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Life is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work
June 22, 2011 9:38 AM   Subscribe

"I can't tell you about all the suicides and the accidental deaths where I work. ... One guy was 38. He went home after a really long day, poured himself a drink, sat down in his armchair, and died." Harrowing, Heartbreaking Tales of Overworked Americans. First person stories of doing more with less, from warehouses and classrooms to operating rooms and air-traffic control towers. posted by Terminal Verbosity (83 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite

 
From page 2 of the piece:

After being raised in a family with a strong work ethic and being drilled from an early age to study hard, work hard, invest money, etc., I will teach my children the opposite. Do what you want—and don't spend one minute "paying your dues" or "proving" yourself to an employer. This is a scam. You are either paid fairly—by your own standards, not theirs—from day one or you never will be. The moment you stop enjoying your job, quit—because they certainly won't hesitate to fire you on a whim. There is no such thing as "loyalty." Don't waste your youth "building your resume." Go have fun and let life develop as it may. Working for a living simply does not pay—and to exert any effort whatsoever above and beyond what you are being compensated for is to be complicit in your own exploitation.

Sing it, sister. Sing it loud.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:44 AM on June 22, 2011 [127 favorites]


I know what Norma Rae would say...
posted by hermitosis at 9:55 AM on June 22, 2011


I hold responsible every consumer who wants the "best buy, who hires the least expensive person for personal services,who objects to paying tax because of government waste, who leaves the least possible gratuity, who thinks everybody else has "theirs" while they do not have "theirs". The endless tirades on corporations, government, bond holders, investors and the "other guy" gets us absolutely no where. Not until the individual and opinion makers take a firm stand on the inequitable distribution of wealth, the obscenity of our tax laws, the unmitigated greed of all of us (that increases exponentially with accumulated assets --some exceptions) and that cheaper is not better will this change. These stories are touching but the unfairness lies in all of us. For me, I do not worry about the rich--they will take care of them selves. The poor--I have no appropriate or realistic answer(s). But until our economic policy, tax laws, elected leaders and opinion makers put the middle class first( and non of the trickle down shit) we are all in deep trouble. Thanks for the chance to vent. Where is Amati Etzioni when we need him.
posted by rmhsinc at 10:02 AM on June 22, 2011 [9 favorites]


This is terribly sad. It is horrible to see people's best instincts - to give, to produce, to do things right - turned against them. These things should save us, and yet instead they damn us to a life of drudgery.

We should all be terrified and furious that we have allowed the world to come to this. Instead, we compete over who can best cut pieces of their life out and offer them up on the altar of capitalism. Those who hesitate to drive the knife into their own flesh are condemned as slackers, dirty hippies, socialists, "second-handers", moonbats, greedy unions, leeches...

Perhaps I am just in a gloomy mood today, but I have never done a job - or heard of a job in my adult life - where the right people were compensated to the right degree for what they did. Somebody was always gaining at somebody else's expense, even in the most benign workplace.

More and more, the whole edifice of capitalism seems to me to be an engine of robbery. It is a baroque, Heath Robinson device, designed to be as confusing as possible but ultimately directed against the poor. It's purpose: to fillet lives, to gut them for time and creativity and energy, and leave nothing but a husk behind.

Some can turn the system to their advantage. Some - a lucky few - can jump the counter. But it is an evil system, despite what its priests say. It reeks.

TL, DR: Thank you for the article. I am cross, because I think it says something true and important about capitalism, which is that it is a thief of time.
posted by lucien_reeve at 10:03 AM on June 22, 2011 [40 favorites]


Yeah, it's a real pisser how life expectancies have plummeted with the onset of the Industrial Age.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 10:03 AM on June 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


to exert any effort whatsoever above and beyond what you are being compensated for is to be complicit in your own exploitation.

If this is really what she teaches her children, I feel sorry for them. What a negative outlook. She's assuming for them a life of working for someone else, when the best thing she can do is steer them towards risk taking, entrepreneurship, and trying to turn what you love into your work, instead of constantly struggling to do the opposite. She's defeated and passive, and she's completely missing the point that hard work, if you're doing it for yourself, can be very fulfilling.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 10:04 AM on June 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Don't waste your youth "building your resume." Go have fun and let life develop as it may.

If you are ever so inclined, please go do this. The job market really is overcompetitive right now and those of us "wasting" our youth building our resumes don't really like self-entitled assholes who think that employment is a "scam" and who never "exert any effort whatsoever" beyond what they think you are being compensated for.
posted by gagglezoomer at 10:05 AM on June 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


those of us "wasting" our youth building our resumes don't really like self-entitled assholes who think that employment is a "scam" and who never "exert any effort whatsoever"

You must really hate investment bankers and CEOs then, right?
posted by entropicamericana at 10:08 AM on June 22, 2011 [10 favorites]


"It's just business" should cut both ways.

Or, go to work for a small company where the owner gives a crap, and then you can give a crap in return. I've been in both situations and I really like working for people who care.
posted by seanmpuckett at 10:10 AM on June 22, 2011 [14 favorites]


entropicamericana: "those of us "wasting" our youth building our resumes don't really like self-entitled assholes who think that employment is a "scam" and who never "exert any effort whatsoever"

You must really hate investment bankers and CEOs then, right
"

Yeah, those i-bankers hardly work at all...
posted by Perplexity at 10:10 AM on June 22, 2011


This article is the companion piece to The Speedup, previously on Metafilter.
posted by zachlipton at 10:11 AM on June 22, 2011


We are indeed a nation of hardworking bullshitters.
posted by schmod at 10:12 AM on June 22, 2011


She's defeated and passive, and she's completely missing the point that hard work, if you're doing it for yourself, can be very fulfilling.

On the contrary -- I think that's exactly what she's getting at. She had been told that hard work period was supposed to be fulfilling, but hard work for someone else was they way you earned the right to be able to do hard work for yourself.

She's just figured out that you have to be working for your own self from the very beginning, and that the old system of "paying your dues" is not going to let you do that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:15 AM on June 22, 2011 [12 favorites]



Yeah, it's a real pisser how life expectancies have plummeted with the onset of the Industrial Age.


Life expectancy is hardly a proper metric for a life well lived.
posted by jnnla at 10:17 AM on June 22, 2011 [9 favorites]


stupidsexyFlanders : If this is really what she teaches her children, I feel sorry for them.

You've mistaken working for themselves, because they enjoy it, with working for MegaCorp Inc. My employer will pay me the same whether I bust my ass 60+ hours a week, or simply complete what I can during a reasonably-paced 40hr week. And if they want more, I've always made it perfectly clear that they can change me to an hourly employee (at my current effective hourly rate, of course) any time they want - And I have yet to have any employers take me up on that. How curious, eh?


gagglezoomer : and those of us "wasting" our youth building our resumes don't really like self-entitled assholes who think that employment is a "scam" and who never "exert any effort whatsoever" beyond what they think you are being compensated for.

You can enjoy your job (hey, I love what I do), but don't try to come off like you'd put up with the same crap if you didn't need to work - Because it comes down to that. You put in extra effort not because you want to donate your life to your employer, but because you need food and shelter and the current system has conned you into thinking you "owe" more than a fair day's work for a fair day's pay.

If independantly wealthy, I'd still spend 8+ hours a day coding. You can bet the farm, though, that I'd spend my time writing interesting code, rather than an endless stream of integrations and reports.
posted by pla at 10:20 AM on June 22, 2011 [18 favorites]


Because working for yourself always works out, right?

You know, I like the idea that in the future we'll all be entrepreneurs but if that's the case, in the future most of us will be failed entrepreneurs. Or entrepreneurs who aren't necessarily making more money, or working fewer hours - or ultimately finding themselves more fulfilled - than if they were working for The Man.

Sure you may control your own destiny. But let's not pretend that that destiny is destined to be rosy.

I get what this teacher is saying. She and the work she does has been devalued, and she has adjusted her attitude accordingly. This is what you're paying me? This is what you're going to get. It's a simple contractual arrangement, even if not so codified. And the moment more/all workers adopt that attitude is the moment their employers might have to actually start looking for, competing for, qualified workers by, er, offering them a better deal.
posted by kgasmart at 10:22 AM on June 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


Not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur or, in the parlance of times that were, a business owner. Bankruptcy law reform, tight credit, and lack of demand make this a particularly challenging environment for startups anyway.
posted by raysmj at 10:24 AM on June 22, 2011 [7 favorites]


Don't waste your youth "building your resume." Go have fun and let life develop as it may.

If you are ever so inclined, please go do this. The job market really is overcompetitive right now and those of us "wasting" our youth building our resumes don't really like self-entitled assholes who think that employment is a "scam" and who never "exert any effort whatsoever" beyond what they think you are being compensated for.


Maybe I'm just reading my bias into the piece, but I think the fundamental lesson that everyone needs to learn, particularly generations growing up in the "new normal" is that everything is entrepreneurial.

Put another way, whether or not you are an employee, never lose sight of the fact that above all else, you are in the You Business. Don't mindlessly grind away with the expectation that someone in a position of authority can give you tenure, or make you partner, or promote you to shit-eater first class. Because for so long as you're waiting and hoping, you are in their thrall.

When you accept the fact that at-will employment means that they can (and certainly will, if it suits them) fire you at any time, you realize that if you're not an owner, you're another office machine. Despite years of service to my employer and more years of experience, I know I can be replaced in a matter of weeks; in other fields, it would be a matter of days.

Meanwhile, when you're at work, you're sacrificing the rest of your life; you're slaughtering your own calf to someone else's deity. Kids don't get tucked in. Dinners are served cold when you come home. Friends move on because you haven't seen them in ages and are always too tired to do anything fun, anyway. This is not a life.

So, yes, I'd definitely advise my children to 1) think twice before assuming that education that is not free or cheap is worthwhile; 2) don't think that you're better than having a trade; 3) don't assume the brass ring is all it's cracked up to be; and 4) time for family, friends, and community is a human right, and not a privilege to be earned through endless toil.

Fuck the bosses, now and forever.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:33 AM on June 22, 2011 [59 favorites]


but don't try to come off like you'd put up with the same crap if you didn't need to work

I don't know what point you think I was trying to make, but this wasn't it. Did I imply that I'd still come to my stupid job if I had 5 million in the bank?

fair day's work for a fair day's pay

Isn't this what they call begging the question? A fair day's pay to a 19 year old is a completely different concept than to someone with three dependent children. I'm 30 and don't mind working 12 hour days. I assume this will change in 20 years.
posted by gagglezoomer at 10:35 AM on June 22, 2011


After being raised in a family with a strong work ethic and being drilled from an early age to study hard, work hard, invest money, etc., I will teach my children the opposite. Do what you want—and don't spend one minute "paying your dues" or "proving" yourself to an employer. This is a scam. You are either paid fairly—by your own standards, not theirs—from day one or you never will be. The moment you stop enjoying your job, quit—because they certainly won't hesitate to fire you on a whim. There is no such thing as "loyalty." Don't waste your youth "building your resume." Go have fun and let life develop as it may. Working for a living simply does not pay—and to exert any effort whatsoever above and beyond what you are being compensated for is to be complicit in your own exploitation.

This is bad advice.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:36 AM on June 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


She's assuming for them a life of working for someone else, when the best thing she can do is steer them towards risk taking, entrepreneurship, and trying to turn what you love into your work, instead of constantly struggling to do the opposite.

This sort of talk is common in the US, and while tempting, it's problematic. Statistically speaking, not everyone can be an entrepreneur, risk taker, or small business owner - and most people won't be. Furthermore - not everyone wants to be. There is a crooked ideological subtext implicit in this sort of rhetoric that suggests that only entrepreneurs and business owners actually deserve contentment for "taking their lives into their own hands." This is bullshit. The fact remains that the majority of people will be workers, and they have just as much of a right to demand satisfaction from the work they do, or at the very least to understand the fact that they are in a business arrangement and business arrangements go about as far as the bottom line and not an inch more.

"Trying to turn what you love into your work" is about as helpful a suggestion as telling a fat person to "just lose weight!" It's more layered and complex than that. It's very unlikely that everyone will be able to do what they love for a living, and learning to accept and make due with your circumstances is, in general, a better approach towards well being than by living a life constantly grasping at an unlikelihood. I should be clear that I am not advocating "stop trying" - but the oft trotted out "work for yourself, entrepreneurship, love your work" talk is more apt to create unease as it is to cure it. Not to mention the entire framework rests on the erroneous assumption that having a successful career is the gateway to perpetual happiness.

A better approach might be to "tolerate your work, find meaning in life however you can, strike a balance, be thankful. Enjoy the experience of living."
posted by jnnla at 10:38 AM on June 22, 2011 [56 favorites]


This is bad advice.

Yes, well, following the "study hard, work hard, invest money" rules didn't seem to turn-out very well for a few million people a couple years ago, either.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:41 AM on June 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


I've tried to be an entrepreneur. I suck donkey balls at it. I feel like someday I'm going to be FORCED to be one, and then me and my dyscalculic math skills will be massively fucked. I also don't like the idea of having to go without health insurance (probably) because of being self-employed.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:42 AM on June 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


When I was an hourly worker, I would show up at my start time, work hard and eagerly, and leave at my end time. I'd stay a touch late if I was in the middle of something when time ran out, but it would be on the order of minutes. If I was in a good mood, I'd offer to stay late and help out if it was necessary, and nine times out of ten my bosses would say "no, it's all good, you can go home." That tenth time, it was typically something that would take a few minutes.

When I became a salaried worker, I would follow the same pattern, but now my bosses would ask me to do as much work as I'd accept. So, I would accept the work, but warn them whether it could be done by the end of the day or not, and if it couldn't be done, I'd resume it the next day. This wasn't a problem for the first few salaried jobs I had, when I was working while my peers were still in college.

Once I reached the age at which many folks have graduated, I noticed two significant changes in my employment: first, work was much easier to get, and second, the demands were significantly greater. Out of three jobs in a row, the first and third demanded late hours and long weekends for seemingly random reasons, or for reasons that I felt could have been avoided with a little forethought. My stress level went up, arguments were common, and it all seemed overwhelming.

The job bookended by those two, however, was fabulous, and I only left it to move to another state, so that (along with my hourly and pre-age-22 jobs) provided useful context about what was possible. And so, I have learned my lessons, and at my current job (which I love) I keep reasonable hours, make good decisions and push back on bad ideas to avoid trainwrecks later, and do everything in my power to ensure the people I work with can show up on time and leave on time. In return, they work their asses off when they're here, and we all do a fantastic job executing against our goals, individually and as a team. Plus, we're pretty happy-go-lucky.

It never seemed that difficult to figure out, or to implement, and yet I still interact on occasion with people who work long hours and long weekends, trying to accomplish impossible tasks, instead of simply saying "no", and "if we do it this way instead, the results will be better and we won't have to work weekends." I don't know if it comes from desperation, or low self-esteem, or a lack of experience working in a place where you're respected as a person, but I feel sad for every person like that I meet.

And that's why I have time to post to MetaFilter when I'm at work. The end.
posted by davejay at 10:47 AM on June 22, 2011 [22 favorites]


Better advice would be:

- be entrepreneurial and creative
- take control of your career
- make sure you cultivate skills that add value
- work for smaller companies
posted by KokuRyu at 10:47 AM on June 22, 2011


gagglezoomer : I don't know what point you think I was trying to make, but this wasn't it. Did I imply that I'd still come to my stupid job if I had 5 million in the bank?

I took your statement as saying basically "roll over and take it, kids". As calling people who just want to work to live, rather than living to work, "self-entitled assholes". As saying, in effect, "go ahead and slack off so I can take your job for less and thereby lower the standards for all of us".

If I missed your sarcasm, then I apologize for misunderstanding you.


Isn't this what they call begging the question? A fair day's pay to a 19 year old is a completely different concept than to someone with three dependent children. I'm 30 and don't mind working 12 hour days. I assume this will change in 20 years.

Yes and no - You can put an objective standard on that; And as much as I don't mean to promote socialism, one of their heroes pointed out that if you can't afford the fruits of your own labor, the system has a critical failure in it.
posted by pla at 10:47 AM on June 22, 2011


More and more I realize how lucky I am to be living where I do (relatively low cost of living) and in a government job that never* requires more than my 37.5 hours a week.



* well, once I had to be "on standby" all weekend, but I didnt have to do anything and got paid for it.
posted by utsutsu at 10:47 AM on June 22, 2011


Better advice would be:

- be entrepreneurial and creative
- take control of your career
- make sure you cultivate skills that add value
- work for smaller companies
These are all nice buzzwords for "managing your career self help books" and good advice white collar professionals with advanced degrees (like me), but the truth is on a macroeconomic level, we need to ensure that the vast swath of the workforce is able to work a steady job where they can do well, go home, and retire decently after putting in their time. That's good, honest labor that allows people to support families. Saying, "You need to be agile in this day and age!" is just kicking people when they're down.

It's like telling people in law school, "be in the top 10% of your law school class and join law review." Great advice, sure, but for the other 90%, the best advice is, "you shouldn't have gone to law school in the first place." And a better thought is how we can provide better opportunities and steady employment for everyone else.
posted by deanc at 10:53 AM on June 22, 2011 [32 favorites]


We set up a system where by its nature and design, some large chunk of the participants "fail."

For example, when real unemployment gets below a certain level (around 1 person in a dozen) then the Fed tightens capital to push unemployment back up. This isn't a conspiracy theory, you'd see it in the Wall Street Journal all the time.

The system is designed to keep a certain level of unemployment and to make it extremely easy to hire and fire people exactly so that workers will be force to accept wages and conditions like those described in the article.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:02 AM on June 22, 2011 [21 favorites]


Seven months ago, my supervisor accepted a promotion elsewhere in the university. Her replacement starts work in two weeks. Part-time to start, for personal reasons.

All the things that my supervisor handled -- human resources issues, payroll, managing a group of low-level staff, finances, scheduling, team policy and on and on and on...they still had to be done.

So I've been doing it, in addition to my regular duties. My regular duties are a full-time job as is that often require me to sneak in on weekends and handle e-mail and such from home.

And I'm a union brother and I get paid under $40/year (I know that I'm not pitching at my level -- I took this job because it was what I needed at the time, and at the time it was very good for my mental health. The irony is that now it's killing me.)

I've had no secondment to the empty position. I've had no support from the union, as usual. My director has hinted at throwing some extra cash my way, but he has been reticent about signing the temporary pay boost form I prepared for him.

Every task is triage. Every interruption means a new mistake. I've gained 30 pounds in the last six months. I've used up a single day of vacation this year, broken up over a three-day period. And frankly, I don't feel the least bit guilty about taking the time out to post this.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 11:05 AM on June 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Anyone else notice recent AskMes that basically asked, "How can I get paid to learn to do something?" and "What job pays the most for the least amount of knowledge / work?"

Really, people? There are millions of unemployed folks out there who WANT to work, are SKILLED and EXPERIENCED, and you've got idiots that like these wanting to get paid for being lazy?

This really galls me and it makes me want to be all "GET OFF MY LAWN."
posted by HeyAllie at 11:06 AM on June 22, 2011


Better advice would be:

- be entrepreneurial and creative
- take control of your career
- make sure you cultivate skills that add value
- work for smaller companies


Data point: the first three I support, but of the two best jobs I've ever had by far, one was a small three-man company that hired contractors, and the other (my current) is a huge worldwide corporation. I'd respectfully suggest replacing that last bullet with "work for companies that consistently treat you with respect, and reward you appropriately."
posted by davejay at 11:09 AM on June 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


>>you are in the You Business

This 'You Business' business is bullshit- merely another way to acclimate you to a life of zero job security. You do understand that migrant workers, that peasants, were in the 'You Business'? That all they had was their own labor?

The You Business; bullshit. Get yourself a union, the man has his. His corporation.
posted by gracchus at 11:11 AM on June 22, 2011 [22 favorites]


Post-industrial economy, pre-feudal society.
posted by Slackermagee at 11:15 AM on June 22, 2011 [16 favorites]


These are all nice buzzwords for "managing your career self help books" and good advice white collar professionals with advanced degrees (like me), but the truth is on a macroeconomic level, we need to ensure that the vast swath of the workforce is able to work a steady job where they can do well, go home, and retire decently after putting in their time. That's good, honest labor that allows people to support families. Saying, "You need to be agile in this day and age!" is just kicking people when they're down.

Well, it was just point-form; I am not going to write an essay in the comments section that no-one will read.

Anyway, when other people are controlling the purse-strings and you're just a cog in the machine, you're leaving yourself very vulnerable to the whims of the market.

On the other hand, there must be a social contract. There must be more money put into education in order to give people opportunities that provide them with meaningful and secure working conditions. And, there must be more and better education that provide workers with the tools they need to find meaningful employment should they get laid off.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:19 AM on June 22, 2011


Post-industrial economy, pre-feudal society.

This pretty much nails it.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:19 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


lunch: not free
ride: also not free
posted by blue_beetle at 11:20 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


work for smaller companies

A hollow voice says "fool."
posted by enn at 11:21 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


lunch: not free
ride: also not free


I don't see anyone here calling for free. I hear them saying that a hard day's work ought to be rewarded with an honest day's pay.

But employers have realized that in this market, with jobs so scarce, you'll do what they want or else. And to rebel against that - and to in effect tell them, you'll get what you get unless you cough up some additional bucks - is hardly some slacker manifesto.
posted by kgasmart at 11:23 AM on June 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


Anyone else notice recent AskMes that basically asked, "How can I get paid to learn to do something?"

Why do you think it's "lazy" to want to learn something and also want to eat at the same time? What's wrong with paid internships, which are exactly this?

What job pays the most for the least amount of knowledge / work?

Why is it wrong to want to know this? The truth is, unless you get your job through nepotism or other means that don't require you to actually work, any job w/ a decent wage is going to require a fair amount of knowledge and work.

Wanting to find out how much work is required to make X amount of money may be a pointless game (because it's based on a host of factors that are hard to manipulate) but it's not necessarily about being "lazy."

Walking around this country I sometimes feel like I should carry a sign that reads "WORKING HARD IS NOT INHERENTLY VIRTUOUS; IT DOES NOT MAKE YOU A BETTER PERSON ALL BY ITSELF." Hardworking torturers aren't better people than slacking ones.
posted by emjaybee at 11:23 AM on June 22, 2011 [16 favorites]


...when was the last time you ever saw a dog eat another dog anyway?
posted by The Whelk at 11:25 AM on June 22, 2011 [13 favorites]


Hardworking torturers aren't better people than slacking ones.

I was going to start the fire up for the red hot pokers but then I thought, 'you're not going anywhere, chained to that wall. I'll leave it for tomorrow, something to do and something for you to look forward to'.
posted by Slackermagee at 11:26 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


There must be more money put into education in order to give people opportunities that provide them with meaningful and secure working conditions. And, there must be more and better education that provide workers with the tools they need to find meaningful employment should they get laid off.

How about we also pour resources into forcing employers to provide (physically and economically) secure working conditions for their employees?

None of these issues are a big deal for me, personally-- I have physically undemanding jobs that come with their own set of stresses, but are pretty flexible-- the sort of thing that comes with the "meaningful and secure working conditions" you say that workers should be educated enough to find. But here's the problem: why are the jobs that exist not meaningful and secure? Managers of warehouses don't refuse to air-condition their workspaces because the workers aren't "educated" enough, it's because they're not forced to treat the workers decently.

We choose what kind of country we want to have.

, when other people are controlling the purse-strings and you're just a cog in the machine, you're leaving yourself very vulnerable to the whims of the market.

Right. So we should figure out how to ensure that the cogs in the machine are better off, right? Machines need cogs. Don't go up to the cogs when they've been smashed up and tell them, "it's your fault for not being better than a cog."
posted by deanc at 11:30 AM on June 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


So many of the comments in the article point to unionization as a solution, and I can't dispute the fact that it was only thanks to my Dad's 1970s-era UAW contract that his many expensive prescriptions in the last years of his life only cost a $2 co-pay (this even in 2011, when current Big 3 workers are paying for something like 30% of the cost of their Rx's) and all his prohibitively expensive ICU treatment and subsequent long-term care was mostly covered by insurance. (He was 87 when he passed last month, and was the second-last surviving employee on that particular very generous contract.) But I also remember my uncle who was a foreman at the Cadillac Fleetwood plant on Clark Street in Detroit. He was a handsome young man in his high school yearbook photos, but at age 30 he looked at least 20 years older. He was under constant, tremendous stress between management quotas and union rules . If he threatened to write up a worker for being drunk on the job (a common occurrence), chances are he'd be confronted in the parking lot on his way home with a warning that he'd "better not." He died of a massive heart attack at age 45 at home in his La-Z-Boy about half an hour after he'd come home from work one evening in March 1975.

As for the "more productivity for the same pay, you can be replaced, you know, for someone who'll take less money or two part-timers who won't require benefits" corporate mentality, well, I've been working in Corporate America since the tender age of 16 (my first job was at a Fortune 500 company) back in 1976 and that has always been the case in my experience. Every employer, whether large or small, has always demanded more for less, citing the current economy as a reason for not hiring more people and expecting you to be grateful to even have a job, etc etc. I'm not saying it's right, I'm just sayin' it's nothing new. At all.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:35 AM on June 22, 2011


possibly related: New study: You can't live on minimum wage
posted by epersonae at 11:35 AM on June 22, 2011


lunch: not free

It was back when you merely had to pull it off the bush. Of course we can't all live nearly naked, in warm climates, but there was, once upon a time, such a thing as a "free" lunch.
posted by Phalene at 11:39 AM on June 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


For some reason I can't access this article where I'm at. Any chance it can be msg'd to me?
posted by radiocontrolled at 11:39 AM on June 22, 2011


The piece was reproduced here, radiocontrolled.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 11:44 AM on June 22, 2011


lunch: not free

It was back when you merely had to pull it off the bush.


The incredible thing is, never have the necessities of life been so easily obtainable. One of the principle tenants of the yippie movement was the advent of machine production would free us all from labor:

A society in which people are free from the drudgery of work. Adoption of the concept "Let the Machines do it."


Obviously this makes little sense demanded beside, "8. A society which works toward and actively promotes the concept of "full unemployment."

What is it that people are working harder for?
posted by gracchus at 11:56 AM on June 22, 2011


Better advice would be:

- be entrepreneurial and creative
- take control of your career
- make sure you cultivate skills that add value
- work for smaller companies


Right, that's that settled then. I'll just go off and be creative and entrepreneurial...and how do you do that anyway? People always say this like it's easy to do these things as if those who aren't out setting up their own companies or inventing things just didn't think of it. And it's bloody hard to do any of these things if you are already working 70 hours a week or so exhausted by your job (or jobs) that all you can do is sleep.

How many new businesses fail? How many people can afford to see their life savings go down the drain because they just didn't have the luck or the idea that clicked? How many people can afford 'to take control of their career'? All of this assumes luxuries of time and money and training that many people can't access. Because they're poor. Or can't take the time to get an education in a trade school (because that also costs and those places are waaay oversubscribed anyway.

I've seen a number of people go for broke on their own (including family) and be destroyed by it, even though they had great products and great skills.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 12:13 PM on June 22, 2011 [5 favorites]


Walking around this country I sometimes feel like I should carry a sign that reads "WORKING HARD IS NOT INHERENTLY VIRTUOUS; IT DOES NOT MAKE YOU A BETTER PERSON ALL BY ITSELF." Hardworking torturers aren't better people than slacking ones.

You and me both, sister. But I shudder to think of what you'd have to put up with if you actually did this. I maintain a blog called Rethinking the Job Culture; it's the successor to a mostly-defunct site called Why Work. I've been opposing the ideological dominance of the work ethic and its various manifestations for more than fifteen years, taking great pains to differentiate between work and jobs, and promoting the idea that we need alternatives to conventional employment.

Yet I am routinely accused of being a lazy, despicable ne'er-do-well freeloader who is "anti-work." Conveniently enough, this serves the status quo by taking the focus away from the structural economic and social problems to which I am calling attention with my critiques.

It's also patently false. But even if it were true, so what? I'm supposed to sit around feeling shameful and guilty about a so-called flaw in my character, rather than outraged at a toxic job culture that produces heartbreaking stories of overwork like those in the article, among countless other abominations? Nope, not gonna happen. And I'm not sorry. Someone needs to speak out about these things, and it might as well be me. There are too many people whose lives resemble those in the stories, and too many people suffering from this kind of insanity at all levels.
posted by velvet winter at 12:50 PM on June 22, 2011 [25 favorites]


I have no problem with a system that rewards people for being creative and entrepreneurial. I have huge issues with a system that says being entrepreneurial is your only real option, and proceeds to actively penalize people for not being entrepreneurial.

This, despite the very real fact that most people simply aren't entrepreneurs, will never be entrepreneurs, probably don't want to be entrepreneurs, and, frankly, have nothing in them to be entrepreneurial about.

This, I fear, is where we are headed, if, in fact, we aren't already there.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:51 PM on June 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've seen a number of people go for broke on their own (including family) and be destroyed by it, even though they had great products and great skills.

I don't think anyone is insinuating that we all need to open our own stores or become inventors; certainly that's not my assertion. You don't need to be your own boss; few of us ever will have that luxury. The point is to identify your strengths and what you want to do (i.e., how much you want to sell yourself) and market yourself accordingly--and don't expect the boss to show any more loyalty to you than he does to the vendor that supplies the toilet paper. Make yourself invaluable, and if you can't be invaluable where you work, learn something new and try somewhere else until you are invaluable. Demand to be paid for being invaluable.

I am 100% in favor of unions, but I don't think unions replace giving yourself security. In the end, the unions of today are watered down from what they need to be to give someone real security.

Ultimately, this is why I think the Republicans (i.e., the forces of capital) oppose a single-payer insurance system--who of us would continue with these toxic employers if, at the end of the day, you knew that you wouldn't have to die on the street if you got a terminal disease?

Employer-provided health insurance is the indentured servitude of modern America.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:57 PM on June 22, 2011 [7 favorites]


There's an absolute ton of Just World bullshit right here in this thread.
posted by Sphinx at 1:06 PM on June 22, 2011 [13 favorites]


The New American Dream: 1$ a day wages for everyone (except CEOs who get all the rest)
posted by T.D. Strange at 1:30 PM on June 22, 2011


And that's why I have time to post to MetaFilter when I'm at work. The end.


You got time to lean, you got time to clean, bro.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 1:41 PM on June 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


"Trying to turn what you love into your work" is about as helpful a suggestion as telling a fat person to "just lose weight!" It's more layered and complex than that.

Indeed. Thank you for pointing this out.

This is one of the reasons I go to such great lengths to make a distinction between work and jobs. I do think there's a kernel of wisdom in the idea that many people have a work-related passion or calling in life, and that under certain circumstances, support is available (monetary and non-monetary) for those who are fortunate enough to recognize and claim that passion, and develop the necessary skills to carry it out. People have gifts, and they are happier when their gifts are engaged well.

But we try to squeeze our passions and gifts into the straitjacket of a paid job. Our culture focuses on how to make money, instead of how to use our gifts appropriately. And that's what trips us up.

At a structural level, jobs don't reward people for using their gifts and doing what they love. Many of them don't even take employees' needs into account, as we see so clearly in the stories in the linked article. Jobs are tasks done to make money for someone else; that is their primary purpose.

Work is something else entirely. It comes from inside; it's an expression of soul, of passion, of artistry, of creativity, of service to others. It's intrinsically worth doing. If we ignore it, suppress it, or find ourselves unable to pursue our work because we are too consumed with the demands of our paid jobs, it hurts us. We (rightfully!) feel a deep sense of loss, and society is deprived of the benefits of the work we could do if we weren't forced into the confines of jobs.
posted by velvet winter at 2:24 PM on June 22, 2011 [10 favorites]


Instead of planning a lesson, I'm in line at Target trying to buy lined paper or pencils.
This can not end well.
posted by fullerine at 2:47 PM on June 22, 2011



It is the responsibilities of individuals to recognize the skills and talents they do or DO NOT possess and then strive for a meaningful life NOT dependent on the number of toys they are able to accumulate.
posted by notreally at 3:00 PM on June 22, 2011


The problem with passions vs. being able to eat is that your skills in life may not necessarily line up with what other people need in life. In my case, I do crafts, which are easily expendable in the event of emergency and not really needed by anybody. Nobody is going to pay my ass to do them (at least, not in the USA, if I lived in a third world country I suppose I could make peanuts at it). I get paid to type for money because that is actually needed by somebody in the world. Not everyone's skills in life line up with what people are willing to pay you enough to eat, pay rent, buy gas, etc. And it's more important that I get to eat and have health insurance than it is for me to follow my bliss and make my soul happy between 8-5, but not have those things. It is a price you pay for survival, but...

I haven't the faintest how to survive outside of the work box, and what I do best is really super not necessary for anybody.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:06 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


It is the responsibilities of individuals to recognize the skills and talents they do or DO NOT possess and then strive for a meaningful life NOT dependent on the number of toys they are able to accumulate.


This is about as unhelpful as it gets. Who's talking about toys? People who work horrible jobs do so because they want to eat and also sleep indoors.
posted by emjaybee at 3:08 PM on June 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


Seconding jenfullmoon. My "calling" if I have one, is editing. I'm very good at it and it gives me joy. I love working with writers. I love putting together publications. It's creative and satisfying.

But jobs where I get to do it, as well as make a living wage (or these days, any wage), are nonexistent. Editing is just an administrative task anymore, like filing or answering phones, and publications are dying. I often feel like a first-class buggywhip maker watching more and more clients buying Model T's.

Such is life. I have some organizational skills obtained during years of managing complicated publication processes. They have landed me a job that is epically boring and requires nothing of me as an editor. But I actually have decent pay and benefits, and my boss is not an asshole. The work I love is gone, and at 40, am I going to start all over with a new "calling", assuming I can work one up, or just plug along till I retire?

I would love a world where I had more choices than starvation or boredom (or god forbid, being worked to death like the poor bastards in the OP). Right now, that doesn't appear to be an option.
posted by emjaybee at 3:21 PM on June 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yeah, it's a real pisser how life expectancies have plummeted with the onset of the Industrial Age.

The article is about current trends in America, not global trends among developing nations from pre-Industrial Revolution days to the present.

So, how is the US doing? List of countries by life expectancy.

The US is number 36 and recent news articles have claimed it's just slipped to 37. That puts us below Costa Rica, South Korea, the UAE, Chile, and Cuba, to name a few.
posted by treepour at 3:22 PM on June 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


We should all be terrified and furious that we have allowed the world to come to this.

America is not "the world".

I find it pretty hard to feel sympathy for the sort of person who works themself into the ground when it isn't a matter of life and death that they do so. Too often - especially in America - I see this sort of workaholism from people who are doing it for no better reason than that they see "success" as involving materialistic acquisition. That house, that - sorry, those - cars, this partner, this many kids, those schools, that college, this TV, this cool interior decoration, this size of garden. I am not "successful" unless I achieve and maintain these things. Ambition makes you look pretty ugly.

And round and round they scurry in their self-made little rat wheels. "Oh man, I worked so hard this week. I put in 20 hours of unpaid overtime. They're killing me at Moneygrub, Exploit and Consume." Yeah? Well tough, you sorry ass. You're part of the problem. You are the rod for your own back. No sympathy.
posted by Decani at 3:23 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


And round and round they scurry in their self-made little rat wheels. "Oh man, I worked so hard this week. I put in 20 hours of unpaid overtime. They're killing me at Moneygrub, Exploit and Consume." Yeah? Well tough, you sorry ass. You're part of the problem. You are the rod for your own back. No sympathy.

Do you go to Wal-Mart and throw rocks at the sheep employees propping up corporate megastates on their backs? Or are you just an asshole on the internet?
posted by TypographicalError at 3:40 PM on June 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Too often - especially in America - I see this sort of workaholism from people who are doing it for no better reason than that they see "success" as involving materialistic acquisition. That house, that - sorry, those - cars, this partner, this many kids, those schools, that college, this TV, this cool interior decoration, this size of garden. I am not "successful" unless I achieve and maintain these things.

That you've said this in a thread about people breaking their own backs just to get by, with incredibly specific examples in working-class environments, suggests that this is a particular hobbyhorse of yours and not tremendously related to the topic at hand.
posted by Errant at 3:59 PM on June 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


Quitting The Paint Factory (Mark Slouka, Harper’s Magazine, November 2004).
posted by The Card Cheat at 4:08 PM on June 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


They're killing me at Moneygrub, Exploit and Consume." Yeah? Well tough, you sorry ass. You're part of the problem.

Yes and no. I don't think that was the gist of any of the accounts in the article--that's more the "I make $250,000 a year and I'm poor" post from the UChicago professor last year.

But, to be 100% fair, I agree that the U.S. is an overly materialistic consumer culture, and some (clearly not all) people get locked into bad work situations because they've over-extended themselves. They're beholden to their employers either because they bought something they couldn't really afford (often the dream house), or they want to buy things they don't really need (often the dream house). To be honest, I can't entirely fault people for this; whether it's human nature to covet or just part of American culture, it definitely seems like a hard thing to resist.

We went over the (not-universally-well-received) story about the couple who slimmed down their possessions to 100 items. Whether or not it's some bourgeois ideal, I do think there is something to be said for being happy with less stuff. Again, I don't think that's the message of these accounts in the link--but it can be a worthwhile means to self empowerment, if coveting less means you can live on less, and thus have more freedom from your employer.

Ultimately, though, I still think this is an issue with capital: the bosses and the PE guys who own the bosses, and the bankers who make it all possible.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 4:17 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


> To be honest, I can't entirely fault people for this; whether it's human nature to covet or just part of American culture, it definitely seems like a hard thing to resist.

I know a few people my age who have gotten caught up in this mentality. They work extremely long hours, to the detriment of other aspects of their lives, in order to be able to afford (or at least buy on credit) expensive consumer goods they don't really have enough free time to enjoy because they're working so much. It literally seems like a form of madness.
posted by The Card Cheat at 4:33 PM on June 22, 2011


It's a matter of balance.

I see people tut-tutting the people who work like mad to support a consumerist lifestyle -- you don't need so many toys, we say. And I agree to a point.

But you can also go too far with that kind of uber-simplicity and uber-calvinism -- in fact, I have. I somehow managed to talk myself out of trying to make enough money to enjoy life and thrive, rather than just endure. I accepted a reduced pay rate all last year because it was enough to pay for my basics. I was working just as long, but I was getting paid less -- but what was I complaining about, because I could make all my expenses, right?

But just surviving isn't living. Or -- I was being paid a living wage. And I was being told that I should be satisfied with that.

What I needed to realize was that I, like all of us, deserved a THRIVING wage.

There's a poem popular during the early labor strikes in the early 1900's, inspired by what some claimed was a chant taken up by some of the women in the textile miles -- "give us bread, and give us roses!" The idea they had was that, yes, they were making enough to survive -- but we all deserve to be able to afford some pleasure and joy as well as just the sustinence and basics. "Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, AND give us roses."

Again, it's possible to take that drive for material pleasures too far. But there's got to be a middle ground somewhere between "working long hours to get a third car" and "working long hours just to be able to afford three meals". I don't need a second car -- or even a first car - but dammit, I do want to be able to afford to travel and see the world like I always wanted to without having to then go totally broke for the next week because unpaid vacations are the only kind I get, and my pay scale doesn't make up the lost time.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:10 PM on June 22, 2011 [9 favorites]


People killing or being killed for their beliefs is heartbreaking. People starving to death is heartbreaking. People who don't push back, who slavishly go with the company line to 'save their job', who do not question their value as judged by some faceless spreadsheet jock, are indeed complicit in their own exploitation, sympathizers in the systematic humiliation of people who honestly, genuinely work.

I spent the better part of a year looking for a right place after being surplused. I was close to taking *anything*, so close that my heart and soul would have been a cheap trade. I was hired by a company that doesn't pay me spectacularly (just fairly), and in the bargain, treats me with genuine respect. I hadn't expected that, and honestly, I shouldn't have.

Most of the people in management jobs today got there because professional managers were slaughtered in the 80's...the better to measure you with stupid arithmetic by entitled assholes from McKinsey, Booz-Allen, or the late, execrable Andersen Consulting.

Yes, I have an opinion on the topic.
posted by nj_subgenius at 5:32 PM on June 22, 2011


People don't work a lot so they can buy toys. Many, many, many people work a lot to afford mortgages, health care, groceries, retirement savings, dental bills, school supplies, clothes for the kids, decent food... The list goes on.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:48 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


...and AC lives on as Cuntessence or something...they fired Tiger Woods as their spox.
posted by nj_subgenius at 5:49 PM on June 22, 2011


jenfullmoon: "The problem with passions vs. being able to eat is that your skills in life may not necessarily line up with what other people need in life. In my case, I do crafts, which are easily expendable in the event of emergency and not really needed by anybody."

Myself. I am a serial (very small, 1 person shop) entrepreneur. All of my companies have been successful in that they didn't lose money, but none of them has ever generated the same personal income as technical writing or information architecture. A big part of that is because I really, really, REALLY hate to talk about money. It makes me uncomfortable. This is a pretty big failing when one needs to set rates, or prices, or collect invoices.

But even if one were capable of launching, sustaining and growing a business, with all the skills and drive and willingness to never sleep that it entails, good freaking luck getting an SBA loan in this economy. And if you can't get an SBA loan, the odds are really against you getting a BigBankTM to fork over capital without that guarantee.

I've seen solidly researched, well thought out business plans, that needed seed capital as low as $100k get turned down by banks, and venture capitalists don't touch tiny operations, risk is too high, payout too low.

Without seed capital, someone has to have enough personal resources to start the company, and still have enough to live on until (or if) the company becomes successful. That's a metric ton of money up front for any type of inventory based business, retail business, studio business...pretty much anything not run out of an extra room in your house is going to cost a pretty good chunk of cash. And most residential zoning laws in the US do not allow for businesses to be run from residential houses if the business has customers that come to the house.

Point being, I'm willing to bet money that 90% of the folks who chant Be An Entrepreneur, are folks that have never had to worry about going hungry if their business failed.
posted by dejah420 at 9:30 PM on June 22, 2011


You know that great job you've got that you work hard to keep, putting in 50 hours a week to do your 40 paid? Good benefits, nice insurance, not too bad for vacation time (if you could just get away to take one)--hey, you even like your boss!

Whoops, they're downsizing. Maybe you're lucky and get a bit of a separation bonus. Maybe you get to keep your insurance, and you've got a second income in the family to pay for it. Maybe you get hired again fairly quickly.

And maybe you don't get lucky.

Betcha sing a different tune then.

But, it can't ever happen to YOU, of course.
posted by BlueHorse at 11:02 PM on June 22, 2011


We are bribed to work shit jobs because we need health insurance. (And of course I'm not even talking about the people who don't get health care and never will because they have criminals for employers.) Ah, but that's an American predicament. The rest of the enlightened world gets health care without having to kill their souls and bodies for employers that treat them like machinery. I have to say this: I am getting more and more angry at my country for what I saw last year during several weeks in Norway--people able to work at jobs they loved--even gaining a free education in new skills that reflected their desires when their old careers/jobs weren't fulfilling. Fulfillment! Being able to do something that you like! And losing your job, should that happen, does not mean you suddenly have to decide if you can stomach self-surgery on your smashed toe since the doctor fee starts at $60 just for saying hello. But hey, that's socialist crazytalk.

It's hard to imagine the burden that would be lifted from your mind if you didn't have to constantly be worried about how to pay for the random health issues that plague, you know, human beings. I think it's hard for my cousins to imagine the cloud we Americans live under. And it's hard for me to imagine what it would be like not to have it.

And I really wish the American work ethic would die already. I watch people all the time who have been laid off from their jobs who suddenly see themselves as non-persons because they don't have something to say when asked, "So what do you do?" They're ready to kill themselves not because they're starving or going to be evicted, but because they have been taught their whole fucking lives that their job/career is what makes them a grownup. That their status as oxygen-worthy dies when they start getting an unemployment check.

It's reflective of that constant trope you hear from working class Americans if they see you protesting something on the street: "Why don't you get a job!" I mean, there's no debate about the merits of the sign you're holding or even whether holding a sign does a damn thing, just "How dare you be out on the streets when you should be working too much to have the energy to give a damn about anything but beer and football when you get home." It's resentment, and it makes sense. But goddammit, let's talk about that resentment. Let's talk about how we exchange our brains and our bodies for pennies--for crumbs, and hate people who don't.

We hate people who are homeless or poor, and wish they would disappear. They're either crazy or lazy or stupid or criminals. We are embarrassed for people who lose their jobs, and then cut them from our friends' list if they move into their mother's basement, because jeez, they're just losers now. It doesn't matter if they then become her caretaker or start making furniture, or volunteering at the food shelf until something better comes along, because they don't exist without a business card.

Oh, and those of us who are privileged/lucky enough to figure out a way to work from home, or learn to live on less--there's something wrong with you too. You're out there working in your pajamas and mowing the lawn in the middle of the day. Fucking slackers.

I have to laugh really. But it's bitter laughter. My partner's salt-of-the-earth parents worked in factory jobs their whole lives and then were cheated out of their pensions by thieving corporations (US Steel, Reserve Mining, Michelina Foods)--not to mention the fact that they suffer health problems caused by such work, not to mention the fact that they were cheated out of watching their children grow up on a daily basis... These people have been so indoctrinated by that American work ethic to believe that work is slavery that they don't even see what their son does as work. He doesn't have to drive somewhere! He walks the dog for two hours in the middle of the day! He can open his laptop and work whenever he wants. This... this is not work. It's too suspiciously like being unemployed, you see. Enjoying life is for slackers and mental-deficients.

If people from a hundred years ago could see us now! All these bright new machines that were supposed to make us free, and we're just as chained as we ever were.
posted by RedEmma at 8:32 AM on June 23, 2011 [12 favorites]


One difference between the US and Japan is the Japanese have a term for working oneself to death and we don't -- yet.
posted by Gelatin at 11:14 AM on June 23, 2011


We are bribed to work shit jobs because we need health insurance.

If we can even get it, that is. Many of us can't. In the US, we are are left to fend for ourselves. And even some of those who have health insurance end up declaring bankruptcy and losing their homes because of huge medical bills. It is fucking INSANE. Over the past five to ten years, I've watched in mounting horror as the bottom has fallen out of the middle class, and more and more of my educated, skilled friends have ended up homeless and destitute through no fault of their own...while many of the ones who remain employed are working 60 and 70-hour weeks just to keep their jobs.

A few months ago, after more than a year of fruitless job-hunting, I decided to investigate starting my own one-person freelance writing business. People have been encouraging me to do this all my life, and it wouldn't take much capital, and I didn't have much to lose, or so I figured...so why not? But after investigating my options for health insurance (there pretty much aren't any), I abandoned the idea. I am simply too financially conservative and risk-averse to start a one-person business without adequate insurance for its proprietor. Hell, I'm too risk-averse to go without insurance at all, business or no! But unfortunately, I have no choice, because I'm single and live in the USA, where single/divorced people who don't have jobs with employer-provided health insurance are out of luck.

So much for promoting the entrepreneurial spirit, eh?

I'm not as desperate as this man, but I have no illusions that I'm above doing something like he did if I needed care and had no other option.

I really wish the American work ethic would die already.

Likewise. I've been taking aim at it for years. But it's an uphill battle, because the work ethic is incredibly tenacious. It serves many useful purposes for those in power, including:

- blaming individuals for structural social and economic problems
- convincing people that if they just work hard enough, they'll escape the fate of the poor and downtrodden
- framing widespread poverty as a matter of lack of effort or character rather than an indicator of the necessity of social change
- diverting ire toward those on the bottom, lest it be directed in an organized way toward those in power, or the system itself
- maintaining the belief in a just world (as Sphinx pointed out above)

And that's just a start, really.

I watch people all the time who have been laid off from their jobs who suddenly see themselves as non-persons

Yes. It saddens me greatly that so many people have so little sense of identity and self-worth outside of whatever it is they do for wages.

Yesterday I went in for a dental cleaning. My normal hygienist was out sick, and a temp was filling in for her for the day. We chatted a bit. She's a divorced woman in her forties, like me. She told me that the only paid work she's been able to find for more than two years has been occasional one-or-two-day fill-in jobs, and that even when she gets those, they work her to the bone for very little pay. She implied that she'd soon lose her apartment if she didn't find something full-time. Her anxiety and shame was palpable, and I had to breathe deeply just to keep myself calm in her presence (which can be a challenge in and of itself when I'm sitting in a dental chair.)

I told her I'd been job-hunting for over a year, and that even with advanced education and glowing recommendations from friends/acquaintances I was having no luck, and that many of my friends were in the same boat or worse. She replied: "Doesn't it make you feel like a loser?"

"No, it doesn't make me feel like a loser," I told her insistently. "I'm actually pretty happy with who I am. But it does make me feel resentful that I live in a culture where there's pretty much no way to survive without a job for most of us, even if we live very simply and modestly, and would rather spend our time learning things, making art, and helping our fellow human beings than climbing the corporate ladder or flipping burgers. And don't get me started about the way we are expected to show slavish gratitude if a few meager scraps are tossed our way, and accused of being lazy and unworthy if we don't."

She nodded, although I'm not sure whether she really agreed.

let's talk about that resentment. Let's talk about how we exchange our brains and our bodies for pennies--for crumbs, and hate people who don't.

Yes! Let's! I sometimes hear people saying that they have had similar thoughts, but felt isolated or unable to articulate them, and that hearing radical critiques of the job culture and the work ethic helps them understand that they're not crazy. But more often, people who engage in this kind of "socialist crazytalk" are just shouted down or drowned out by the voices of the status quo. So thanks for speaking up, RedEmma. Your namesake would be proud!
posted by velvet winter at 7:45 PM on June 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


Velvet Winter, when I moved here (US) I found it horrifying that having 2 jobs made you an exemplary American. I have worked "at the bottom" and even there people back stab each other while they offer themselves for exploitation for 7.25 dollars an hour! It was really scary to see this, because I thought that was what society expected of me, and that I would have to obsess over work to prove that I was a worthy human being.

Thankfully for me, I have a better job now, one with benefits and a boss that's very easygoing about free time and having a life. But I cannot stop thinking of the people who are still in the gutter. I know I'm not better than them in any respect. And I know they deserve a decent life just like I do, but society seems to disagree!

As far as I've seen, in the US (and in many other places) you WILL be punished for

-not being able to attend school (be it for financial reasons or because it's simply not your thing) sorry this one's just how the system works. And even if you get a degree, it better be in what sells, rather than what you like
-having the nerve of wanting free time, or a day off (they won't fire you, but you're showing them you're replaceable! OMG)
- being such a bad worker that you are not willing to devote your evenings or weekends to work, do you know how many other people would happily do your job well instead of you?

I have been talking to friends and acquaintances about these ideas, and I like proposing to them things like a 3 day weekend, and many of them get really scared when I mention it. It's like working is the only way you can prove your worth to society. Most of them dreamily smile and say it would be awesome, but they wouldn't dare supporting it publicly.

And this point of view, do you know what it reminds me of? Victims of human trafficking, especially the ones that have been pushed to prostitution. In their mind, they usually know what they are doing gives them no advantage. But they can't conceive a life without it, so they are willing to keep hurting themselves until they die, and they will defend their decision with twisted logic and parroted beliefs. In the end, only a tiny fraction speak up and seek help.

I'm sure you've read it already, but for anyone interested, have a look at In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell. Instead of a longer weekend, he proposes the idea of 4 hour work days for laborers, to the ire of the rich. As a side point, I find my parents-in-law reminiscing about Tito's Yugoslavia as a place that made you work as much as was necessary, in a way that almost every day you would be drinking tea with friends at 4 o' clock in the afternoon, I always find this really interesting, since it kind of goes against the usual opinion of communism.

And if there is a society that we could join or start to promote these ideas, let me know! I would really like to participate in it. There should be a movement in support of idleness, but with a better name.
posted by Tarumba at 5:22 AM on June 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


Which would be great until the ravening hordes of resource-sharks powered by the broken backs of the perpetually ground underfoot lower and middle classes start circling around your chain-link fence, quietly and more stridently singing a song of self-justification that sounds a lot like "they're just children playing around" and "those resources are underutilized" and "we should help them get the most out of life" and then they start leaflet bombing you with advertisements and dig under your fence and sell you better televisions and fancier cars and pusher robots and shover robots and if you just work another hour a day look at how much more free time you'll have!
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:30 AM on June 24, 2011


I think a lot about the fact that overworking (and under-vacationing) has a lot to do with a profound disconnection from nature as well. If you only have a certain amount of time to spend in a day, you're going to run or bike through the woods--if you go to the woods at all--not walk. We can lament a million ways to sunday about how the Modern American is hurried and over-scheduled, but the implications for things like wetlands or frogs or unusual habitats is very wide-reaching. If you never walk through a forest (or other natural habitat), you never really *see* it with any depth. The bikers/snowmobilers seem to have taken over. And they look down at the dirt/snow far more than they look at the woods they're zipping through--and of course their trails are far more damaging than a footpath. But if you never stop to look at what you're running over, you just don't give a damn.

People disconnected from the natural world will not even notice when the mining company kills all the fish in the stream (I wonder how many fewer sport fishermen there are today than a generation ago). They will not ever see the three-legged frog or the overabundance of algae in a pond. When they go on vacation they don't notice that the forest next to the road is hiding clearcuts behind.

So it's not just our souls that die when we work too much for too little, and our bodies when we die too young from overstress. It's everything else, too.
posted by RedEmma at 12:20 PM on June 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


Thanks for speaking up in support of these ideas, Tarumba. Very much appreciated!

having the nerve of wanting free time

Some of us even have the audacity (!) to want lives in which we can experience true leisure, which - to my mind - is something different than "free time." Far too many of us don't ever get a chance to experience deep, restorative, healthy leisure. Leisure is framed as something that is unproductive and frivolous, and we often have to fight off guilt feelings when we have it, especially if we haven't properly earned it beforehand by working hard.

It's like working is the only way you can prove your worth to society.

Working for money, even. Oh, sure, a certain amount of lip service is given to vastly under-appreciated work like raising children, gardening, homemaking, and the arts, but people who do these things are widely considered to be "not working" unless they receive money for what they do. Utterly ridiculous, isn't it? But true nonetheless.

if there is a society that we could join or start to promote these ideas, let me know! I would really like to participate in it. There should be a movement in support of idleness, but with a better name.

Well, you could start with the Idle Foundation. They have an online community you can join. (Full disclosure: their links page features a site that I started, known as CLAWS [Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery], a/k/a Why Work dot org. However, I am no longer affiliated with that site.) There's also the excellent UK publication The Idler, featuring the work of Tom Hodgkinson, who has written various books of interest to would-be idlers.

I have been trying to reconnect with the supporters of the group I originally founded. I don't have the wherewithal or resources to set up and run a properly moderated and well-designed online forum, though, much as I believe we need one. Besides, I'm trying to focus more on organizing localized in-person gatherings these days. But yes, I agree that such affinity groups are needed, even if it's just to help reassure people that they're not crazy for thinking this way.

You could always organize a group yourself, of course, and see where it goes. But take it from one who's been there: it can be a thankless job at times, and you will become a lightning rod for criticism, especially in the USA. If you decide to do it, give some thought to whether you can deal with that.

The irony of this - working hard to organize idlers! - certainly has not escaped me.
posted by velvet winter at 4:45 PM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


it's not just our souls that die when we work too much for too little, and our bodies when we die too young from overstress. It's everything else, too.

Absolutely. What we call "normal" in this culture - the notion that we are separate from nature and the land, the true source of our support and sustenance - is completely insane. This kind of culture produces people who believe their basic worth should be determined by how much economic power they wield and how hard they're willing to work, rather than how well they can live in balance with the land and their communities.

I long for a day when we stop doing things like clear-cutting forests and polluting waterways because people need jobs. Re-thinking the work ethic and the toxic job culture is a critical component of the transition toward a world like this. Someone who does NOT take a job clear-cutting forests is doing a lot more for the environment - and our collective future - than someone who does. We need to respect people who find ways to resist these jobs for principled reasons, instead of calling them "lazy" because they don't just take ANY job they can get, regardless of how destructive it may be.
posted by velvet winter at 5:44 PM on June 24, 2011


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