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Posts Tagged ‘work’

One of the most familiar and relatable clichés in recent Western society is that of the tedious office job, which sucks away your life over forty years or so of drudgery, regularly taking up countless hours you could be using to enjoy the only life you’re ever going to get, turning our conscious experience into an ongoing stream of unreasonable bosses and unlikeable co-workers and thwarted opportunities as we live for the weekend.

Obviously it’s not that bad for everyone involved – I quite like my office job and the people I spend time with there. But there’s a reason why the trope is so easily recognised, and why Mike Judge’s Office Space is so quotable and resonates with so many people. Although it’s a matter of scale, just about every white-collar worker will face this to some degree, and it’s become such a prominent part of our culture that in some quarters it’s started to be seen as simply part of the human condition.

It’s not always easy to remember how specific the whole notion of a dreary office job is to us, right now, and how in the long-view it’s a profoundly avoidable thing.

And I’m not just talking about the other trope of “escaping the rat race” by becoming independently wealthy or retiring early after fewer decades than usual of hard work and good luck and smart investments and whatnot. I mean, if you do manage that, then more power to you, go enjoy yourself. But there’s a broader, species-level point which feels frustratingly far away from most of the public discourse.

Think of how many times over society has restructured itself, globally and historically. Think of how many other ways this planet’s billions of occupants have found to work together to get stuff done. And yes, a lot of them have sucked, but is this really a system worth settling on? Have we really already mastered it, so that we should put a stop on all our creative and collaborative urges to improve and organise and rebuild and find more efficient ways to thrive?

It really shouldn’t be unthinkable that substantially better ways may exist to allocate our resources and provide for people’s needs, such that way more of us could spend way more time feeling fulfilled and satisfied than we do currently.

There’s so much mindless toil, dominating the lives of so many, and yet the possibility for carefree and joyful and fulfilled lives is already on display all around. We’re capable of feeling awe and wonder and love and delight and bliss, but we don’t get nearly as much of any of them as we could because of our bullshit jobs. I can’t understand not wanting there to be a radically better way.

Billions of person hours are being spent on undesirable tasks; countless thousands of lifetimes are being squandered on inefficiency.

Imagine knowing all that was going on, and knowing that we weren’t even trying to fix it, or to save future generations from an identical fate.

Can you imagine anything more tragic?

I mean, hopefully you can, because at least people in offices in the developed world tend not to get smallpox or TB anymore.

But still.

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Man, this place has been turning into one big, clunky obits column lately. Stay with it though, I’m making a different point this time.

Jay Lake was a widely acclaimed and fairly prolific sci-fi and fantasy writer. He won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in Science Fiction the year he turned 40, cranked out ten novels and literally hundreds of published short stories, and died today of cancer, just shy of his 50th birthday.

This isn’t another of those “personal reflections on death” posts that I’ve done for beloved pets in the past. I didn’t know Jay at all; my reaction on learning of his death was an “Oh yeah, that guy… I think.” I’ve not read his books; I vaguely recall quite enjoying some of his stories being read to me in the past, but I never explored him enough to call myself a fan. He’s remembered with admiration and respect by people whom I respect and admire. By all accounts he was a great writer and a fine chap, and my thoughts are with his family.

Some of my thoughts, anyway. Other parts of my brain are more self-interestedly and internally directed right now.

***

I’ve been saying for a while now that, whether or not writing is the thing I truly and honestly want to dedicate my life to and try making a career out of, I’m determined to at least give it a go. To spend six months or a year seriously putting the hours in, devoting myself to actually working on this as if it were something I were passionate about, and see where it takes me.

It may not work out, and I may just officially draw a line under it after a brief burst of effort. I might decide, you know what, it’s a fun pastime, there’s some pleasure to be had doodling a few paragraphs of a germ of an idea now and then, but it’s not worth making this The Big Thing. There are other things I’d rather be doing with the bulk of my time.

That could be the end result – but at least then I’d have tried. Not even having a go, to see if I could make a success out of it, is what I feel I’d regret most, years or decades down the line.

Sometimes I think this is a more intellectually honest approach to going about finding one’s vocation. Other times, I feel like I’m hedging, downplaying things, in case I try and I fail and I feel embarrassed at how much I talked about committing to my creative dreams from which I’ve now bailed out in shame and ignominy. Eh, I dunno. The point is, wherever it goes, I’m going to try and do this.

Starting, like, now.

***

I’d been putting all this off until after the move. We’ve been waiting months for the solicitors and mortgage underwriters – and all the other hordes of people who apparently need to get involved when you decide you’d like to go and live somewhere else – to get their shit together, and things are definitely making progress. But my plan to wait until I’m all settled into my nice new study, to arrange everything neatly once life has calmed down a bit, and then start working on the stuff I want to achieve with my time on earth, is a bullshit idea and I’ve always known it. This is the broken, backwards logic of people who buy exercise equipment and then start trying to induce in themselves a habit of regular exercise.

Smokers are more likely to quit successfully if they just arbitrarily pick a moment and say “Right, I’m done,” than if they plan for some point in the future after which things are going to change, and imbue that moment with significance (New Year’s Resolutions are the worst, you guys). Well, this is my arbitrarily chosen moment, somewhat inspired by Jay Lake’s passing, in a way that I hope isn’t crass or insensitive to connect to him. I’m not setting myself up as some kind of spiritual successor of his; I’ll consider myself gloriously lucky and undeserving if I ever approach his levels of success and productivity. This isn’t really about him, after all, and the eulogising should be left to those who knew and loved him.

But it so happened that he was the final domino which stirred me to action. Regardless of what prompted it, I think it’s about damn time. I’m convincing myself I’m busy making other plans, and meanwhile life is happening to me. So I’m starting this today. Because it’s not quite as good as yesterday, but it’s better than tomorrow.

***

It’s important to note that I still mostly suck as a writer. I might be able to decide spontaneously that I’m going to start trying hard, but I can’t apply the same resolve to instantly become good. I’ve got a lot of work and a lot of learning to do, and chances are good that the first results anyone will see of this bold, energetic, self-indulgent tirade about committing to this project, will be a few more badly thought-out blog posts a couple of hundred words long, and regular complaints about how I’m tired and everything sucks, none of which will in any way justify all this hot air.

I will be entirely with you as you inevitably ask: “Really, that’s it? You bluster about grabbing your creative energies by the allegorical balls, and this is the output you were so excited about?”

I’m going to write a lot of unremarkable shite, which should have everyone wondering if I wouldn’t be wasting my time less if I were studying for a qualification that might further my accountancy career prospects instead.

I anticipate that I will be asking myself that a lot, over the coming months.

And I’m going to keep writing it anyway.

Because what if I can fight my way through the amateurish quagmire of mediocrity, and make it out to the other side? What if, after putting in enough effort, I could eventually approach that glorious realm, that promised land: the world of being a writer who occasionally stops feeling like they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing, and whose output is total crap only like ninety percent of the time, maybe even eighty-five?

I can’t pass up the chance to at least try reaching for such a beautiful dream.

***

It starts here. I’ve read enough books and articles on procrastination and creativity to know all the tricks and mind-hacks, at least on an intellectual level, and I’ve made enough notes to remind myself of them whenever I fail to put them into practice (which will be always).

I’m going to get myself a notebook, so that I can always be writing wherever. And also, I don’t know, bigger pockets to carry it in, or something. Actually I can probably type on my phone as fast as I can scribble awkwardly on a notebook while hunching over to lean on my knees as I write. Scratch that one.

I’m going to stop letting thoughts go unrecorded, no matter how banal. Following through on the banal is how you nurture your capacity to pour out the barely above average.

I’ve deleted Candy Crush from my phone exactly two days after installing it, because I’ve learned for about the seventh time that I can’t be trusted to use things like that solely for passing idle moments which would not otherwise have been productively spent, without letting them turn into time-sinks of their own. (See also: Kongregate. Or rather, don’t, if you have anything you need to get done ever again.)

I’m going to have a grown-up and useful and awesome conversation with my wife, about adapting our shared daily routine somewhat around my new stupid obsession in a way that suits both of us, because we totally win at being married.

And most importantly of all, I’m going to reward myself for writing all this with a cup of tea and a biscuit right now.

And then I’ll come back and write something else. And so on.

Seeya.

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The discussion about big corporations paying surprisingly little tax keeps coming back around, and rarely changes in its substance. Every time, a significant part of the discourse is devoted to reminding us that, so long as what they’re doing is legal, companies like Starbucks are simply engaging in good business practice by minimising their tax liabilities.

Regular Joes in the street like you and me, we don’t go paying more tax than we legally have to, after all, and if we had the chance to save a few quid we obviously would. Why would we expect companies earning billions, and with expert accountants on their payroll to find and make use of clever loopholes, to be any different?

In other news which might not seem to be connected at first glance, Education Secretary Michael Gove has called for the docking of teachers’ pay if they engage in industrial action by “working to rule”, and has called the unions organising such action “highly irresponsible”.

Working to rule, if you’re not familiar with the phrase, essentially means doing your job up to the limits of what’s legally required of you, and not going an inch further. If you’re contracted to work until 5pm, you go home at 5pm on the dot. If you’re entitled to an hour’s lunch-break, you drop everything and take not an instant less than three thousand six hundred seconds of leisure in the middle of the day.

The reason that “only doing the work you’re paid for” can, in some cases, constitute significant industrial action – let alone the fact that there’s even a term for it – speaks to how normalised it is for many workers to do more than their job description as part of a regular work-day. If everybody doing no more than the job they’re paid for would do as much damage as Gove would have you believe, you’d think someone might want to look into finding a way of remunerating public sector employees in a way that’s less calamitously broken. Possibly this should even be within the Education Secretary’s remit to look into.

The comparison and contrast, I hope, is clear. Doing the bare minimum legally required of you: When billionaires and global corporations do it to avoid contributing any more to the public purse, they’re savvy investors wisely managing their finances to maximise growth and increase shareholder return. When teachers, nurses, doctors, and other workers contributing their labour for the public good and regularly doing more than they’re paid for do it, they’re irresponsible and should be fined.

It’s a term you only seem to hear from serious politicians when the little guy is fighting back for a change, but “class warfare” doesn’t get much more naked and shameless than that.

It shouldn’t be surprising, of course, because government ministers and people distanced from the level of actual service provision have an innate upper hand. Someone from the National Association of Head Teachers is quoted in that BBC article:

We understand the position of our colleagues in the teaching unions, but our duty to pupils overrides all political or industrial considerations.

And he has a point – obviously the well-being and care of pupils (or those needing medical attention, etc.) should always be kept in mind. But the extent to which we consider these publicly funded jobs vital and necessary means the people doing those jobs can effectively be held to ransom.

If you’re in a union of, say, steelworkers (they still have those, right? We must still use steel, even though it’s the future now?), and you’re not happy with your pay or working conditions, you can go on strike. The company management might not be happy, but that’s kinda the point – and who else is going to care? The public at large isn’t going to give a crap if some steel doesn’t get worked by one particular company. Collective bargaining for the win.

But if you’re directly responsible for providing a public service, then any kind of industrial action risks disrupting that service. A service which could be much needed, even life-saving, and which could be made unavailable to some people in need of it.

The simplest, most headline- and soundbite-friendly way (which, let’s face it, is the way a lot of media outlets are most likely to bother with) to frame any industrial action by public sector workers boils down to: “They’re letting people suffer because they want more money”. Children are going untaught, wounds are going untreated, vital operations are (it’s presumed by extrapolation) going unperformed, because teachers and nurses and doctors are refusing to do the work we pay for with our taxes.

It’s the easiest perspective to take, because the workers are the ones immediately responsible for providing the service – but an instinct to see things this way renders every public sector utterly powerless to preserve their own financial security and their rights as employees, in ways that aren’t similarly threatened for private employees.

If the government made the money-saving decision to abruptly cut the salary of every firefighter in the country by half, those firefighters might not feel inclined to put out many fires until that bullshit was sorted out. The implications could be horrifying – fire is very unhealthy if you eat too much of it, I’ve read – but you’d have to be insane not to support their call for the government to reverse their policy decision, and absolve the firefighters themselves of the bulk of the responsibility for any consequences. What’s the alternative? How far below a living wage would you have to give them, before firefighters stop just being selfish for not doing their job simply because they’re the ones sitting in the truck with the massive hose?

Whether or not public sector workers are driven more by a sense of duty and desire to do good than others, they’re also trying to earn a living, and deserve a chance to do so. If their attempts to fight for that chance are having a negative impact, look a little further up the chain of command before deciding where to place the blame. Look at the cuts to education spending, and the way the NHS is being squeezed and privatised, and think about how much of the blame for disrupted services really lies with individuals trying to support their families and pay their mortgages under increasingly tight and antagonistic conditions.

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Workfare doesn’t work, say the people organising it.

The Department for Work and Pensions have performed their own assessment of the MWA programme (that’s “Mandatory Work Activity” – bit of a giveaway in the name there), and concluded that there’s no reason to suspect it provides any worthwhile benefit to the people it’s being inflicted upon.

Employment minister Chris Grayling has defended the scheme, protesting that the data used in the study was out of date and so the conclusions are no longer applicable, and said:

We’ve found that a month’s full-time activity can be a real deterrent for some people who are either not trying or who are gaming the system. But we’re also fighting a battle to stop claimants slipping back into the benefits system by the back door.

First of all, I don’t know how he can say that “we’ve found” anything of the sort, unless there’s been some other study done into the same scheme which isn’t being reported on.

Secondly, let’s be clear that by “a month’s full-time activity”, what he actually means is “a month of working, full-time, without being paid, with the threat of having your benefits cut off looming over your head if you don’t comply”. Now, I daresay people who are gaming the system probably do find that something of a deterrent, but I’d also stick my neck out and hazard that it’s pretty fucking off-putting for people who are trying to support themselves and their families while they look for a fucking job, too.

This is exactly what I’m sick of hearing when politicians talk about this kind of thing. We’re always being warned about the threat of people cheating the system; there’s rarely a thought spared for people being exploited by the system, such as those forced into working full-time for no pay. Nor for the people being thrown haplessly into the system, when they lose their minimum wage jobs because their corporate employers realise they can save money by replacing them with someone from Workfare who doesn’t need a salary.

This focus by politicians and the elite on fomenting contempt for those among us worst off and least able to defend themselves is as blatant a case of actual class warfare as I can think of. Particularly when – as I keep banging on about – the expense to the country imposed by benefit fraud by the poor is dwarfed by that of tax avoidance by the rich.

Anyway, the case against the Workfare scheme is now supported by common sense, basic human decency, and the only systematic evidence available.

Is anyone listening yet?

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Public Interest Lawyers have put together a handy fact-sheet on the government’s “Back To Work” schemes, known popularly as “Workfare”.

They’ve looked at the policies that are being put in place, supposedly to give people out of work a chance to get back on the career ladder and develop worthwhile experience. They’ve found, like just about everyone who’s paid attention to the scheme in any detail, that the policies are achieving no such thing, and no intellectually honest assessment of the situation could conceivably have led the government to make the decisions it has.

2. The Government is not “paying them… through benefits” to work, as the Deputy Prime Minister has claimed today. Jobseekers allowance ranges from £53.45 to £67.50 per week. It is paid for one specific (and obvious) purpose – to support people whilst they seek employment. It is not remuneration for work, and even if it were it would mean that people on Back to Work schemes would be getting paid as little as £1.78 per hour, often whilst working for some of our biggest retailers. Many of those retailers are now realising that such a scenario is unacceptable and have either pulled out of the schemes or demanded that the Government thinks again.

3. People are not being given a choice. Ministers claim that work under these schemes is not forced but voluntary. This is not correct. The Community Action Programme, Work Programme and Mandatory Work Activity Scheme (the clue is in the name) are mandatory, and jobseekers will lose their jobseeker’s allowance if they do not participate. The Government says the sector-based work academy and work experience schemes are voluntarily, but Cait Reilly was told in no uncertain terms that her participation was “mandatory”.

And so on. It’s beyond abundantly clear by now that the coalition government is being entirely disingenuous in its claims to want what’s actually best for young people and the unemployed. It’s ignored the evidence too many times, and done too much to polarise the issue in a prejudiced and classist fashion with terms like “job snobs” and “scroungers”. If you’re not already rich and powerful enough to be of use to them, the government are not your friend.

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– It’s important that certain facts about US military action overseas aren’t reported in the media. Otherwise the public might get “the wrong idea” – which, in this case, means “an accurate idea”.

– As the government keep telling us, these “workfare” schemes where jobseekers often do entirely unpaid full-time work for large, profitable corporations aren’t compulsory. There’s a voluntary work experience scheme in place. It’s just that, if you refuse it, you may be put on a mandatory one.

– Apparently both passive-aggression and actual aggression are among the standard ways in which elected officials interact with the general public. How reassuring to know we have people representing us who hold us in such high regard.

Tim Harford for Chancellor.

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I saw Dan Pink’s TED talk a while ago, and just recently finished reading his book Drive. They’re both about the “science of motivation” – research into what tends to influence our behaviour, what makes us more or less driven to be creative or productive, that kind of thing.

It’s fascinating stuff, but I’m trying to bear in mind that it’s also important. This research into human motivation is stuff that matters, as well as being full of quirky and interesting results you can amuse people with briefly in conversation at a dinner party.

For instance, there are some types of work that people will get done slower if you offer them a financial bonus for it. If they’re doing something creative simply for the challenge, they’ll tend to do better than if they were doing it for extra cash.

The whole book is full of interesting and odd pieces of data like this, which make people laugh in intrigued bafflement when you explain it to them.

But it also seems like it ought to change the way we do everything.

And it’s sort of beginning to, slowly. There are some stories in the book about businesses that are starting to let their workers have more autonomy and more of a chance to find purpose in their work, and are realising the benefits of not crushing their spirits with deceptively inefficient drudgery.

A lot of the ideas are quite wonderfully anarchistic, in a way. It gives me a little hope, anyway, to think that we might finally be starting to understand that making lots of money isn’t a guarantee that you’ll be really happy, even if it’s what you really want.

Because it’s true. There’s actual science backing this up. People whose goals involve things like creativity and spiritual wellbeing and becoming part of a greater purpose and all that wank tend to be much happier, when they achieve those goals, than other people who just wanted to get rich, even if those people achieve that too. Scientists have looked at how happy people are and actually figured this out. It’s not just a hippy truism. It’s happening in the real world.

But, of course, understanding that what you want might not be the best thing to want isn’t enough to make you stop wanting it. A yearning for something is a drive to action in itself, regardless of any posited future end result.

You can reason it through, and take action based on the conclusion “If I have lots of money then I will be happy” (and simply ignore the contrary evidence). But even that’s not necessary; a compulsion can simply be for its own sake, without any particular goal in mind. Then you’re not even indulging in the urge to make more money because you think money will make you happy – you’re just indulging the urge because it’s there. That’s how urges work. And they’re tricky to escape from.

I hope we really are getting closer to understanding ourselves. I wonder what that would look like, if we reached a point where we truly believed that non-materialistic fulfilment really would be nice, and knew how to persuade ourselves to attain it. We’d have cured the human condition. And we’d have to start coming up with new and more imaginative ways to fuck things up.

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