As I struggle with when to leave my job, what I’m qualified to do, and what I want to do, and my partner/roommate deals with the same, I am haunted (or is it distracted?) by the bigger issues. The personal is political.
I don’t need to make a lot of money. I don’t have huge expenses; my mortgage payments are low; I don’t own a car; I don’t have a kid; I’m not paying off college loans and haven’t been for years. I am lucky/privileged/whatever you want to call it to the extreme. If I just had to earn enough to live on, I’d have lots of potentially fun options to choose from – freelancing, working book or grocery retail, working part-time somewhere that doesn’t bore or hate me. But, of course, we aren’t working to earn a living, We’re working to be able to live. Work has to provide not just enough to pay for my necessary and quality of life expenses: I need supplemental income to contribute to my retirement, because social security ain’t gonna cut it; to provide for inevitable major expenses (like replacing my roof), and likely expenses (like treating the illnesses of an aging dog or buying a car); and, of course, in the United States, I need for my employer to provide health care, because in this country medical care is only a given for the rich, the well-employed, the old, and some of those with disabilities. And if you don’t agree to bring the government into your relationship, you can’t even rely on your partner of 13 years to share their benefits, because since the legalization of gay marriage most companies no longer allow employees to pay for the care of their non-spouses.
[Of course I support and supported the legalization of same-sex marriage, but there were several predictable downsides to the legislation. The first, and more minor, was giving companies a good excuse to remove domestic partnerships from benefits packages. The greater issue was the reduction of the gay rights movement to a desire to be just like straight people. Some LGBT+ folks are undoubtedly happy with that, but the more radical and transformative folks were looking towards a future beyond the nuclear family, beyond domestic comfort, to a world of mutual support as well as individual freedom. And that was largely swept under the rug when Gay Marriage became the Gay Cause Celebre.]
Beyond the fucked up political forces that force us into work, or into more work than strictly necessary, there is a culture of work in Western society that I find, frankly, toxic and malicious. According to our culture, Work
- gives my life purpose
- fills my otherwise dull and empty days
- makes me a good citizen
- is the center of my social life
- is where I learn new things
Most jobs don’t do most of this shit, and many jobs don’t do any of it. I know this. And yet even I, the enlightened one, buy into so much of our work-obsessed culture. I feel guilty about leisure, especially anything I can’t clearly tag as helping others or educational. I feel guilty about working less than 40 hours a week, and have to supplement my paid work with enough time volunteering to make up the difference. I feel guilty for being in a financial position where I don’t necessarily need to work 40 hours/week. I will do mind-numbing, soul-sucking data cleanup for hours rather than take time off because who am I? too special to do shit work? I feel I haven’t lived up to my potential because I don’t have a career. I feel unsuccessful because I can’t easily categorize my work with an admirable label. I won’t pull every trinket out of the box of bad thoughts, but you get the idea.
The tragic drama of the pandemic created a crisis response that had so much potential to change this country (all countries, probably, but I’ll just speak to the US) for the better. We could have come out of it with
- universal health care
- universal sick leave
- a universal basic income (UBI)
- flexible, or at-home work for many jobs
Instead, we only got the latter, and only because companies realized it was a great way to save money. Child poverty plummeted during the pandemic. People were able to pay off haunting debts. Workers were able to step back, take a breath, and look for better – more remunerative or more satisfying – employment. People took classes and pursued degrees. Parents were able to spend more time with their children (and children were sometimes traumatized through social isolation from their peers – that’s another story being told by other people).
But we obviously don’t value wellbeing, family time, health care, financial security, education, or children, because we did not, as a voting public, prioritize policies that would allow these basic benefits to continue. I think this is emblematic of our obsession with work. We actually believe that paid work bestows value on people. That belief has allowed us to diminish the value of at-home moms (and, now, dads), to create sweeping “welfare reforms” that take away people’s ability to buy groceries if they’re not working, to see disabled citizens as a burden, to shut the unemployed elderly away from society in facilities where they wait to die, and to mark any other officially unemployed folks as lazy, greedy, stupid, and generally worthless, whether that state is due to mental illness, lack of opportunity, time consumed with providing unpaid work to others, or simple choice. We talk a good game about individuality and personal freedom in the good old US of A, but woe be to they who do not tow the capitalist line. You are here to earn money, and then give that money to others (ideally large corporations) in exchange for things you need and, most importantly, things you don’t need but which will make you feel better about yourself, since you spend most of your time working or exhausted from work and can’t actually live a life that would be sufficiently fulfilling to you.
Allow me to correct myself. We did get more than the *freedom* to work at home. We got lots of exposure to the culture of young adults who have not been fully indoctrinated, have learned from changing ideas of relationship and gender to question everything, or have just been through enough economic instability to challenge the expansive depiction of work. Whether its the refusal to stay *loyal* to the unfeeling entity that is a place of employment, an insistence on more flexibility and free time, unionization, doing only what is required of your role, or simply extracting their identities from their jobs, I applaud all of it. I hope the movement is understated in the media. I hope we keep calling attention to it. Because if we deprogram ourselves from the cult of work as a society, it could move so many other things in the right direction.
For example, if we stop buying into the lie that work makes us full members of society, we might rebel against the American standard of tying healthcare to work – we might reject the idea that we are only worth caring for if we are bringing home a paycheck. People who don’t spend all their time working might have more energy to invest in their communities, their kids, their interests. Do we want more mediocre, amateur guitarists cluttering our neighborhoods with Friday night porch concerts? I fucking do. A recent Harvard study determined that deep relationships are the key to happiness. How much time do we commit to them?
Yes, of course we need some workers. And some people truly love their work. I know teachers and PCAs and computer programmers and construction workers and entrepreneurs, and of course the lucky artists who get paid, who would do what they do regardless of respect or compensation, but most of the folks I know are either neutral or averse to their employment. And yet they have to keep going.
I can’t tell you how many unfunny jokes I’ve recently heard from broadcasters about Chat GPT taking over their jobs. Do I want a robot as a news anchor? No. And they probably don’t want to leave. But how many jobs do people actually want to do? Why are we fighting over AI replacing grocery store checkout workers and fast food cashiers instead of asking whether those workers really want those jobs and giving everyone a universal basic income instead, and letting them figure out what they actually want to do? No, I’m not an economist and I don’t have the deets on how we could pull this off, but if we sufficiently taxed the companies that replace workers with machines in order to support those who’ve lost their jobs because of automation, we might do alright. The CEOs could still make a fine living. Tim Cook just took a widely lauded 40% pay cut, and this year will earn only…
$49 million dollars
Who needs that much fucking money? People with lavish lifestyles, multiple homes, etc. Of course. What if we lived in a world that just didn’t allow quite that much excess? What could we do with the rest of that money? What if we kept CEO salaries to 20 or 30 times more than the median worker instead of 350 (average) or 3500 (high) times more? What if workers were paid a good wage that allowed more of them to own homes, take vacations, work little enough that they could pursue hobbies or supplemental education? I have certainly been less irritated by unexciting jobs that paid well than by the same job where I was scraping to get by.
Sorry – off track again. I’m not saying it will be easy or quick (barring an apocalypse!), but I do think it will serve us all better – the employed and the unemployed, the abled and the disabled – if we stop tying our self-worth to our employment. It’s an oversimplified and ridiculous point system, where workers are valued more than non-workers, but workers who put in 70 hours a week but can’t pay their expenses are valued less than people who, with a few hours a week shuffling investments, have money to burn. We value workers who literally keep people alive and healthy – nurses, PCAs, hospice workers – less than people who spend their time making more money for rich people. We value people who spend their time doing petty, mindless, paid tasks more than people working for free to improve their communities. How long can we keep going like this? Who does this serve? Who does it harm?
And yet I keep putting in my hours and hoarding my PTO that I may well wind up cashing out. Out of fear. Indoctrination is hard to overcome, friends. One of my favorite Ram Dass anecdotes: he comes back from India, a guru in his white robes, very high on the spiritual plane, teaching and lecturing and being a Karma Yogi. And then he goes home to visit his dad, and his dad asks, Do you have a job? and everything falls apart. He’s defensive, he’s irritated, he’s not loving or forgiving in that moment. If Ram Dass, post Baba Neem Karolyi, can get thrown by the culture of employment, I guess I can give myself some grace in crawling out of this mire.