It’s strange to watch the news coverage of the unemployment crisis in the United States right now. The word “jobs” has become a simplistic mantra. We need to create jobs! Where are the jobs? Yet, as everyone who has a job knows, there’s nothing simple about modern employment.
A good job is a wondrous thing, and can form the foundation of a meaningful and satisfied life. But many jobs turn out to be irrational at their core, and even the best jobs are riven with conflict. There’s no doubt that our current 9.1% unemployment rate is a serious economic crisis. But for some people, the first day of a new job is the beginning of a different kind of crisis, and you won’t find coverage of this crisis on any blog or cable news show.
As a software developer with marketable skills, I’m fortunate to have plenty of job options. I know that some people who struggle for employment think I have it easy. But I also struggle hard to balance my personal life with the requirements of my work. A typical software job means a commitment of five long days a week, with constant demands for overtime work, and only two weeks of vacation a year. Two weeks of free time a year!
Amazingly, most software developers blindly acquiesce to this unreasonable level of commitment, often for little satisfaction or appreciation in return. They take out their anger and resentment by goofing off on the job, developing negative attitudes (“this job sucks”), doing shoddy work … and yet they’ll still set their alarm clocks and trudge off to their cubicles every day. Some of them even feel guilty if they ever arrive ten minutes late, or if they only work straight hours and don’t put in the overtime that’s invariably expected.
Amazingly, they’ll sacrifice deeply significant family or personal events to keep their mundane commitments. I’ve seen software developers missing their own kids’ performances in school plays, or momentous family gatherings, just so they can sit at their desks playing sad games of solitaire while the boss isn’t looking. I know software developers who get absolutely no exercise, who never go to a play or a concert, who never climb a mountain or swim in an ocean or walk through a park. This is pathetic, and yet it’s the American way.
Myself, I’ll work long hard hours, long days and long months — but I’ll only do it for a goal I believe in, for a project that’s worthy of my sacrifice. I won’t give up my time for appearance’s sake, and I won’t keep a job because I’m afraid of not having one. I work most often as an independent consultant, though I’ll sometime take a full-time job if a particular opportunity excites me.
These exciting jobs do come my way, but when they don’t, I’m happy to work less and enjoy the time off. I’d rather earn $80,000 a year and have some freedom than earn $120,000 a year and be miserable. It amazes me how many of my co-workers are unable to make the same kind of decision, though they sometimes tell me they envy me for the decisions I’ve made.
I once had a revealing conversation with a fellow software developer about a consulting opportunity I’d been negotiating. I told my friend: “they offered me $15,000, but I bargained them down to $10,000”.
My friend gave me a strange look. “I think you’re bargaining in the wrong direction.”
No, in fact, I knew what I was doing, though my friend was unable to understand. What I meant was, this employer wanted $15,000 of commitment from me in a short time period, and it would have made my life unbearable to have accepted this offer on this employer’s terms. I had to chisel down the requirements so that I could work less, earn less and enjoy my life during the period that I’d be doing this work. I wasn’t ever able to explain this to my friend, and I guess he still thinks I’m the one who’s confused. He’s probably at his cubicle playing solitaire right now.
Henry David Thoreau wrote these words in Walden, a little over 150 years ago. I couldn’t agree more, and I’m amazed how little has changed.
Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance—which his growth requires—who has so often to use his knowledge? We should feed and clothe him gratuitously sometimes, and recruit him with our cordials, before we judge of him. The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.
Some of you, we all know, are poor, find it hard to live, are sometimes, as it were, gasping for breath. I have no doubt that some of you who read this book are unable to pay for all the dinners which you have actually eaten, or for the coats and shoes which are fast wearing or are already worn out, and have come to this page to spend borrowed or stolen time, robbing your creditors of an hour. It is very evident what mean and sneaking lives many of you live, for my sight has been whetted by experience; always on the limits, trying to get into business and trying to get out of debt, a very ancient slough, called by the Latins aes alienum, another’s brass, for some of their coins were made of brass; still living, and dying, and buried by this other’s brass; always promising to pay, promising to pay, tomorrow, and dying today, insolvent; seeking to curry favor, to get custom, by how many modes, only not state-prison offenses; lying, flattering, voting, contracting yourselves into a nutshell of civility or dilating into an atmosphere of thin and vaporous generosity, that you may persuade your neighbor to let you make his shoes, or his hat, or his coat, or his carriage, or import his groceries for him; making yourselves sick, that you may lay up something against a sick day, something to be tucked away in an old chest, or in a stocking behind the plastering, or, more safely, in the brick bank; no matter where, no matter how much or how little.
I sometimes wonder that we can be so frivolous, I may almost say, as to attend to the gross but somewhat foreign form of servitude called Negro Slavery, there are so many keen and subtle masters that enslave both North and South. It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself. Talk of a divinity in man! Look at the teamster on the highway, wending to market by day or night; does any divinity stir within him? His highest duty to fodder and water his horses! What is his destiny to him compared with the shipping interests? Does not he drive for Squire Make-a-stir? How godlike, how immortal, is he? See how he cowers and sneaks, how vaguely all the day he fears, not being immortal nor divine, but the slave and prisoner of his own opinion of himself, a fame won by his own deeds. Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.
It’s especially deft of Thoreau to point out that what most often motivates this modern form of slavery is not want of money but pride, or fear or embarrasment. I know many software developers who sacrifice everything for their mundane jobs even though they don’t actually need all the money they earn, simply because they are too timid to seek arrangements that break familiar conventional patterns of employment. For these lost souls, the magnetic ID badges that open their glass workplace doors are the only keys to identity in the world.
The psychology of work is infinitely fascinating, and one could spend an entire Labor Day weekend reading various worthwhile points of view about it, from Timothy Ferriss on the Four-Hour Workweek (now that’s an idea I like) to Mickey Z. on the history of labor protest movements to Sara Horowitz on the freelance surge (which is, I hope, an increasingly popular trend).
Despite my dislike of mundane workplace conformity, I am sympathetic above all to the 9.1% of Americans right now who want a job –any job — and can’t find one. Is it possible that we as a society can rethink jobs in a way that helps both those who have work and those who don’t? For instance, why can’t it become an accepted option to work three days a week, with eight or twelve weeks of vacation a year, so that each job currently held by one person can be shared by two? Each of the two would earn less, but this might not be much of a crisis after all. Many employed people earn more than they need, and waste their excessive earnings on dumb diversions to help drown their sorrows.
If many people worked fewer days each week, and fewer weeks each year, they’d also have more time for leisure activities, which would help to create jobs. More flexible and englightened workplace arrangements designed to allow Americans to earn less and enjoy life more could help all of us — those who currently have jobs and those who currently don’t. It’s worth thinking about, wouldn’t you agree?