I once saw work defined as ‘doing something you would rather not’. That seems about right: I have been pretty constantly productive during the lock-down months, and yet almost nothing felt like ‘work’ ; in fact the same could be said for the last three-and-a-half years since I stopped full-time employment and was largely confined to quarters. Now that the ill health that caused this situation has mostly receded, the revised life-balance has been very largely beneficial.
Yet the cultural wisdom of recent times has been that work should be central to our lives, that it is the most important aspect of our existence, our most significant activity. By extension, this suggests that disliking our work is the last thing we should do. In fact, we are expected to love it. (One might have another discussion entirely about what we would rather do or not, and why…)
People seemed to lap this up: in the teaching profession, I encountered many people who admitted that they lived for their work. While teaching is a rather unique vocation, I suspect that the sentiment is much more widespread, though how much of this is actually just virtue-signalling is open to question. I often wondered both what such required devotion did to the quality of the rest of their lives (I knew what it threatened to do to my own) – and what messages it sent to the up-coming generations.
The cynic in me suspects that things are not this simple though – and as with almost everything else, the Corona-virus emergency has cast a harsh light on our assumptions and choices. I wonder whether there will be substantial change in this respect – or whether we will in fact return to the good-old-bad-old days as soon as restrictions are fully lifted.
Work is not absolute: it is a cultural phenomenon – in Britain’s case a legacy of the “Protestant Work Ethic”; it is also a complex matter that goes to the heart of existential issues that I rather doubt the average commuter gave much attention to in normal times. From birth, we are in effect programmed to expect that after schooling, we will spend most of our lives in employment, before being put out to grass at some point when the going starts to get tough. Modern reality may not be quite so predictable, but that is still the normal, if dated template.
The existential matter comes from considering what we would do if we were not at work: part of the fear of lock-down for many people seemed to come from not knowing how they would fill all those extra hours. Many seemed to go looking for alternative forms of work. And yet we have no more hours to fill in a day than people ever did. There is plenty of evidence that even at subsistence level, people in the past rarely filled all their days with work – they did what was necessary, but no more, even though that involved much more than in developed societies today. The same seems to be true in subsistence cultures today – and it can be informative to look at other species, who face the same existential issues when it comes to filling time: what is one to do between birth and death? While lower species do seem to fill almost all their time with basic survival, the same is not true for the higher ones such as big cats or other primates – nor many domesticated animals.
There is certainly a psychological aspect to work, or the lack of it. Unemployment is known for being a scourge, and yet I wonder whether it is the lack of work per se that is the real difficulty, or simply the lack of resources that it brings for doing other things instead. After all, the affluent classes whose income derives from rentier activities do not always seek work – being leisured was (is?) seen as their good fortune. I suspect that many of the problems of unemployment actually derive from the wider situations of those who are most likely to face it: lower income, less educated and with few other ways of finding meaning.
Therein lies another issue: it is undoubtedly true that work bestows purpose and identity. One of the most unexpected difficulties of losing my own job was the lost ability to say to people “I am a teacher”. Ergo, anything much at all. Again, this is probably particularly important for occupations that have a strong vocational element but it may be more widely significant too. But I also suspect it is a stronger male trait than female, which may suggest it has other underpinnings.
We might consider how attitudes to work differ between cultures. I’ve seen enough of southern Europe to know that the mañana culture is by no means dead and this is unsurprising, not least for climatic reasons – but it is also a lazy stereotype to believe that southern Europeans never work hard. There is, for example, a strong work culture in northern Italy, even if one might suspect that it may be a way in which it seeks to assert its parity with the ‘efficient’ countries further north. But that country is also famous for the imagination and richness it devotes to its wider way of life – and that to me seems to be to be a worthwhile trade-off.
One might look at the Germanic countries where there is supposedly a much stronger work-ethic. Except that it may not be all it seems. My experience of those countries suggests that while quality, efficiency and skill are very important, work is not the end in itself that one might expect. Law in those countries has established the social purpose of work – for example, providing employment is seen as equally important as generating shareholder wealth; the requirement to have employee representation at board level has embedded that. A more important question is perhaps why Germany created such laws in the first place when they would be highly contentious in the much less efficient U.K.
The division between work and not-work seems much more flexible – even blurred – than it does in the U.K. Taking sabbaticals is rather more possible – and provision for issues such as paternity/maternity leave and childcare more generally, famously more generous. Perhaps this is the future: where a highly-skilled and autonomous population checks in and out of work as required, as one activity amongst several in an average week? Once again, Britain seems to be behind the curve.
Relationships in the workplace seem more equitable and less hierarchical there, and it seems to me that less importance is attached to work as a wider social signifier than it is in the U.K. It also seems to me that there is a much more visible level of active non-work life in those countries, be that from the numbers one sees doing outdoor activities, eating out or attending cultural events. So much for the Germanic worship of work: I think their attitude is simply a manifestation of a widely more proactive culture.
The pandemic has thrown new light on our attitudes in the U.K. – and it seems that the government is increasingly prioritising the economy over public health. A recent encounter with a former Conservative councillor confirmed his view, at least, that the economy is “far more important than….” He didn’t finish his sentence. I wanted to suggest, “than the lives of little people?”.
For several decades, we have been told that work is indeed the most important thing we do. Most other aspects of life – including education – have been subordinated to getting people into the workplace. But that has not implied becoming an entrepreneur; the emphasis has been on being a ‘good employee’, working harder than you are asked, “going the extra mile” and not rocking the boat. Is it a coincidence that such a relatively poor workplace “settlement” seems to be a feature of those hawkish countries that retain neo-liberal ideologies and hierarchical societies? Is work really as essential as they would have us believe – or is it just very convenient propaganda to keep us toiling to keep them in the lives they seem to expect?
It seems to me that successive generations have accepted this largely unquestioningly; on more than one occasion in my own working life I was lectured by colleagues that I needed to “learn to play the game”. But it increasingly seemed to me that it was less of a “game” and more of a racket. Or at least an excessively hierarchical, quasi-feudal, exploitative set-up that was increasingly tilted in favour of those at the top – and those who gained their favour. My not “playing the game” was simply an attempt to be a reflective professional – one who was prepared to entertain difficult truths in the interests of doing an excellent job – and ironically, trying to help develop the institution for which I worked. But it proved unacceptable to those who ran the place.
It is quite difficult not to come back to the cynic’s interpretation. At present, it seems that health-protection measures are increasingly being compromised in order to get people working. While we hear that many have experienced hardship in lock-down, very many from whom I hear have actually found it a positive experience. They have discovered a new way of life that does not revolve entirely around the rat-race – and also that they can survive without the 24/7 conspicuous consumption melée that our country has become.
This may be the real agenda: making people work so hard they have no time to think is in reality a form of social control: over our place as consumers who keep the economy churning, who provide often-expendable work-units that are needed by the owners of businesses who in recent times have taken more and more of the proceeds of our work for themselves, and who have eroded employment rights in order to keep it thus. And because the political class fears a population that actually has time to stop and think, and perhaps to find a way of life that does not involve compliance with a status quo than disproportionately benefits them rather than us?
Work is certainly important for many reasons, not only keeping food on the table. The sense of purpose and accomplishment it can provide can be good for mental well-being; it also provides social contacts and structure to our days; it of course creates wealth and innovation and gets things done that society needs done; it is perhaps even reasonable to accept that it does involve a degree of societal control, because there are still many who seem not to know how to use their non-work time constructively.
But the prioritising of work above all else has actually made those problems worse. It has eroded civil and communal life, it has made family life more difficult – and it has removed from people the autonomy to know how to rely on their own resources and to find other aspects of life by which to define themselves. Reducing the long hours of my own work and taking more control has been a significantly good thing. The small town where I live is noticeably different now too: quiet – but inhabited – not emptied-out, as it feels in a normal working week after the commuters have left. The endless (and often needless) consumption and the income to afford it, which is the quid pro quo for the long hours – (and which actually feeds our income back to those who own the organisations that employ us in the first place) – is having a disastrous environmental impact.
In other words, excessive work is actually the cause of many of our other dysfunctions, not the solution.
If the pandemic has made people question these things, it can only be good. The pendulum may have swung too far to sustain – there will always be a trade-off between time and money, though new technologies may be part of the solution here, as indeed electronic technologies have shown in recent months.
Giving people the freedom to choose how to balance their lives seems to me to be an inherent component of a good quality of life – and it already exists to some extent in similar countries; it should be up to people to choose how to spend their lives most fruitfully, not the nation’s patricians to dictate.
That is entirely consistent with the nature of Sprezzatura: the scope to run your life rather than it running you. And I suspect that is the real reason that the powerful in Britain are concerned that it does not go on much longer.