Work It?

CHANGE is coming to how we work. But at my age, I’m not getting my hopes up

A roadworks sign

YOU CAN TELL a lot about what a person is thinking from the books they buy.
Out of all the volumes in all the shop yesterday, I chose
1) a volume of cricket history,
2) Jog On: How Running Saved My Life, and
3) a memoir about how being a teacher is wonderful, and life-affirming.  
And what my choices tell us is:
1) I feel a need for comfort and certainty;
2) I really want to run again regularly, and fervently hope to get over my depression; 
3) I am still fantasising about getting a ‘proper’ job as a teacher, despite quitting within a month last time I tried.
But perhaps even more interesting was the book I picked up and didn’t buy: Not Working: Why We Have To Stop, by Josh Cohen.
As I weighed it in my hand I thought: I know what this is aboutThis is about giving up our pointless jobs and doing what we really want with our lives. *
And then I put it down again, quickly, because I couldn’t bear to read that.

I put it down because, even though I am working right here, right now to launch some sort of meaningful career as a writer, I am terrified that I won’t make a go of it.

I am convinced that I will have to return to another 20 years in a God-awful bromidic dead end, just as soon as my savings run out.

So, if meaningful work is the future, I don’t think it’s going to come soon enough for me.  

It’s not uncommon for a 53-year-old to reach a crossroads in their working life, especially if, like me, they’ve spent time out looking after kids or in part-time work.

But I think I may be at a double, or even a fucking triple-crossroads, because while I fret, and contemplate my next move, the whole world of work has shifted under me, and is perhaps set to shift once again.

While I’ve been out of full-time employment, the workplace has become dominated by employer-friendly flexible working patterns, such as short-term and fixed-term contracts.

The Internet, globalisation, and growing automation have, meanwhile, made millions of traditional jobs redundant, particularly in journalism, where I used to work.

There simply isn’t much money in writing any more, but I’ve yet to find something else that I can do nearly as well, or that makes me nearly as happy. Perhaps that is why I chose books about teaching, nostalgia, and escaping depression?

And if there wasn’t enough change to contend with already, we now have what might be described as a pushback against work itself, which is scary because it is so sensible and yet so exciting, and because it could change our lives so much for the better.

One spokesman for the pushback is Rutger Bregman, an historian and Internet superstar who argues in Utopia For Realists in favour of a Basic Income for everyone – essentially money for nothing for everyone.

He argues that not only is this an achievable goal given all of the wealth in the world, but a desirable one, because it would make us all much more creative and useful people rather than work slaves.

I’ve also got bestselling author Matt Haig’s modern-day survival guide: Notes On A Nervous Planet, which includes short chapters entitled ‘Work is toxic’ and ‘Ten ways to work without breaking down’.

Then there’s Bullshit Jobs, by David Graeber, another social media sensation who argues that we could all be leading more fulfilling lives because of automation – if only our rulers and our employers could give up the idea that the lower orders must work all of the time.

“We could all be working 15 hour weeks,” Graeber explained to a Dutch audience last year.

“But instead, if you look at what’s happened, we have this huge increase in these administrative, clerical, managerial and supervisory jobs.

“We have all got this idea that everybody should be working all the time because it’s wrong that people should get something for nothing.

“So it’s better for us to sit there and pretend to work all day than just sit back and lead lives of ease and leisure.”

It’s hard, even for a fan like me, to imagine what it would be like to lead a life with much more choice and free time. I still believe that work, in the sense of going out and occupying yourself with something, is essential to our sense of self-esteem and overall health.

But, working as a Teaching Assistant for a decade, I felt daily despair at being stuck in a low-paid job that stretched and stimulated me only very occasionally.

I could have become a teacher and been more challenged, but teachers’ hours were so extreme and the demands so unrelenting that they would have quickly plunged me into a breakdown caused by overwork.

But if we had shorter working hours, or a Basic Income, someone like me would not just have more energy to do a better job, part-time. I would also have the chance to seek fulfilment and happiness in the kind of occupation I truly loved.

Maybe if I got really good at it, my dream job would become profitable and contribute a surplus to the overall economy.

And if I chose to do nothing, who would lose out? Me.

Oh, and some Billionaires and Millionaires who found themselves on a higher – i.e. fairer – tax rate.

It’s easy to see how a Basic Income coupled with part-time working would help others, too.

I’m thinking about the parents of the ‘problem’ kids at my school, many of whom were just too busy working to read to their children, or help them with their homework.

A guaranteed income could take away a lot of their economic anxieties and mean more present parents. Who knows? Maybe happier, more confident families would result.

But, as I said already, I don’t think I will live to see it. The so-called Protestant Work Ethic is centuries old, and has a powerful grip on most of our psyches.  

As the blurb to the book I was too frightened to buy says, “More than ever before, we live in a culture that excoriates inactivity and demonizes idleness.

“Work, connectivity and a constant flow of information are the cultural norms, and a permanent busyness pervades even our quietest moments.”

It’s going to take a lot to change that. But I hope we do, if only for my kids, and the kids who come after that.

*As I said, I was too scared to read Not Working: Why We Have To Stop, but I think it would be fairer to describe it as a plea for us to stop being so busy and rediscover how creativity is often born of idleness. It is also, according to the reviews I’ve read, very good indeed. Maybe I will exchange it for the teaching book I bought because, let’s face it, that career ain’t ever gonna happen.

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