We talked with Peter Fleming, author of <i>The Mythology of Work</i>, about our general apathy toward our jobs.
Photo by David Marsh
Like a lot of people, I've had a lot of jobs. I've been a deckhand on P&O Ferries, a dustman, a barman, an administration robot, a security guard, tea-boy at L'Oreal, a copywriter, an editor, a social media wonk. I've had zero hour contracts, I've been freelance, and I've had a salary. None of these things have satisfied me. In a country where the average worker spends 36 days a year writing emails (Londoners receive around 9,000 emails each year), you begin to wonder what the hell work really is.
And as we trudge back to work, it seems like a worthwhile time to ask: What is the point?
Peter Fleming, professor of Business and Society at City University, has tried to answer this question in his book The Mythology of Work. When I met him in an overpriced café in east London, he told me, "The refusal of work movement isn't about laziness." In fact, he said, "it's nothing to do with doing nothing. In fact, if you want to see people doing nothing, go into a large corporation. Some of us are very lucky that our work really is a labor of love, but that's not the case most of the time."
General antipathy for work makes it all the more weird that, if you live in a metropolis like London, the one question everyone will ask when they meet you for the first time is, "What do you do?" Fleming says this is natural. "The ideology of work has demolished all of the other traditional status structures related to religion, artistic endeavor, raising family, and other status symbols within communities. After demolishing these structures we have been presented with a situation that tells us the only thing that matters is the work you do—and therefore you should revolve and center your whole life around that. It's followed the increased individualization of society, which has broken traditional communities apart."
A global survey by Gallup in 2013 broke down employees into three different categories: Engaged (13 percent), Disengaged (63 percent), and Actively Disengaged (23 percent).
Engaged workers are jobsworths, basically: "Someone who goes out of their way to make sure the organization succeeds because they see their welfare inextricably linked to the company's welfare. If they see that something can be done better they will share that information."
A disengaged worker has simply given up; they don't care: "They go from Hell One [home life] to Hell Two [workplace], backwards and forwards. They suffer 'presenteeism': turning up at 9 AM, getting their work done for the first couple of hours and then just sitting there doing nothing for the rest of the day."
If you're reading this at work, that probably sounds familiar.
The actively disengaged, meanwhile, are involved in deliberate sabotage. They "hurt the organization. They see a problem, have a solution, but choose not to offer it. They steal. They hurt those around them. There was a recent case of a city worker, a lawyer, who had put their own shit in the toilet soap dispenser at work, mixed it up with the soap and people used it without knowing. They also hurt themselves, through suicide, or self abuse."
The shitting in a soap dispenser thing is weird and reprehensible, but if you've ever stolen office equipment or are nursing a banging hangover you didn't want on a weekday, congrats: you are the 23 percent.
Fleming also talks about a sado-masochistic strain of working life he calls the "dark economy." It's a part of our culture that allows us release from the slow pain of pointless work—a kind of self-inflicted active disengagement.
"You don't see the dark economy in the official statements by politicians or economists but you see it when a banker jumps off a building. There's a reason the taxation on alcohol is the lowest here than anywhere in Europe, because it's an acceptable way to vent the exploitation process. But the dark economy is the unacceptable—domestic abuse, work-related suicides etc."
Gallup estimates that in the UK, actively disengaged employees cost the country between £52 billion [$76 billion] and £70 billion [$102 billion] a year.
The amount of time we spend at work, even if we are suffering "presenteeism," is more than ever. On top of this, many more companies are now inviting alcohol into the workplace—drinking, as it's known, "aldesko." While drinks in the office on a Friday evening might sound like your boss is just being nice, Fleming is more cynical. He thinks the blurring of work into play and non-work is dangerous. The modern manager "wants to be your friend, and they're actually nice people. It's the worst thing that you can come across. If my manager thinks I'm their friend and I can joke with them, they have created a bond with me that's inescapable. If I want to refuse an order, they will see it as a personal insult, like a friend being jilted. They can rightly say, 'mate, friends don't treat each other like that.'"
The relationship between booze and work used to be so different. Back in the 18th century, employees celebrated Saint Monday—"A customary practice of workers dropping their tools, vacating the factory and getting extremely inebriated on Monday mornings just as the work day was beginning," explains Fleming.
We used to get drunk to piss our boss off, now he encourages us to drink with him.
In his book, Peter uses the term "bio-proletarianism" to explain our current position. "Bio-proletarianism refers to the way in which 'bios'—life itself—is harnessed to the economy. Zero hour contracts are a great example of this. If you're on a zero hour contract you are never unavailable. Let's say you work for an agency that provides bar staff—you think you're working at a bar tonight and you're getting ready, you've paid for your own clothes—then the manager calls in and says, 'we don't need you any more' and you don't work. But you are always poised to work, even when you aren't working. Life itself has become a mode of continuous working or always being ready to work."
So what are we supposed to do? How do I resist work? Fleming writes about a time he got flu and turned that into a relief week from work. We are told work is "good for us," but it is in fact the opposite— sitting is the new smoking.
"The problem of resistance," Peter says, "has been stymied by the economization of the work force. In order to economize, you individualize. You put everyone on individual contracts, self-employed. For example, it was reported in 2013 that 70 percent of Ryanair pilots are self-employed—they have to pay for their uniforms and stopover hotels. We need to re-collectivize and rediscover the power of labour."
Fleming proposes some grand, sweeping ideas to think about: a surplus living wage, nationalized industries, a three-day working week, and de-fetishizing work.
But firstly he wants us to understand what is wrong, why we are working so much, and to engage with other people in the same position. "Historically, societies that insisted people work more than three days a week were usually slave societies. We do not need to work more than 20 hours a week."
Now there's a thought.
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The Mythology of Work is out now in paperback from Pluto Books.