Sunday, October 2, 2016

Work and non-work and how the narrative creates the form

“For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”

― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

David Frayne has a very interesting article in Roar Magazine at the moment called Towards a Post-Work Society. In it, he posits, among other things, the notion that we are, as a society, over-engineered towards paid work as the centre of meaning in our lives.

Work is, of course, the mechanism through which most of us (well, the workers of the world, not the owners of the means of production) exchange labour for the means to live, enabling us to pay for our necessities as well as some of our desires. But it is also "the main and certainly the most culturally approved way that people live out a public existence". There is a strong tendency to define identity at least partially by not just what we do in general, but specifically, what we do in the public labour market. Unpaid labour, particularly domestic, caring and nurturing labour, has no horse in this race, and neither do the passions of most people's hearts (unless they are marketable).

Frayne argues that this makes for a miserable, and sick, social environment when it coincides with the death throes of the neoliberal project, in which there are fewer and fewer jobs available, and only a small percentage of them are meaningful: "we are steadily becoming a society of workers without work: a society of people who are materially, culturally and psychologically bound to paid employment, but for whom there are not enough stable and meaningful jobs to go around."

To me, it's all tied in to consumerist culture as well. Past survival, and then laying in a store for harder times, what drives people to work so hard and so long? It's the impetus to consume - to eat more ostensibly pleasant (and therefore more expensive) food, to have more costly experiences, to purchase 'better' housing, to own more goods and accoutrements. Naturally people are prey to this to different degrees and it manifests in different ways, but the small (or large) bursts of pleasure that luxury purchases afford are addictive for almost everyone.

We are programmed to see achievement and success (and therefore value) as tied to not who we are, but what we do (in a paid labour sense) and what we have (not necessarily in terms of gold limousines and Armani suits, but certainly in terms of comforts of living and level of freedom from financial stress). And that? That is a failing project in the 21st century, for almost all of the 99%. Most of us cannot even achieve a modest security, let alone any real sybarism in daily life (beyond, and I'm not downplaying the importance of this, the enjoyment of micro-luxuries - there's a reason fancy cheeses and decadent ice creams sell better in recessions than in boom times).

In my own life, I have always seen paid work as an ultimate good, and struggled a lot with a sense of self-worth and identity when at home for brief periods with each child (9 months, 6 months and 8 months respectively, and then for 6 months more when my youngest turned 2). I've put serious thought into how I can work - settling, after much experimentation, into freelance contracting in a professional services field, where I work uneven amounts but average about 4 days a week - but it's never really been a question as to whether I should or would work.

Partly, of course, this comes down to money, but when I step back to analyse it, that isn't the complete answer, or at least it isn't anymore, given that our financial position is much less precarious overall than it was even 5 years ago. The reality is, I do work for money to enable us to consume the things we value at the level we want to - for us, that's paying off our housing, good education for the kids, holidays and trips, great food, and community support via donations. But I also work so I can participate unquestioned in the public sphere, and be licensed to have a public identity in a way that those who don't perform paid labour are not automatically granted by the current status quo.

The work I do is meaningful-ish - some parts of it more than others, but that's life - and I 'own' my labour to a greater extent than most wage-earners. The transaction between me and my clients is an unvarnished exchange of skills and time for cash, a business-to-business matter, with no pretence of any mutuality of obligation beyond what is explicitly spelled out in the contract. I can't be 'disciplined' or pressured as an employee can; I don't deal with organisational politics and glass ceilings and restructures anymore. I am, let's face it, much better positioned in most ways to weather the storms of the changing world of work than most. And yet. And yet. I still sense the emptiness at the heart of the project sometimes, and it darkens me, at least for a while. How much worse must it be for those whose skills are less idiosyncratic and (possibly temporarily) in demand?

I think about this a lot for my daughters and the lives they'll live. I wonder if I am part of the last generation for which paid work will be able to serve as a shorthand for "who I am and what I'm worth" - and I think that if so, that might be a good thing, if painful to achieve. For us, it might be too late to fully detach from the hegemony of work, not just materially, but psychologically. Perhaps by the time my daughters are old women, though, the dolphins' attitude might be seen as the best one.

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