Employment may not work for everyone
Feel like your life lacks dignity, meaning and social inclusion?
The solution is easy. Simply take one full-time job and do it. All your problems – especially those stubborn, low self-esteem issues – will be solved in one fell swoop.
This is the rhetoric accompanying new, “tough love” Budget measures aimed at shifting single mothers and disability pensioners off welfare and into work.
No-one wants to admit these measures are partly a populist ruse targetting convenient social scapegoats. So the policies’ orchestrators and defenders are insisting that – like gag-inducing spoonfuls of cod liver oil – they’re for people’s own good.
During a hectic post-Budget media and cup-smashing schedule, Wayne “glasser” Swan and his Prime Minister have been insisting that return-to-work strategies are about breaking generational cycles of disadvantage rather than spirits.
“Friends,” Julia Gillard said in an optimistic salutation during a recent address to the conservative Sydney Institute, “believing in the benefits and dignity of work is a deep Labor conviction… In today’s economy, inclusion through participation must be our central focus.”
At first blush, this slogan is reminiscent of the creepy Big Brother-speak from Nineteen Eighty-Four: “was is peace”, “freedom is slavery”, “ignorance is strength” and so on.
Yet while George Orwell’s doublethink is rooted in paradox, Gillard’s line is tautological; almost on par with “salary-collecting through wage-earning”, “employment through jobbing” and “gratuitous replication through needless repetition”.
Not that we should get caught in sticky Prime Ministerial spin like so many single mothers mired in the trap of welfare dependency and straight-from-the-jar-Nutella-eating.
Let’s look, instead, at the bigger issue of whether work is really the almighty panacea it is made out to be, or whether it is more of a modern day snake oil.
Some advantages of employment are indisputable. In addition to the prestige of not being called a dole bludger (it’s rare to see anyone boasting of being a “long term welfare recipient” on their business cards), there are the benefits of regular pay packets. These benefits will be especially regular you happen to be a billable minutes corporate lawyer or anaesthetist.
Working parents are also in a position to bequeath more than mere materialism to their offspring, in that education and employment tend to breed more of the same.
But while these aspects of the mutual obligation argument make excellent sense, the employment = dignity algorithm does have a number of weaknesses.
Economist Mike Rafferty is just one work-spert who claims the Budget will force vulnerable people into poor-quality and precarious jobs which pose risks rather than remedies.
“If you’re employed under a lot of pressure with very little discretion on poor pay and you’ve got bad bosses, it can be extremely bad for your health,” he told the ABC.
Rafferty, a senior fellow at the Workplace Research Centre at Sydney University, defines a poor quality job as one that is low on permanency, leave and remuneration; but high on stress and monotony.
This seems a fair enough assessment except that – as the job-for-life is rapidly replaced by impermanence, fragmentation and outsourcing – more and more mainstream positions fit Rafferty’s criteria.
It’s certainly not only salt mine-type jobs that may be toxic to workers’ health. According to new Australian research, people who slave for a decade or more behind a desk may have an increased risk of developing bowel cancer.
Sedentary lifestyles and desk jockey-ism have also been linked to obesity, diabetes, deep vein thrombosis, increased visits to hospital and a greater reliance on medication.
Salt mines (which actually now compete for occupational health and safety awards) start looking positively salubrious. In fact Men’s Health magazine recently went so far as to suggest that dimly lit and badly designed office cubicles may be more dangerous environments than jail.
This analogy is also explored in The Pin-Striped Prison by Australian columnist Lisa Pryor. She quotes a real life Gordon Gekko telling a gaggle of up-and-coming investment bankers that they should have only two holidays: one for their first wedding and one for their first heart attack.
So nice to schedule some “me time”.
Another fascinating writer on the philosophy of labour is UK-based author Alain de Botton.
In his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, he writes of the demise of the generalist, and the “deadening, uniquely modern sense of dislocation” between the things we consume and their unknown origins and creators.
“So arcane are the operations around the port that no single person could ever hope to grasp more than a fragment of their totality,” he writes of a British container terminal.
“A ship’s captain may enjoy superlative command over the contours of the lower Thames, but no sooner has his vessel docked than he will be relegated to the status of an apprentice observer of the business of jetty engineering and the long-term refrigeration of citrus fruit – his jurisdiction ending as abruptly as the authority of his nautical chart.”
Such production line-ism is reminiscent of one of my favourite, most melancholy children’s books.
Nobody Owns the Moon by Australian writer and illustrator Tohby Riddle is the story of a fox called Clive Prendergast who lives in a small, one-room apartment in a busy part of town.
By day, an overalls-wearing Clive toils beside both human and mechanical cog wheels on a factory conveyor belt: “He doesn’t know what is made there, he just puts the same two parts together – over and over.”
The meaninglessness of Clive’s work is mitigated by the joys of completing crosswords, eating sushi and attending the theatre with his friend Humphrey, the homeless donkey.
Yet – at the risk of coming over all Marx-esque – surely this sort of alienation from the end product of one’s labour isn’t particularly conducive to dignity and workplace satisfaction.
French author Corinne Maier rejects the classic Bastille-storming revolutionary response and proposes (or at least formalises) a laissez-faire form of revolutionary resistance.
In Hello Laziness – Why Hard Work Doesn’t Pay, she argues that the best riposte to corporate exploitation and the fundamental pointlessness of work is to embrace uncompromising parasitism.
Her 10 counter-commandments include using jargon, shirking responsibility and doing as little as possible. “Be from now on a dead weight, a wash-out,” she urges. “White-collar dissidents, it’s time to get lazy!”
Another approach is to keep your own crappy job in perspective. In his book 50 Jobs Worse Than Yours, New York writer Justin Racz details comparison occupations such as garbage barge skipper, rat catcher, cheesecake tin quality controller, hazardous material remover, maggot wrangler and spam copywriter.
To this list of difficult and potentially dangerous occupations, he could well add Work Ethic Questioner and Welfare Recipient Defender.
Like Emma Jane’s work? See more at The Australian.
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