The Problems of Work
Most likely work is not going well. In an ideal world, work should be better. It should give us purpose, achievement, meaning and comradeship. It should give us satisfaction and a sense of a job well done. Instead, something usually goes wrong.
Our talents may not get cultivation or recognition. Colleagues are catty or nasty. Day-today tasks are boring, or meetings too long, or there is too much to remember, too much stress or pressure. Many managers act like grown up bullies. Making useless products or driving shareholder value may seem like unfortunate things to give our lives for.
Often we blame ourselves for this mess. We made hasty ill-thought career choices, we are vain or lazy, or we aren’t as talented or driven as others. There may be some truth in these, but often it is factors outside our control that thwarted our dreams.
They are more to do with the structure of employment under capitalism. Understanding these external factors helps ease the blame we place on ourselves.
Most likely you didn’t realise what was at stake. If you had done you would have picked something more suitable. You made a decision at an early age. At a time when you had little capacity or information to make a choice.
Few people know what they want to do from a young age. When it happens we tend to think it amazing. From this stems a myth that we all should know what we’d like to do. That with little guidance or education we will find our career destiny.
In truth there is no such thing; most of us could be good at several things. Many of us will have talents in areas outside our work. Few of us have a vocation in mind when we leave school. Some of us never find one.
Panicked at a young age, with an hour with a career counsellor at most, you made a decision.
This is not your fault.
You were did not get the advice you needed.
We long to find work that is meaningful. That is helping another human being to be happier through labour, either by increasing their pleasure or reducing their suffering. It doesn’t need to be big. It could be just serving a drink, helping an elderly person or doing the accounts at a charity.
Profit and shareholder value drive companies. And in the cut-throat world of capitalism consumer happiness is not always prioritised.
Companies want people to buy their product not always to benefit from it. The interests of the producer and consumer align only to a certain degree. Thus food can taste nice, but not always be healthy for you. Products can work well, but don’t last as long as they could. And purchases may give people happiness, but that feeling is short lived.
It is hard to take pride in entities that function in such a way. For most workers in a business, it has become harder than ever to feel satisfied. To feel that work has meaning.
At the end of the working day we often wonder what we have done. We often feel a small part in a large machine, working across timeframes that reduce the input of our work. The products we produce are consumed hundreds of miles away by people we never see appreciate them.
Specialisation produces cheap products. Profits have risen. Society is wealthy. But we are unable to get the satisfaction form our work that a craftsman does. It often feels to small, too routine, with too little room for creativity.
People and government have opted for low prices but also low pay. Work is taxed more than consumption. The price of food, airplane tickets and consumer goods are all low. But so are the salaries by many of the people working to bring these to you. Constant competition producers cheap goods but also incessant job and wage pressure.
There are too many tasks, too much to remember, too many emails. Yet we often tie ourselves to our desks not out of necessity, but out of fear. The world is competitive. The penalties for underperforming are harsh. Feeling the need to work long, hard hours is a natural response.
A workaholic may just be acting out a rational response to a difficult world. Every day can be a battle for prestige and justification. The constant commitment to work, despite the impact it can have on family and health, is a logical consequence of a competitive commercial environment.
Every job requires interactions with people who we would not choose to spend time with. A single cruel wound or snide remark can hurt us. In our private life we can react to slights or wounds. We can fight or complain or sulk. At work we can do little. There is little protection against infringements on our dignity, peace of mind or self-esteem.
We are at the mercy of others. Senior people don’t seem to care about our feelings.
In return for a monthly pay check we have exchanged our right to voice our pain. We exchange our right to dignity.
Businesses are pyramids, not everyone can rise to the top. There is more ambition than there are places for it. There can be only one winner for every cohort filled with potential leaders.
And it will be quite random. Who clicks with one person, who does not. A fortuitous project, a good piece of luck, a chance encounter. These factors are arbitrary enough to breed resentment and injury in those who don’t succeed.