Tuesday, November 25, 2008


This question normally follows "What is your name?" In other words, your work is tantamount to your identity. Worse, the person asking the question typically has a preconceived notion concerning "decent" work, and will judge you harshly if you give an inappropriate answer. If you are applying to live in a co-op apartment, you may even be denied the honor to live among "respectable people" if you answer: "Unemployed; self-employed; artist; teacher or bricklayer." Your work brands you. You have either respectable work or suspicious work. Suspicious people do suspicious work. "We don't want those kind of people living with us," thinks the co-op admission board member.

Later that night, the board member goes to sleep, then gets up the next morning. He has a brief breakfast, kisses his wife goodbye, then commutes to an office, where he begins work as a doctor. He has "respectable work." He comes home, has dinner and goes to sleep. He repeats the process the next day. Nothing changes. He feels empty, but he is comfortable. That consoles him and staves off the meaninglessness. He deserves to live among respectable people. There is nothing to worry about with this man. He is employed in a decent profession and we can assume he is a decent person, even if he occasionally feels that his life is empty.

Leaving aside decency, what is it about work that hypnotizes people so much in our society? We live in a world of external obligations that constrain our activities. We must pay rent. We must buy food. We must take care of our spouses and children. We must go to school in order to secure the education necessary to make the money needed to fulfill all the other obligations. We must commute every day to make it to the job where we make the money necessary to fulfill all the other obligations. And on and on: Life is a stressful web of warring, insistent obligations. Work is the means to fulfill those obligations. Without work, we would have no money. And without money in this world of obligations, we would breach our obligations, leading to homelessness, destitution, ruin, physical misery and death. Avoiding that fate is an achievement in itself. That is one reason why people take some pride in their work, even if they truly detest getting up every morning and doing the exact same thing for ungrateful employers day after meaningless day.

Employed people harshly judge unemployed people. They deride them for laziness, indecisiveness and even stupidity. At the same time, many employed people absolutely detest their existence because their time is not their own. They wait to fulfill personal business until the weekend. They forgo doctors' appointments to avoid displeasing their employers. They tolerate worsening work conditions, lower pay and reduced benefits in order to preserve the steady paycheck they receive, which in turn wards off the relentless obligations lurking on the first of the month. They go about their work lives under constant supervision and review, fearing even to take a phone call from their children lest their bosses censure them. Despite all these daily indignities and frustrations, employed people nevertheless take smug pride against the unemployed. "At least I'm working," says one, even if he positively hates his daily work life. "I am a Junior Analyst; he's a do-nothing," says another. Perhaps the do-nothing is actually enjoying his life. The employed person does not acknowledge that possibility. For him, employment is talismanic: It exerts a powerful influence on him even though he does not really know why. Still, something tells the employed man that work is a two-edged sword. Yes, he has a means to fulfill his own obligations and he can take pride in independently avoiding homelessness. But there is distinct lack of joy that stems from an acute lack of free time. Without occasional joy, life takes on a drab grayness. After a while, the pride that comes from fulfilling obligations weakens, replaced by an itching desire to simply reclaim one's own time from an employer's grip.

Many people reject my hypothesis that working people are generally unhappy with their lives. Yet I challenge anyone to ride a subway train on a Monday morning and simply look in an average commuter's face. Facial expressions do not lie. You will see abject resignation, despondence, frustration, anger, numb neutrality and some outright despair. Many will have their eyes closed in a desperate attempt to do something immensely personal that endless employment often robs: Sleep. Other commuters will bury themselves in daily newspapers to distract their minds from what they know awaits them at the office. This palliates the misery, but it never cures it. What would these people rather be doing? One might have dozens of errands that she would like to get done. Another might want to visit his children. Yet another would simply like to sit on the couch and relax, rather than face performance reviews, belligerent coworkers and office intrigue.

In a word, most working people would rather be doing anything but their jobs. Yet they criticize and judge anyone who chooses to do what he wants every day. "I work," they say. "He is lazy." In other words: "I go through hell every day while this bum sits on his ass and does whatever the heck he wants from hour to hour." It is a strange form of envy. In his criticism, the employed man tacitly wishes that he, too, could do what he wants from hour to hour, because at his job he knows he will be under another's supervision and control. He resents the unemployed man's freedom from workplace control and discomfort. Yet he stifles his resentment with the stubborn pride that his own suffering allows him to pay his bills, while the unemployed man's freedom will ultimately destroy him. By working, the employed man bears suffering, which entitles him to live without economic worry. It is a perverse reward for denying his own happiness for days, months and years at a time.

Work has talismanic significance in the United States. If you don't have a "job," people look at you with contempt. And even if you work, they will still look at you with contempt if it is not "appropriate" work. Bartenders and lawyers both work, but only lawyers can suitably answer the crucial question: "What do you do?" Why does this have to be? Is this what life is all about? People say: "I live in this neighborhood and I work in that neighborhood," as if life and work were separate existences. Are we living when we're working, or not? At the end of our lives, will it really matter whether we tended bar or passed the bar? In our commercial world, we take disproportionately strong pride in our ability to acquire property. Because work provides us the means to acquire more property, work assumes an essential place in our own sense of worth. Work enables us to win at the "life game," even if it inflicts psychic and physical agony on us every day. That agony comes in many forms, including the cruel realization that we have only two days out of every seven--and often fewer--to enjoy life. We cannot get our time back, and work voraciously consumes time. If death strikes unexpectedly during our work lives, we will have never had any time--aside from childhood--to have lived life as we please.

Human existence comes down to subjective impressions. Like any mammal, human beings experience emotions. Money, success, property and work all cause either good or bad subjective emotions. When we succeed, good feelings pervade our bodies. When something goes wrong, negative feelings darken our minds. In our quest for abstract success, anxiety overwhelms us. Subjectively, we have no peace. We fear the negative emotions that our circumstances might cause. At the end of our lives, we will look back and think about the feelings and emotions we experienced, not about the things we bought. And we certainly will not think about the endless hours we toiled at our desks wishing for 5 PM.

In the end, what difference does it make "What you do?" Time is ticking. Will you regret how you spent it?

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