I Hate My Job And I Want To Cry.
Tried chopping wood and carrying water?
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Once upon a time, I worked during a university vacation on the night shift at a light engineering factory (remember them?) doing a job of such mindlessness that it was not thought worth automating it in those days. A foreman in a brown coat (remember those?) and a little Hitler moustache patrolled the factory floor to make sure that the students who made up a part of the workforce during the holiday period were actually doing something, as opposed to just sitting around growing their hair. Not that there was much to do: one machine just required you to open a door, take out a moulded piece of plastic with protective gloves, and dump it into a basket.
I started calculating how long I could continue to do the job without going insane, and I decided that a lot depended on whether I could find some way of upsetting the system. But even at that age, I realised that frontal attacks on a larger and more powerful enemy were a waste of time, and that something more subtle was required. I started observing the operation of the machine very carefully. The thirty seconds of training I had been given were all about opening the door quickly before the machine started to cool down. Right, I thought, and began to experiment very slowly with tiny delays of half a second or so before I opened the door. As far as the brown-coated foreman could see, everything was proceeding normally. And then, after a couple of hours of this, the machine shuddered, and failed to extrude any more plastic. The foreman, and a couple of other men in brown coats but without Hitler moustaches, poked around the machine and declared themselves puzzled. I was told to go and sweep the floor, which I happily did for a couple of hours, before they eventually managed to reboot the machine. The satisfaction I got from putting one over the system in a way that was undetectable kept me going for another week or two before I eventually gave up. But the incident confirmed what I had begun to suspect even at that age, and what student politics had only served to emphasise: frontal assaults on a problem are seldom a good idea if you want to achieve anything, and the best solution is the indirect attack that in many cases nobody even realises has happened. It’s the outcome that matters, after all, not the theatrics.
I thought of this long-ago incident because this week I was intending to write something about the travails of the Professional and Managerial Caste (PMC), and its miseries and stresses. But I quickly found that the essay wanted to be about a rather different, but related, topic, so I’ll leave that one for another time. This essay is about why so many people are so unhappy at work, and what they can do about it. (Please note the emphasis.) Now, I’m not a psychologist or a sociologist or an expert on systems and organisations, and don’t dare insult me by asking if I’m a management consultant. But I don’t need to be. The reality is that designing and running organisations where people are happy in their work is actually quite easy: it takes much more time, effort and money to degrade and destroy them.
If Tolstoy had been a management consultant, he would have said that all well-run organisations are alike, and all badly-run organisations are different in their own way. And with the usual allowances for cultural and historical differences, he’d have been right. The criteria for running an effective organisation where people are happy are not very difficult to enumerate: most people could make up a list in ten minutes, and those lists would be pretty similar. The essence is simplicity, transparency and fairness. You need a simple and clear hierarchy which enables work to find its own level. You need simple and transparent procedures for recruitment and promotion, such that the best and most experienced people rise to the top. You need simple and transparent systems of remuneration such that people are paid fairly, according to seniority and responsibility, and most of all you need an effective and fair working culture which is shared by all, and does not depend on complex, lawyer-infested books of rules, with exceptions for everything.
In so doing, you work with the grain of human nature. Most people like working in teams towards a common objective, they need something outside themselves to feel loyalty to, and they will generally do an honest day’s work if they get an honest day’s pay. As it is, it has taken several generations to corrupt people into accepting neoliberal methods of working, and even then most of them are not happy about it.
But it remains true that, for reasons of their own, the Inner Party set out some decades ago to sabotage and destroy functioning organisations, and they have largely succeeded. So the question then arises: what can a poor human being do, working for an organisation which hates them, and sees them only as disposable raw material, to be got rid of when no longer useful? That’s what the rest of this essay is about.
The first thing to say is that not everybody who works hates their job, and this fact may give us a few clues by itself. My local butcher, baker, cheesemaker and greengrocer show every sign of being enthused by their work, they take the time to tell you what to buy and how to cook it, and show pride in being a source of expertise for the local community. The carpenter, the electrician, the man who comes to repair the gas boiler, the person who runs the local delicatessen or the local wine shop, the man who runs the local computer repair shop, will sound off at the least provocation against the government, the local authority, property taxes, parking restrictions and lots of other things, but few of them are essentially unhappy in their work. This demonstrates a well-known but little-valued point: that people are a great deal happier at work if they have even a very limited degree of control over their time and how they spend it. It also explains, by the way, why reactive, high-stress shift-work occupations like the police and medical services make their practitioners especially unwell, and likely to die young.
The first step in feeling you have some control over your life and your job, therefore, is an analysis of what freedom you actually have, and thus how you can make your job and your professional life more bearable. (I’m aware of the accelerationist argument that people should be more and more unhappy in their jobs so that the revolution will come more quickly. I don’t find that argument convincing.) In turn, that requires two things. First, it requires a recognition that there are degrees of freedom to be found in any job if you look hard enough. Here, I’m concerned primarily with what are often called “knowledge” jobs, but are better described as “information” or “data” jobs, since they often involve very little knowledge as such.
Now let’s invoke once more the shade of Jean-Paul Sartre, and the broad outlines of Existentialism. I suppose nothing could be more foreign to our present culture than the idea that in life we have a series of free choices, and we are responsible for them and their consequences. In a world where everyone is a victim and no-one is responsible for anything, that’s almost literally heresy. But we then have to ask how practically useful to us, in reality, is today’s ethic of complaint, and futile appeals to “rights.” Does it actually help us to survive and retain our sanity, working in an organisation that hates us? Does it make us happier? I think the answer is obvious.
When Sartre said that we are “condemned to be free,” he wasn’t employing Gallic paradox or irony, or at least not mainly. His bleak message was to stop pretending: in any situation, even the most extreme, there are always choices open to us. The prisoner being led out to execution has a choice in how he or she dies, and what their last thoughts and words are. In most cases, “I must,” “I have no choice,” or “I’m forced to,” is simply a lie, and the person we are lying to is ourselves. The argument “I hate getting up to go to work but I have no choice,” is not a real argument, since evidently you can just stay in bed. What you are really saying, often, is something along the lines of “I had better get up and go to work or I risk losing my job, which I hate, but brings me things that I value like money and status and allows me to live in this house with my family and have a car and holidays, and I’m not prepared to go through the enormous stresses and difficulties of trying to live in another way. So in practical terms, I have to go to work.” This is at least honest, and all the more so when, for example, you work in an insecure minimum-wage job where not working could involve literal starvation. Even then, though, says Sartre, you have a degree of at least theoretical freedom, so be honest with yourself.
So the next step is to work out what the problem is, and thus where, if anywhere, the potential freedom lies. If I think of all the people I’ve met over the years who are unhappy in their work, what’s striking is the sheer variety of reasons and the ways they are described. I’m in the wrong job. The job has changed in ways I don’t like. I don’t mind the job, but I hate the company/the organisation/the management/my boss. It was OK until the organisation was merged with another one/new people were brought in. There’s far too much work and the pace is relentless. I want a salary increase. The salary increase isn’t worth the extra stress. I don’t believe that what I’m doing is useful. I used to believe it was useful but I don’t now. The hours are ruining my marriage. The commuting is killing me. And so on and so on for perhaps a hundred different variations.
Which suggests two things. First, that the category of “being unhappy at work” isn’t actually very helpful. It’s a bit like going to a doctor and saying “I don’t feel well.” The other is that it’s possible to distinguish between different things that you can affect, if not change, to different degrees, in different contexts. For example, few doctors or teachers complain about their choice of career as such. In general, they are highly committed to what they are doing, and are furious with all the things that stop them doing it. Most people who work in the public sector feel some sense of this, especially when they are in direct contact with the public. Even a tax lawyer working to help the rich pay less tax may derive a professional satisfaction from using their expertise and professional skills. The worst kind of job to have, it seems to me, is a job that doesn’t have any useful, or even quantifiable, by-product: similar to what David Graeber described as “bullshit jobs.” You can argue, I suppose, that advertising and public relations do actually involve skills and expertise of some kind, and can produce results. But imagine landing the post of Chief Monitor of Diversity Monitoring Initiatives in a large organisation. No matter how well paid you may be, you must know perfectly well that you contribute less to society than the ethnically diverse team of female cleaners who come to work for minimum wages once you’ve gone home. It must be genuinely hard to remain sufficiently auto-brainwashed to feel you are doing anything of importance
The second point is based on what Sartre had to say about authenticity. Put into this case, the question becomes: who am I doing this for? Now, the trite answer is along the lines of, I need a job, I need to support myself, I need to support my family, and so on. But that doesn’t explain why you take on extra work, why you are nice to unpleasant people, why you submit to stupid rules and guidelines, why you defend the organisation against its critics, or why you carry out instructions that seem to be senseless. Yes, you can say “I’m afraid of losing my job” or something similar, but that’s not really an answer. After all, you manoeuvred for that promotion, you fought to get that larger office, you volunteered for that project when you didn’t have to. You would have kept your job anyway. Who are you doing this for?
In almost all cases, the answer is that you are seeking the approval of others, or of the organisation you work for. One of the most curious paradoxes of working life is that people will often give their loyalty to bad organisations and bad managers, in the hope of receiving a little respect and validation from them. This is often because we grow up feeling that we have not been given enough recognition by our parents, our school, or others, and so we seek it elsewhere. For a lucky few this can come from individual professional success in sport, entertainment, politics or some other area where recognition is public and individual. For an unlucky few it can come from the neurotic piling up of wealth to make up for the recognition they always thought they were entitled to, but never had. But genuine recognition seems to be a basic human need, which is why well-run organisations understand how to employ it, and that it is often a better motivator than any amount of money.
But most of us will never be individually popular or famous, and these days most of us work for dysfunctional organisations. So, often unconsciously, we seek validation and recognition wherever we can find it, which makes it easy for organisations to manipulate us, but in the in the end also makes us very unhappy. It may be, of course, that you twist yourself into ideological knots, work long hours, volunteer for things and always have the right opinions, and at the end of the day, because you are seen as inoffensive, you are tossed the bone of a slightly higher level job than perhaps you really deserve. But then at the end of your working life, who have you actually been making all these compromises for? Very well: years of polite subservience and agile manoeuvring may have brought you to the exalted heights of Senior Director of Financial Performance Measurement Management, with a decent office and a goodly number of staff. And then one Friday it’s all over, because you retire or find another job, and that’s it. There may be some perfunctory goodbyes and a few drinks, and perhaps, well, that’s your working life over. What did you accomplish? What are you going to do now, What can you look back on, and say you did? Went to meetings, stayed out of trouble, supported the side that was obviously winning? Is there any point in your life, Sartre would ask, where you can say you were working for yourself, and not for others?
I had a slightly unusual working life, but when I finally left the organisation I had spent most of my time with, they were happy enough to see me go, and nobody came to say good-bye. But fair enough, because I had left things behind me, I had influenced events in certain ways, things had happened that would not have otherwise happened, and nonsenses that might have happened didn’t (a point I return to.) And by that stage I already had more things to do outside my formal job than I could easily cope with, and it’s been like that ever since.
Obviously, not everyone will be the same. I’ve known people who are perfectly content with the family, the dog, the grandchildren, the holidays and the gardening, and really have no interest in talking about what they once did in their professional lives. Good luck to them. But a much larger number, I think, find themselves with that constricted life anyway, without necessarily wanting it, perhaps also with an unsatisfactory marriage, not as well-off as they had hoped, nothing to do in the evenings, the children at the other end of the country, and a nagging sense that somehow they could have lived their life better, if they had only known how.
By that, I mean living with a different attitude, rather than necessarily acting differently (though that may happen as well.) For example, a very senior official in my organisation once gently explained to me why the extravagant promises of a glittering career made to me when I was younger were now inoperative. “Your problem” he said, not unkindly, “is that you’re not perceived as being sufficiently dedicated to the management priorities of the organisation.” Now as it happened, I was involved in other things than management priorities at the time, and didn’t think about them very much, and rarely if ever said anything about them. Nonetheless, I said, look, I’m a professional, and I do what the organisation wants, including its management practices. Ah, came the reply: but that’s not enough, we need your full-hearted commitment. At that point, I knew it was time to think of going, because once you confuse a bureaucratic organisation with a church or a political party, you’re in deep trouble. (Needless to say, management priorities subsequently changed.)
Now, one of the most basic choices in any large organisation is between being important and being influential. (It’s possible, but not easy, to be both.) Broadly speaking, being important means that people listen to you because of what you are. Being influential means that people listen to you because of who you are, and often because of your knowledge, judgement and experience. Being important means that you have to be consulted, invited to meetings and have your opinions taken into account. Being influential means that somebody stops by your office and says, look, we’ve got this problem, what do you think we should do? Being important means that, the day after you leave, someone else is sitting in your chair, saying the same things, making the same decisions and going to the same meetings. Being influential means that one day your telephone rings or an email arrives, and somebody says, you’re someone with a lot of relevant experience, would you be interested in …. I know which I prefer, but the important thing is that, like all these choices I’m discussing, it should be a conscious one, and you should assume the consequences. Likewise, you can have a career which is full of variety, even if it doesn’t lead you to the top, or a career in which you grimly cling to the promotion ladder the whole time, inching ever upwards. It’s no good later looking out of the window at the rain falling on the garden and thinking, I wonder what would have happened if I had accepted that difficult overseas job they offered me, but I turned down because I didn’t want to be away when promotions were being discussed?
If we accept, then, that there are always choices, even very difficult ones, the question is how we identify the degree of freedom that we actually have in our professional life, and how we choose to take it, or not to take it, and in both cases how we live with the consequences thereafter. The one thing we cannot do, though, is to deny that a degree of freedom does exist, even in the most unpromising circumstances.
The first thing we can do, is to decide to do a good job. I suppose this sounds almost hilariously old-fashioned now: in the modern world of alienated work, why should you do a good job for an organisation that doesn’t value you? The answer, of course, is that you are not doing it for them, you are doing it for you, and for the perception you have of yourself. Doing a good job when a good job is not expected is a type of resistance, and one moreover which will get you recognition: not from your hierarchy, perhaps, but from colleagues you help and advise, from customers and members of the public that you have treated well, from those, in other words, whose opinions actually have some intrinsic importance. Now notice that by doing a good job, I don’t mean the dreary performative habits of working long hours and weekends, of taking work home, of always being available for anything and never saying no to a request. You can do all of those things and still do a thoroughly bad job. No, I mean simply doing a good job, in terms of hoary old concepts of quality, conscientiousness and timeliness, whether or not you get paid more for doing so. And at the end of your career, or when you leave your job or profession, you can reasonably say that in a very imperfect world, you did your best.
One specific way in which you can do your best and fight back is by imposing yourself on your work, and the pattern of your professional life, to the greatest degree feasible. It’s surprising how many information workers go through their working days on autopilot, with urgent and more urgent work piling up, hopping from task to task, from emails to phone calls to Zoom meetings to chats and back again, although everybody knows that, in practice, this is a stupid way to work. There’s a mass of literature on this, some of which I have discussed, so all I’m going to say really, is that virtually any algorithm that you employ to structure your work and your day is better than nothing, and will help you resist. For example, there’s the simple quadripartite division of work championed by President Eisenhower (though he apparently didn’t invent it.) Essentially, work can be important, urgent, both or neither. Work that is urgent and important, you do now and spend all the time you can afford. Work that is important but not urgent, you spend the necessary time when you can. Work that is urgent but not important, you do now but spend the minimum time necessary. Work that is neither urgent nor important … well, arguably you shouldn’t be doing it. As a junior official I developed the habit of keeping improbable demands made on me in a separate folder, and if I was not reminded with a month, I concluded that my boss had forgotten about them, and threw the papers away.
The point is that any algorithm from the simplest To Do list to the most complex task planning software enables you to impose your priorities and your timetable on your working life, to some extent, and thus reclaim a little of your life and your soul. Rather than being impressed by status and hierarchy (“my boss’s boss needs this next week”!) you analyse your work in objective terms (“yes, but my colleagues need this today”) and work appropriately. And when something really important and urgent arises (“The Minister needs a brief for a TV interview in two hours”) you recognise it and put other things on hold.
Another way is to ensure that you are not just a robot carrying out the demands of others, but that you identify and exploit the room for manoeuvre that you actually have. (We’re back to Sartre’s freedom again.) Outside the theoretical purity of Weber’s ideal mode of bureaucracy, there are always decisions to be made about exactly how to proceed: indeed, some element of personal judgement is actually required if a bureaucratic system is to work efficiently, since by definition not every case can be thought of in advance and detailed instructions laid down. Any half-way decent organisation knows that its managers have to be capable of making their own decisions when faced with an unexpected problem, and not just gawping helplessly. So one prerequisite for survival in dysfunctional organisations is to have your own ideas ready about how to proceed in cases that seem to you significant, and where you believe that there are better and worse answers. So if you are clever and careful enough, you can work slowly and subtly to progressively move things that you care about in the direction that you want them to go. Now we tend to associate policy decisions with important individuals, but in many cases such people merely choose from options provided by others. If you have a well-thought out option to put forward, you can have an influence well beyond your formal importance. Moreover, important individuals rarely have the time and effort to follow up the detail of what they have decided, if they even remember, that is. A junior official with clear objectives who knows what they want, can often modify or even stop initiatives which are clearly not going to work, or do things that will improve the situation, without asking anybody (I’ve done both, and no, I’m not going into details.)
The large proviso here, of course, is that you foreswear formal protests and open confrontation, and that you care only about the final outcome, not the degree to which your ego is polished thereby. Sometimes there may be no alternative to letting important people with their own large egos make stupid decisions, but there are always ways of quietly unpicking those decisions later, in silence and anonymity. And this is really the whole point.
Part of the problem is that most of us go through our working lives—our entire lives, some would say—half-asleep. As a Buddhist might put it, we never see things as they are, but always filtered through our ego. This is the ego that wants recognition in terms of money and promotion, and fears rejection, relegation to the ranks of the obscure preterite, or even losing our job. It is the ego that makes us ask, what can I get out of this job, not what can I put into it? And it is the nature of the ego never to be satisfied, always to want more power, more money, even just a bigger desk in a larger cubicle or a newer car or a more impressive title. And the irony is, you are not working for yourself in trying to collect these baubles, you are working for your ego, and ultimately for those who can give you the baubles that your ego wants so much. Paradoxically, there are probably fewer people unhappier and more insecure than the wealthy, high-flying, thrusting executive who has nearly Made It, lying awake at night wondering if one of his or her scheming enemies is going to get them fired. And at the end of your working life what have you accomplished, and what are you left with, when the baubles are all gone?
Another part of the problem is western society’s historically unhealthy and complex relationship with the concept of work itself. Traditionally, wealth, and therefore social status, was based on ownership of land, and rents gained from it. With the industrial revolution came fortunes which were quickly lodged in investments from which the upper classes could happily live without working. (In the great novels of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is striking how the protagonists, from Proust’s Swan to Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, never do any work.) Working a little in the higher reaches of some bank, as a diplomat, or as a lawyer primarily involved in politics, was acceptable, as not really being a “job,” but anything more hands-on was social death. This attitude has always been especially strong in Anglo-Saxon countries, but these days it is more widely diffused, under the influence of Anglo-Saxon-led globalisation, and countries like Germany and France, with their traditional strengths in engineering, science and mathematics, are seeing a collapse in the number of people prepared to go through the long and difficult education and training required, when they can make a fortune on the stock-market or YouTube without actually “working.”
The idea of work as a self-justifying activity important in itself, rather than just an ego-driven struggle for shiny rewards, clings on grimly in some obscure corners of western society, in parts of the public sector, in parts of medicine, in remote and specialised parts of academia and the media and above all, ironically, among the specialists, often from the working class, who Know Stuff and Do Things, and in many cases keep society going. One of the most curious features of this devaluation of work as work has been the way in which parts of the Left have whole-heartedly embraced it. Faced with the choice between a guarantee of a job and a guaranteed income, they have unhesitatingly plumped for giving people more time to watch TV, rather than giving them something useful to do. This seems incomprehensible when you consider that the origins of the Left were in factories and other workplaces, mining and craft communities, and all forms of social groupings with a common interest. But of course it’s of a piece with the Notional Left’s disdain for the common people, and for any low-status, non-graduate activity which is practically useful and involves actually Doing Stuff. Better to have a proletariat dependent on government support, lobotomised by TV and voting obediently for the Notional Left every few years. People with jobs and incomes start thinking independently, and we can’t have that.
All this is part of a fantasy world where actual work doesn’t need to be done because robots, immigrants or whatever. It’s a world familiar to those of us of a certain age who remember flat-sharing schemes and communes which disintegrated acrimoniously when someone had to do the shopping or take the rubbish out, or even collect money for the communal kitty. But not all societies and cultures are like that. You probably know a version of the Zen parable about the young monk who asks what he needs to do to be enlightened. “Chop wood and carry water,” says the sage. And after? asks the monk excitedly. “Chop wood and carry water.” In other words, there’s an awful lot of stuff that has to be done to keep any society together, and we’d best get on with it, and if we don’t do it properly, we’ll have to do it again. You can see this attitude very clearly in societies influenced by Zen or Chan Buddhism, which have an obsession with detail and perfection. To take Japan, the example I know best, and whose fanatical approach to quality has devastated western industry, who would imagine that driving a Tokyo Subway train could be a high-status occupation? But if you see the smartly-uniformed staff and the pride they take in running a system that has to be on-time to the second at rush-hour, then you begin to understand.
Most people these days work in bad systems, which ironically take more effort to run than good ones. There will always be soul-destroying, physically difficult and unpleasant jobs to do, even after the revolution, and it would be impertinent of me to pretend to comment on how those doing such jobs should think and behave. But it does seem to me that “information workers,” as I have called them, the Outer Party of the PMC, can do things to make their lives more bearable and to recover a small sense of purpose, dignity and even, dare I say, freedom, in the dysfunctional behemoth organisations in which most people are condemned to work today, if only they put their egos away in the bottom draw of their desks.