hours. And on a more basic level, people feel good to know that they "are making their own way" by earning a paycheck, paying their mortgages and achieving some measure of economic independence.

But there is a dark side to the employment dream. Despite all the good things people claim they get from their jobs, all too often they head off to work with stony, fixed, downtrodden faces. They trudge down the stairs to the subway, trudge back up the stairs to their offices, muster a laugh or two during the day, quickly eat a bag lunch, pore over some horribly boring papers while trying to look busy, then trudge back to the subway, trudge back home, eat, watch television, then go to bed and hopefully get enough rest to make it through the next, identical day.

On Fridays, however, they have a spring in their step. They cheerfully ride the subway and don't seem to mind the 8 hours at the office as much as they did on all the other days that week. They laugh more and deal with office crises with much more levity than they would have on, say, a Wednesday. On Fridays, there is no need to stress out, because tomorrow you can sleep until 8:30, cook breakfast, sit on the couch without being supervised, walk around your apartment naked, eat when you want, go to the bar to watch college football on Saturdays, then pro football on Sundays, and basically do whatever the hell you want when you want, as long as you didn't make plans to see your parents. This is the "Friday spirit." When people say: "Thank God it's Friday," "At least it's Friday," "I don't care; it's Friday;" "I have the Friday feeling," you know they are in the spirit.

What does the "Friday spirit" tell us about people's attitudes to their jobs? I thought people were proud of their jobs? They say they are, but when they jump for joy at the prospect of getting 48 hours away from their jobs, I question whether they actually believe that they like working. How can they wear company logos on their clothing one day, and happily run out of the same company's office every Friday? If they loved their employers so much, wouldn't they want to spend all their days with them? Apparently not.

I believe that most American workers fool themselves into believing that they like their jobs. They face enormous social and familial pressure to "have a job," and they know they will be at a desk for most of their lives. They know they will be ensconced in an unforgiving business hierarchy serving vice presidents, presidents and managers. They know they will face stress and performance reviews. They might even face dismissal for low output. These are all profoundly unpleasant things, and they are inescapable. Perhaps in an effort to avoid total discouragement at these thoughts, they convince themselves, however facetiously, that they "enjoy what they do." But the charade breaks down each Friday, when they truly feel glee in knowing they do not have to show up to work for the next two days.

Feelings do not lie because they are individual. The "Friday Spirit" is an honest expression about how individual people feel about their lot in life. It stands in perfect contrast to the halfhearted praise that people render unto their jobs for friends and family. Sure, people like having money to pay the bills, but they do not necessarily like the process by which they get it. People work in order to pay the bills. If they don't, they lose their homes. Therefore, people work because they must. Compulsion fosters negative emotions, and that is why people trudge to work on every day but Friday. But on Friday, the clouds lift and working people remember that soon they will be able again to do what they want. For a brief moment, there will be no more compulsion or supervision. From earliest childhood, we always were happiest when we did what we wanted. It expressed our own, unique desires from moment to moment. There were no consequences for failing to meet an external standard. That same childish joy seizes every worker's heart on Friday when he exclaims: "Thank God it's Friday!" In other words: "Thank God I no longer MUST show up at this dump and take demeaning orders for 8 hours; I can sleep, eat and loaf around all I WANT for the next two days."

But the weekend lasts at most two days per week. In today's employment market, many employees do not even get that much time off. There are seven days every week. Two out of seven is 28%. For an employee, that leaves 28% of his days for himself; he gives the remaining 72% to his employer. Is it any wonder that employees trudge to work with stony faces? They give their lives and their time for others, all for a meager "compensation" that enables them to avoid homelessness. They do not often get what they want; they do what they must. Friday represents an escape, a temporary reprieve from a life put on hold. It is only natural that people feel gleeful when it rolls around. And it is only natural that they fall into depression when Sunday night falls.

1 comment:

SteveW said...

I would argue you are confusing short-term and long-term angst and ecstasy (not the right words but you have to look for places to use such words).

A guy is building a railroad that will bring him and his family goods and services that he would not otherwise have available. He builds the rails 500 yards per day (don't know if that's realistic) and each night goes to the pub for a brew. He is overjoyed each night when he lays down his hammer, and he has some dread each morning when he pulls his weary bones out of bed. However, in the long term, he takes pride in his rails, and he knows the things that will be delivered along them will be things that he cannot create himself, or that he will be able to buy more efficiently than he can make.

Consider our average American 40-hour grunt. Firstly, they do not contribute 72% to their employer, since on average they give 10 hours to their employer on the 5 days (let's say a 1-hour commute). Assuming 8-hours of sleep (yeah, right), there are 112 available waking hours, 50 of which are contributed to the employer. Therefore, 1/3 to sleep, 30%-ish to work, 37%-ish to leisure.

For this work, they can go to a gas pump and get a gallon of fuel for (on average) about 12 minutes of work even at current inflated prices. They can buy a nice telivision for 50 hours of work - a Monday through a following Tuesday. They can have access to the internet for roughly 3 hours of work each month. They spend about 5 hours of labor paying for their electricity for the month - allowing them all manner of convenience at the flip of a switch. All of these things are things that the vast majority of people could have infinite time and be willing to put in vast effort, but would still be completely unavailable to them if they were not cogs in the wheel. Most people have no idea how their world operates, and they could not recreate a minute portion of it if left to their own devices. They could take a pick and shovel and spend 12 minutes (or 100 hours) of hard labor and not produce a drop of oil. They understand that their labor, guided by someone else, is what enables their comforts.

Therefore, they do take pride in the output of their company and the services that it provides, even if in the short term at the end of the day they are happy to go home, and don't want to get up the next day. A football player doesn't want to take a particular hit from his opponent, but he revels in winning the game. I see no contradiction.

It has become popular to cheer Friday and bemoan Monday, but I think on the whole this is little more than a cultural habit, and has little to do with people's "true" feelings on the matter.