Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Curse of the Drinking Classes

However powerful our technology and complex our corporations, the most remarkable feature of the modern working world may in the end be internal, consisting in an aspect of our mentalities: in the widely held belief that our work should make us happy. All societies have had work at their centre; ours is the first to suggest that it could be something much more than a punishment or a penance. Ours is the first to imply that we should seek to work even in the absence of a financial imperative. Our choice of occupation is held to define our identity to the extent that the most insistent question we ask of new acquaintances is not where they come from or who their parents were but what they do, the assumption being that the route to a meaningful existence must invariably pass through the gate of renumerative employment.

It was not always this way. In the fourth century BC, Aristotle defined an attitude that was to last more than two millennia when he referred to a structural incompatibility between satisfaction and a paid position. For the Greek philosopher, financial need placed one on a par with slaves and animals. The labour of the hands, as much as of the mercantile sides of the mind, would lead to psychological deformation.

[...] The bourgeois thinkers of the eighteenth century thus turned Aristotle's formula on its head: satisfactions which the Greek philosopher had identified with leisure were now transposed to the sphere of work, while tasks lacking in any financial reward were drained of all significance and left to the haphazard attentions of decadent dilettantes.

Aspects of this evolution in attitudes towards work had intriguing parallels in ideas about love. In this sphere, too, the eighteenth-century bourgeoisie yoked together what was pleasurable and what was necessary. They argued that there was no inherent conflict between sexual passion and the practical demands of raising children in a family unit, and that there could hence be romance within a marriage - just as there could be enjoyment within a paid job.

Initiating developments of which we are still the heirs, the European bourgeoisie took the momentous steps of co-opting on behalf of both marriage and work the pleasures hitherto pessimistically - or perhaps realistically - confined, by the aristocrats, to the subsidiary realms of the love affair and the hobby.


Well, at least it's good to hear that Europeans have atoned for their mistake by accepting a more realistic worldview these days. Another good reason (besides my favorite national football team) for me to move to Spain!

Growing up and living most of my life in North America, it always seemed natural to ask people upon meeting them what they did for a living. Then I moved to Spain where people rarely ask that question. I’ve been here two years and still don’t know what some friends do to pay the bills.

This lack of interest in people’s professional lives at first confused me, like people didn’t care enough about their friends to bother finding out what they did eight or ten hours a day.

After a while, however, when the cultural shift started happening in my brain, I understood the reluctance to ask: Work life isn’t important.

For a majority of Spaniards, a job is what you do to pay for the fun you have outside of work. Coming from a culture obsessed with discovering your passion (and being a mentor who helps people do just that), this concept of unimportance blew me away.

There’s a generation in Spain that got the short end of the stick career-wise. Being the first generation to grow up in democracy a huge number of them went to university – it was what you did. Unfortunately there weren’t the jobs waiting for them on the other side, so they found what they could. Many of them were getting paid a very basic wage of 1000 Euros a month even into their late 30s and early 40s.

With their early dreams crushed and hope for change equally bleak, these mileuristas (1000 Euro earners) learned to find other passions in their lives and think of work as something to pay for these passions.

[...] In Spain, people accept the bleak situation and get on with the rest of their life, finding purpose and meaning outside of work.


This author, still shuddering from gazing into such a nihilistic abyss, managed to find his way back to the American belief in progress, novelty, personal growth, and constant upward trajectories. Those of us with different concepts of happiness, identity, time and meaning just sit back and smile. Again from Botton's book:

After Carol had left, as Symons threw away a pile of used tissues and rearranged the cushions on the couch, he remarked that the most common and unhelpful illusion plaguing those who came to see him was the idea that they ought somehow, in the normal course of events, to have intuited - long before they had finished their degrees, started families, bought houses and risen to the top of law firms - what they should be properly doing with their lives. They were tormented by a residual notion of having through some error or stupidity on their part missed out on their true 'calling'.

This curious and unfortunate term had first come into circulation in a Christian context during the medieval period, in reference to people's abrupt encounter with an imperative to devote themselves to Jesus' teachings. But Symons maintained that a secularised version of this notion had survived even into the modern age, where it was prone to torture us with an expectation that the meaning of our lives might at some point be revealed to us in a ready-made and decisive form, which would in turn render us permanently immune to feelings of confusion, envy and regret. Symons preferred a quote from Motivation and Personality, by the psychologist Abraham Maslow, which he had pinned up above the toilet: 'It isn't normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement'.

2 comments:

Nana said...

Again, great quote from Maslow.

But you see, European savoir faire not withstanding, I cannot show up, day after day, to a job that I loathe. Or, even if I no longer find it interesting. Working at a call centre pays awesomely, but I hated the grind. It wasn't hard, it was merely boring.

Call it acculturation, but while I do understand working to live, I can't force myself to sacrifice 8, hours a day to be able to go out and have a good time after work. The trade off is simply not worth it.

The Vile Scribbler said...

Oh, I wouldn't work at a job I ferociously hated either. I just think that some of the things that have people hopping from job to job (meaningless tasks, obnoxious colleagues, shit rolling downhill) are prevalent everywhere you go -- a feature, not a bug.

No, I just see it as a useful corrective to the romantic idea that a job should be the ne plus ultra of your passions, hopes, dreams, etc. I suspect that some of the things that cause people to hate their jobs are the result of ridiculously inflated expectations about what a job should be. For me it's just: if I'm good at it, it's not too intolerable, and if it gives me the money and free time to pursue the leisure activities I want, then I can live with it. But as you said, vive la difference.