November 11, 2019

Work: A means of identity production AND stress production: Part 1


Something is going to have to give.

At the very time that work has been elevated to a means of not just material production, but identity production, it’s also become the second biggest means of stress production after family conflict.

So we read in The Guardian, the searing truth about work making us feel more and more stressed because of its overwhelming ubiquity.  There is too much of it – for a certain cohort at least.

And we read in The Atlantic the equally searing truth that work is making us miserable because we make too much of it (it is the new religion).

Ok, If the Millennials can blame the Boomers for anything, it’s the elevation of work in the middle to late twentieth century as the primary shaping force in our lives.  And with the advent of information technology, work can, we were breathlessly told by the likes of Bill Gates, be done from anywhere, especially from your home.

Gates should have been more specific: your bedroom, your kitchen, your laundry room, sitting on your toilet at 3am.  Work is the new unseen – and often unwanted – guest in every house.

Now many of the comments below the line in The Guardian article had one big scary boogie monster to blame: neo-liberalism.  And of course there’s plenty in that, when the way in which the system has been put together.  The insatiability of the economic system is deeply problematic as the article reveals.

Many of those in full-time permanent employment are now expected to work staggering hours, frequently without commensurate remuneration. They are expected to be contactable 24/7, to meet arbitrary targets eternally renewed. They are subjected to faddish managerial practices and to feral managers empowered by an amoral ethos that blindly ignores all but the pursuit of a few narrow metrics. People at this end of the workforce often feel they’re toiling in white collar sweatshops.

Yet listen again to David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement address, This is Water, at Kenyon College.  “Anything else you worship (apart from God),” he says, “will eat you alive.” And work is eating us alive.  It’s eating us alive because, as The Atlantic article points out, early twentieth century economists:

…failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. 

So The stats actually show that the average work in the USA works about 200 hours less than they did at the start of the 1950s.  Here’s the graph:

Screen Shot 2019-11-11 at 9.29.26 am.png

So what about the God bit? There are always safety catches to stopping good things becoming God things, right? The primary safety catch of course is of course, God himself!  He stops other things becoming gods.  So a deep view of a transcendent God just makes a whole lot of other things safer to be around, including work, so that they won’t eat you alive.

And the elevation of work to that means of identity production coincides with the drop off in religious observance in the West.  Oh of course church-going still happened, and keeps on happening, but the idea of a transcendent God being a public truth?  That fell away completely. Believe what you want privately, just keep it out of the public square. And the public needed a new god.  And got one in the world of work.

You see, I’m not silly enough to think that private belief in God could stem this flow.  Plenty of God-fearing people are as harassed by the jobs they have to do, even if they don’t always view those roles as their means of identity.  But this is bigger than a private belief.  This is social imaginary stuff.  A culture that has no sense of time outside of its own creation of it – and its own system of deadlines and secular life rhythms, is incapable of providing any balance or safety to the system.   It sees the problem, it wants to talk, but it has no solution.

Besides it’s not actually everyone in every job who’s working longer hours. It’s richer, well educated people who are working longer hours.   I’ve been saying “work” the whole article as if everybody’s work is doing this to them.  And that’s not quite true.  It’s a certain type of work – usually professional, white collar work that has this toxic mix of identity and stress production

In other words, jobs that can, if you pull the levers the right way and often enough, provide huge amounts of identity production for you.  They’re well paid, well regarded careers that sound good as they roll off your tongue when you meet someone at a party who asks you your name and what you do.  They offer a level of transcendence when they work for us.  But when they work against us?  Well just remember, whatever you idolise when it works for you, you will demonise when it works against you.  Don’t believe me?  Just ask any number of clinical psychologists about what their clients are anxious or angry about.  Work is high up the list.

It is primarily these transcendent-inducing very roles that are making people stressed and anxious.  Here’s who’s probably not using their job as a means of identity production: the tiler who is re-tiling your expensive bathroom fit out that identity producing job is paying for.

He – and it’s overwhelmingly going to be a he – is under no illusions about his job and its capacity to create transcendent meaning for him. Create enough cash to eat, pay a modest mortgage, buy a few beers or footy ticket on the weekend, and perhaps that most heinous of crimes (to the white collar person) a family trip to Bali.

Geoff, or Gary, or Grant, whatever his name was, – you can’t remember it -, is standing watching you as you grab a day-care prepped baby in one hand; grab your crammed satchel in another hand; and grab a coffee with your other hand (you paid to have a special third hand grown for you by a poor surrogate woman in India to ensure you could celebrate your work identity.  She will never get to see that hand again).

Geoff will go home that night. And he won’t be looking through tiles.  He won’t be waiting by the phone in case an emergency tiling job isn’t sorted.  He won’t be going online to check out the tiling products that he’s missed, and that if he continues to miss, will see him fall down the ladder at work.  He won’t be looking over his shoulder in case his colleagues are trying to sweet-talk him to his face, and badmouth him to the senior partner.

You’ll be doing all that sort of stuff.  You’ll be sitting on the couch exhausted, with a pile of marking/legal documents in one hand, your iPhone in the other, and a second glass of red wine in that third hand, exhausted and ready to cry.  Geoff won’t have worked harder than you that day, but he will have drawn a line under it, in a way that you can’t – because the job won’t let you, and in a way that you won’t, because your sense of identity won’t let you.

Welcome to your dream, eh?  Welcome to the dream that the guest speaker at the middle fee paying high school graduation service announced to you when they told you “You can be anything you want to be (apart from a stay at home mother). Now go make a difference!”  I’d love it if one day some harassed parent, sitting through one of those graduation services, grateful at that moment for the advent of the iPhone, would just stand up and shout out “No!  No! That’s not how this thing works!”  

The reality is that rather than make a difference, a difference has been made to you.  You got that ATAR result, got into that university course, and got that first foot on the bottom rung of the ladder, and started climbing.  And climbing. And climbing.  And climbing.  Waiting for your head to break through the clouds into the wonderful land of self-actualisation.  And it just never happened.  And even if you do break through the clouds, guess what?  There’s nothing transcendent there.  It just becomes your new normal.  Not that there’s anything wrong with work being normal.

Where to from here?  That all sounds super negative.  Is there any hope? That’s Part 2 in a couple of days…






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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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