The Working Life

I recently finished reading a book that has gotten me thinking about a lot of things. The book, along with a couple of online conversations, have made me seriously wonder about what work is in relation to a job and how does work fit into our lives. The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work  by Joanne B. Ciulla, is a great read that starts off with the history of work, the word and how it has been viewed over time. The author then moves on to discuss the history of management theory in the 20th Century and then the final section looks more closely at work as related to life.

Before I get into the meat of what I have been thinking about, I first want to say that I realize that even thinking about this subject makes me extremely lucky. I was born in the latter half of the 20th Century in the Upper Midwest of the US to a family that valued thinking, reading, and education. This is a blessing that I realize many in the world do not have. And so as I sit here and ponder what it means to work and find meaningful work, I realize that I am lucky to not have the worries of survival that so many have, especially in these days as the gap in the US between those who have and those who don’t widens.

I read this book because my husband read it in one day on July 4. One. Day. For him, that is extremely unusual. And he then went on to take extensive notes and journal about his thoughts. It seemed I needed to read this and we decided to make it our inaugural household book club book. Yes, we are having a book club with just us in it. It took me longer to get through it, but the first and final sections of the book are amazing. I was highlighting so much in my Kindle edition, that in the epilogue I was coming dangerously close to highlighting the entire thing. She begins by talking about our culture today and then contrasts that with Aristotle and what he defined as work and leisure. Our culture doesn’t quite know what to do with work anymore:

We live in a paradoxical culture that both celebrates work and continually strives to eliminate it.

-Kindle Edition, location 63

It is the goal of so many to make enough money that they no longer have to work or that they can strike out in their dream job, be their own boss, etc. Why is this the case? Is it because we are searching for meaningful work and just not finding it? Is work just the economic transaction of earning money for doing tasks or thinking? If that is the case, is that not a job rather than work? But do we then look down on people who do not work?

Without work we face infinite options about what we should do and what we should be. Also, people who can work but choose not to have to explain themselves to those who suspect the only reason they gave up good jobs and now choose not to work is that they are lazy or in some way deficient.

-Kindle Edition, location 260

Why is the first question we ask people when we meet them, “what do you do?” Is this the role that work has come to play in our lives, is it that central?

It is the final section of the book where she discusses our life in relation to work that truly hit home for me. The way our culture of work is going, work is becoming more and more a fixture of our identity and for many, it is where they find who they are. But in a society where the flows of the economy change frequently, when you lose your job, you then lose your identity and who you are. Also, when your whole identity comes from work, do you also cross a line of sharing all of yourself at work, can that not be a danger when the realities of work in our culture is that it is an economic transaction?

Please do not get me wrong: I love coding, I love the web, and, on most days, I like my job. But I also realize that we work because it is what is expected of us and that work should not be the end all be all of my life. There must be more to it than that. There is so much joking in conversations when you talk about having a life and doing, or not doing, things in time away from work, but is it really a joke or has our culture come to expect that work will be everything?

In the final analysis, is it not better to work less, to have more time for leisure (in the Aristotelian sense of the word, not amusement, which are two very different things)? If one is willing to live a modest life, to forgo things in order to save more, then one is able to work less hours per week in order to enjoy life more in the here and now. Is working really hard now to retire early a good balance? Because really, who knows that something won’t happen before you reach the magical retirement age you set for yourself. All of this has changed my idea of what being “rich” is. It is not about having a lot of stuff or a lot of money, it is about having time; time to be able to spend in activities you are passionate about, which may or may not be something you can get paid to do.

I’m closing with just a few more quotes from the book, these are from her epilogue and I am still chewing them over.

When I look at the historical big picture, I am perplexed at the domination of life by paid employment at a time when life itself should be getting easier.

-Kindle Edition, location 4533

Is that not true? With all of our achievements in technology, why do we still work so much and so hard? Why is work the predominant part of our culture?

This is an era when life should be filled with all sorts of rewarding activities. Yet many find themselves caught up not only in long hours of work but in debt, and suffering from stress, loneliness, and crumbling families. Why? In part because we always want more, in part because we don’t realize that we have choices.

-Kindle Edition, location 4536

This one hits me, because to me it is about money. Again I say that I am lucky to have been born to the parents I was, along with a paternal grandfather who valued education. They gave me a great start in life, but the choices I make now also play into what role paid work must take in my life.

Is the life we have now worth what we are giving up for it? Meaningful work is rare, but is out there to be found either in a paid job or in our free time, if we really want it. Not everyone wants it, finds it, or considers the same things meaningful. A work-dominated life is fine if it is a conscious choice and makes one happy. But if it doesn’t, then we should start thinking of how to fit work into our lives instead of fitting our lives into our work.

-Kindle Edition, location 4551 (emphasis mine)