Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Why Work?

I get to the office pretty early in general, as I have to be there in time for an 8am morning meeting. This is not as early as the majority of my 'team' who, for reasons best known to themselves, like to get there around 7.30. Given the majority is still there at 7.30 at night I wonder how they manage their lives, relationships, shopping - even little things like ironing or going to the bank.

I'm not very good at living like this. For a start, I hate mornings. Always have. I can just about cope with starting up my brain around 10am but before that body and mind simply don't coalesce. Of course, I can't argue with the boss about coming in at this horrendous hour. But I don't have to be happy about it either. As far as I am concerned I work hard, and have to deal with a lot of stress as it is. Surely he should understand that I do this only under duress?

But no. Today I met him in the lift on the way to the meeting. He asked how I was and I said, 'fine thanks, but tired'. He stopped, turned around, and looked at me amazed saying 'how can you be tired. It's already 8am! You should start work earlier, you'll get more done". I didn't really know what to say (and was stifling irritation that I now appear lazy simply because I don't live in the office 24/7) but my real objection was this. Why do we always have to do more, more, more? What are we working for, exactly, that we have to dedicate ourselves body and soul to the cause?

It's not like we are at war, or in a national emergency or something. It's not even about short-term necessity. It's a chronic condition based on the assumption that nothing in life could be more important than work. And equally, that there is nothing worse in life than not working. That is why stay-at-home mums these days find themselves so isolated and lacking in self-worth and why the unemployed, or worse, beggars, are so stigmatised - even though full employment is no more than a pipe-dream for most countries.

I simply don't accept that this is the best way to live. However, I am clearly in the minority. Living to work is one of the great givens of the modern age. What we do, how much we earn, who we know - these are the keys to our identity and status. The private self, the domestic self has been essentially devalued. For me, this is the malaise of modern Europe - but one for which other world cultures still have the antidote. I'm always amazed how friends from other countries - particularly those in South Asia or the Middle East - think Europeans are oppressed. No time for leisure, for family, for contemplation, even to cook a proper meal or say hello to your neighbours they say. What kind of life is that?

I'm bound to agree. While I can't simply ignore my own culture and do things differently I would love to work part-time, do a bit of studying or volunteering, look after my kids and cook proper food. I would love to have a garden and grow my own veg. I would love to have the time and the energy to see family and friends without having to fit them into an already bulging Saturday full of household chores.

To illustrate the stupidity of our current situation I chanced on this amusing anecdote. Remember it next time you are tempted to take a high flying position with a 16 hour working day and no holidays.

The story, of unknown origin, goes something like this: An American investment banker, visiting a small village in Mexico, encounters a Mexican fisherman. The fisherman describes his life: "I sleep late, fish a little, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life."

The American scoffs at the fisherman’s lack of ambition and goes into great detail about how he could expand his small business and make millions. "Then what?" asks the fisherman."Then you would retire," replies the American. "Move to a small village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play guitar with your amigos."

For more arguments along the same lines go to the website:


Hoots mon! said...

Great post Christine. I agree wholeheartedly.


Peter said...

The friends you have from other cultures who are shocked at our work culture tend to belong to the elite. Most of their compatriots work back-breakingly long hours for much lower wages than Western workers. Which is why they do what they can to get here and work illegally 80 hours a week to earn money to send back home. Leisure time isn't high on their list of priorities either.

We've certainly got a lot more freedom to work when we like than our feudal ancestors.

The solution is easy though - just do it. It's simply a question of whether you are willing to get a new job and earn less money to get more leisure time.

Screw it if the majority have other ideas. Maybe one day people will value free time more highly but, until then, it will only become more viable if more people choose to do it.