Work: What is it good for?

I know. It’s a silly question. What work is good for is shutting up people who ask ‘and what do you do?’ Because here in Australia, not having a readily accessible answer to that question is tantamount to admitting you’re a good-for-nothing, dole-bludging drug dealer with low self-esteem, BPD, irregular sleeping habits and poor personal hygiene. ‘What do you do?’ people ask, and everyone with a job answers not ‘I slop sludge’ but rather ‘I’m an [insert job title].’ Their very identity is bound with their job. They aren’t a human being who sludges out slop for a crust, they are a Culinary Services Operator.

I made it to work early this morning. Since then I’ve answered a slew of personal emails, smoked five cigarettes, bought and eaten a vegemite roll and coffee, done a lengthy crap, handled negotiations for a wedding we’re playing on Saturday and, the only work related task so far, worked out how to login to the telephone. And it’s only 11.30am. Time for another ciggie.

Unemployment is thus identity death. One can be a husband, father, son, friend, mentor, lover, train enthusiast, but without a ‘job’ we are invalid, a non-person, a drain on the country’s resources, a waste of space, a loser baby so why don’t we kill them.

It’s ten years since I last held a ‘proper’ job, that being Customer Service Operator at the DSS/Centrelink, a job offering such immense and fathomless psychological pain and emptiness that, had they run out of large rocks and mountains, it would have made a suitable alternative punishment for poor Sisyphus. Let it roll, baby, let it roll!

Having a job validates one, provides, hopefully, a reasonable standard of living, involves one in social interaction, is, in fact, the major entry point to adult society and, it must be said, is in most cases the perfect way to avoid any sort of meaningful existence. Most jobs are stultifying, an exercise in enforced boredom, the imposition of which ought to be a crime, a violation of human rights, torture.

I made 12,864 key strokes today, 7,365 of which involved logging in and entering passwords and re-logging and password re-entering into the plethora of secure network resources that encompass my virtual work environment. Most of the rest were made writing this article.

The strange thing is, in a country so obsessed with ‘work’, we are equally obsessed with avoiding it. I don’t refer to the much-maligned sickie, the abuse of which apparently robs Australian employers of billions but may in fact be the one thing stopping the country going stark nutjob raving insane. I refer instead to the endless plethora of now Chinese-made labour-saving gadgets that keep our current account in the negative while experiencing the best terms of trade for decades.

Somerville Cartoon

The above Somerville cartoon, ripped from an ad in New Scientist amply demonstrates the deadly irony. Don’t get me started on exercise machines. Ever heard of a sit-up? People have so lost contact with the real meaning of work that even when the doing of their job exceeds the recommended amount of daily exercise, they are unfit. It sounds bizarre, but it’s true. A Harvard psychologist studied some cleaning ladies and found that their daily activities were enough to make them fit but, surprisingly, they weren’t. More surprisingly, when he split them into two groups and spent time informing half of them how much exercise they were actually getting, without changing their habits within a month they were skinnier, had lower blood pressure and they were probably happier.

I answered one phone call today. I couldn’t help her. I couldn’t find the person who could help her. Another day in the public service. Thank god this contract ends soon.

The best forms of exercise entail transport (cycling, walking) or labour. If we could all get over complaining about having to do stuff, if we could cease our endless search for ever easier methods of getting things done, means that usually require a motor, plastic casings, one year warranties and guaranteed rubbish tip fodder in one year and a day… If we could instead realise that engaging in work, while mostly slower and involving more effort, can, if approached with mindful intent, produce benefits that far outweigh those paltry costs.

Let us count them. Greater health and happiness, greater productivity, less energy consumption and pollution, a reduction in our trade deficit, quieter yet livelier neighborhoods, less landfill (less exercise machines of shame under the bed), less car crashes. Is it perhaps just a little too sensible to suggest that we start telling kids in school that exercise is good, but work is better? Instead of engaging in sports that are at best aerobic and at worst a recipe for achilles disasters, fire the gardeners (or better still train them to wrangle kids) and send the kids out with rakes, hedge clippers (non-motorised), forks and shovels. Imagine the beautiful and productive landscapes that school grounds could be.

And next time someone asks you what you do, surprise them. ‘I walk on the mountain’. ‘I ride my bike to the shops’. ‘I stop and smell the roses in my neighbours front yard’.

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