One of the cleverer features on The Guardian right now is a series called “the autocomplete questions,” in which authors take on questions that are popular on Google. Peter Fleming addresses the question “How do I quit my job?” Fleming uses the question of how to leave a job to explore issues about working. “It’s not a good time to be a worker,” he notes:
Stagnating wages, a public sphere in tatters, the disease-like spread of credit debt among the working poor, the abrupt halt of class mobility, gender inequalities deepening and the list goes depressingly on. In this climate, we know what the response will be if anyone is brave enough to speak out: “Oh, so you don’t like your job? No problem. There are literally thousands of others very keen to do it … and for less than we pay you!”
Just to make things a little worse, “Compared to what some have to do around the world – such as the rat catchers of Mumbai, deemed one of the worse jobs ever – you really don’t have anything to complain about. Stop your bourgeois griping (#firstworldproblems).” And, Fleming concludes:
This forces us into a false double-bind. You either do the “right thing” and put up with your own private nightmare or, by default, consider yourself a privileged whining snob who is just one step away from social oblivion. The choice is yours.
To my mind, Fleming is one of the most brilliant analysts of the absurd situations many workers now find themselves in: told they have to love jobs that can be eliminated at any time, encouraged to be happy by employers who are free to fire workers at will. (While we’re at it, there’s also an illuminating interview in The Atlantic with Miya Tokumitsu, author of the new book Do What You Love And Other Lies About Success and Happiness, which expands on her excellent Jacobin essay on the same subject. I’ve also written about it.) They always remind me of something a friend in graduate school used to say: “The floggings will continue until morale improves.”
I think these critiques of the paradoxes of modern labor— the demand that we manage and invest our emotions in our jobs without concern for reciprocity or fairness (we’re supposed to be passionate about our jobs even if they could be ended at any time), the lack of concern that such investments may have on the rest of our personal and family lives— are right on, and I would just point another problem that they cause.
Work can be a great source of satisfaction, but I don’t think we should assume that it should be a pleasure. There’s plenty of inherent nobility in paying the rent and providing for your family, no matter what kind of job you have, or how much you like it. Putting food on the table and paying for school fees isn’t less noble if you’re working at a job you don’t like, or if you’re doing a job because economic circumstance demands it. Just ask any immigrant shopkeeper or laborer whose law or medical or teaching degrees goes under-used while they save up the money to buy a house in their adopted country, and get the family established.
There’s also a problem that comes from assuming that your job should be one of your greatest pleasures, and that if you aren’t passionate about house-cleaning or insurance claims data entry or arguing zoning law that there’s something wrong with you. There’s something to be said for being able to treat work as a means to an end— for doing a good job, sure, but reserving your emotional resources for something that is inherently more rewarding or fulfilling, or will actually love you back. Most well-known writers, musicians, and artists actually didn’t make a living off the work that earned them immortality: they were teachers, or lens-grinders, or worked in offices, or were manual laborers. I suspect the world is a better place when we don’t demand that T.S. Eliot feel passion about editing the description of Faber & Faber’s spring list, and instead put that energy to The Wasteland. The expectation that you be passionate about your job assumes that the job actually deserves your affection, and that you have nothing else that should compete for that affection. For many people, neither of those conditions is true. And it should be all right if they’re not.
Now back to work on my book.