1. exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something; labour; toil.
2. productive or operative activity.
3. employment, as in some form of industry, especially as a means of earning one’s livelihood: to look for work.
4. one’s place of employment: Don’t phone him at work.
6. of, for, or concerning work: work clothes.
7. shaped and planed; working.
verb (used without object), worked or (Archaic) wrought; working.
8. to do work; labour.
9. to be employed, especially as a means of earning one’s livelihood: He hasn’t worked for six weeks.
On meeting someone for the first time and discovering their name, the next question, if not, “where are you from?” will probably be, “what do you do?” Which is reasonable enough, but their answer will probably become the thing that defines that person in your mind from then on: Paul the teacher, Sarah the solicitor, John the receptionist, Sam the cleaner or Chloe the chef. This labelling process doesn’t seem unfair when we are expected to prioritise work above the other elements that make up our lives, even if they mean more to us (Don’t phone him at work).
Many believe that a strong work ethic gives value to your life and hard work helps to build character, (David the politician) and that anyone can make something of themselves if they just pull up their boot straps and put in some hard graft (earning one’s livelihood: to look for work). This may be true for the numerous people that have trained for many years and spent considerable amounts of money to be able to achieve their career goals (Helen the Doctor). But for many of us, the jobs we do are not the thing that gives meaning to our lives (Tim the Paper Stock Sales Executive, Randall the Video Store Clerk) instead valuing the activity that happens away from the 9 to 5 (or 10pm to 6am) schedule where they can become: Nicola the drummer, Les the singer, Luke the sculptor, Richard the Dad and Vicki the dancer.
For legions of people, being defined by their occupation is a depressing thought. It reflects the fact that their job may be banal and pointless whilst also probably an absolute necessity for them to afford an existence – let alone cover the cost of the things that actually make their lives bearable. But the alternative to work is poverty and being shunned as work shy or a shiver (He hasn’t worked for six weeks).
From my experience, most jobs are tolerable as long as you get on with the people you work with. If office/shop/warehouse/café/sweatshop morale is high, it is amazing what you can put up with: the daily monotony, the repetitive tasks, the irritating customers, the humiliating uniforms, empty company core-values, the long commute. All of these aggravations become infinitely more bearable when you can share them with a group of people who all treat each other like human beings. This rapport is similar to being part of a football or volleyball team, rambling club, playing in a band or other pointless activities which have no financial benefits.
In contrast, the most unpleasant working environments I have experienced have been dominated by incompetent managers who consider those below them as plebs, consistently blaming them for their own mistakes and assuming credit for successes largely achieved in spite of, rather than due to, their involvement. Under these conditions, simple tasks become arduous and work soon becomes toil.
Outside of the work setting, it is incredible how much energy we are prepared to invest in into an activity we enjoy, even if we are not receiving any financial incentive for our labour. Maybe instead of putting all of our time, energy and enthusiasm into our soulless jobs for someone else’s profit, we should focus our energies on the people around us and form stronger relationships with them. Whether they are our neighbours who we never speak to; or the people we share our the commute to work with every day without acknowledging; or even the people with even shitter jobs than us, who serve and prepare the coffee and sandwiches we need to get through the day. We need to start rethinking how we treat each other and make use of our time, because in the not too distant future we will all be made redundant. All our jobs will be automated, and only a small number of highly trained technicians will be needed to service the machines. With all this spare time on our hands we will need better ways of identifying each other than what we used to do for money.
I better stop day dreaming and get back to work (productive or operative activity).
This essay was included in the exhibition catalogue for WORK, a performance and group exhibition curated by Stabbing Les in 2016.
It was also included in Our Daily Bread: Some Thoughts on Earning a Crust, a publication that accompanied the exhibition Workforce, at the NewBridge Project in 2019.