Work, for many, if not most, is a drudge. As the saying goes, that’s why they pay you to do it. We take it as a kind of law of nature. We’ve elevated leisure time to a kind of sacred status; that’s what all the advertising and consumerism is about, isn’t it? Get more stuff to make the time you’re off work more awesome. Of course, very little is not awesome these days, but that’s another post altogether. And what’s the pinnacle of awesomeness? Why, retirement, of course. Picture yourself, free at last of your pointy-haired boss (and he of you, for that matter), lounging on a sunny beach somewhere, umbrella-topped drink tipping in your drowsy hand. Or finally getting your golf handicap down to single digits. It’s you time, unproductive by sacred right.
Only, when the time comes, the euphoria lasts a month or two, and then too often leisure replaces work as the major source of drudgery. Some people decline so much they slip into chronic depression; some even die not long after. Cruelly, it seems that, after all, drudgery was a personality trait, not an externally imposed condition. What’s going on? Was it always thus?
There’s a Twitter meme that rises to the top of the sludge periodically, one of those quote things that you get to attribute to anyone you like, as long as they’re sufficiently famous, that goes, “If you see a difference between play and work, you’re not doing one of them right.” Seems vapid enough, as these things go, but it persists because it has the ring of truth to it. Or is it the desire of truth?
You might be tempted to dismiss this whole issue as a First World problem; the overwhelming majority of people throughout the world have no time to spare for thinking about the quality of their work experience, let alone of their leisure time. What they do is integral with their survival.
Is it possible that such a clear link between work and survival actually makes work more satisfying? There have been, to my knowledge, no studies of this, but, given that roughly the first 250,000 years of human development were spent hunting and gathering, I would say that it’s a distinct possibility. For better or worse, though, since it first occurred to someone to plant food and raise stock about 10,000 years ago, the link has grown increasingly obscure, and therein may lie the issue. Most of us no longer get food and shelter directly from our work; what we get is the means to obtain these things, and not always to the degree we think necessary.
My father used to say there was no such thing as a job without dignity. In my rebellious youth, I understood this to be a kind of statement of egalitarianism, a solidarity with the Working Class. Collecting trash was just as good as producing it, from the standpoint of dignity.
Cool, I thought, that the stodgy old coot could express such an idea in spite of himself.
Although I can’t claim to be certain of what he actually meant to say, my own understanding of the sentiment has changed over the years. Dignity, as such, is simply not a characteristic of work. That is, such dignity as there is, is supplied by the worker. Of course, it may be easier or more difficult, or even, rarely, impossible, depending on such things as difficulty, collegiality, and management. This brings up the social factor, which I believe to be critical.
There has never been a documented case of a truly feral human. Society, love it or hate it, is what we do; it’s how we’ve survived all these thousands of years despite our wimpy claws and fangs. Maybe we find work satisfying to the degree that it enriches our social relationships, either by providing a context for them, or by creating a sense of significant contribution. This is how cleaning sewers can be rewarding, and how pushing numbers around a hedge fund can be numbing, despite the vastly greater material rewards of the latter. It’s why billionaires refuse to leave the rest of us alone, but insist on doing some kind of job, even (shudder) politics.
It also explains the retirement conundrum. Even the most menial of jobs usually involves social contact with fellow workers, even if that interaction is limited to griping about working conditions, or tyrannical bosses. Retire, and you’re suddenly booted out of a society that was, for better or worse, the milieu of the majority of your waking hours for most of your life.
I won’t say love your job and it will love you back, but maybe we shouldn’t be so hasty to jump the fence into those greener pastures. We might find it considerably more swampy than we thought.