Find work worth doing
[Editor's note: If you recently lost your job, take a look at Wise Bread's collection of tips and resources for the recently laid off.]
I worked at a non-profit--a local nature center--over the summer of 1979. After we wrapped up our main task, those of us who wanted to were allowed stay on for the few weeks before we went back to college, doing things like trimming branches on the hiking trails, repainting the lines in the parking lot, and working around a very old house that was to be turned into an exhibit on settlement-era homesteads. It was work that was worth doing.
Unemployment was pretty high that summer, and there was a government program called CETA that employed people who couldn't find real jobs. Non-profits could get free labor from CETA, and the nature center did.
Of course, free labor is often worth what you pay for it. Throw in the costs of hiring and managing your free workers, and it's easy to come out behind. CETA was structured to try to avoid those problems--the government did the hiring and the managing. The workers arrived every morning in a government van with their own manager. We were just supposed to to have to let them know what needed doing.
One morning, I was trying to clear brush from around the foundation of the homestead. It had already been cut; I was just hauling the branches over to a brush pile over on the edge of the property. It wasn't hard, but sometimes the branches got snagged on one another, and at one point I asked one of the CETA workers to help me with some tangled branches that two people could just haul together, rather than untangling and hauling separately.
The guy said no. I asked him why, and he said he didn't want to waste his energy.
There may have been a mechanism for getting the CETA people fired, but there wasn't any point to doing so: the nature center got them for free. If they did any work at all, the nature center was ahead of the game.
So, I just shrugged and kept on hauling brush as best I could, yanking on branches to separate the tangle. My example seemed to shame the guy a little, because he relented and helped me haul the rest of the tangle. Working together gave us a few minutes to talk. He asked how much we (non-CETA workers) were making. I said I wasn't sure, but it was less than the minimum-wage that they were getting paid.
(Those of us who'd stayed on from earlier in the summer were not technically "employees." I don't know what we were exactly, but instead of wages we were paid a stipend--not as much money as we could have made if we'd gotten ordinary jobs, but enough that we could afford to spend the summer doing work that was worthwhile instead. The nature center had simply continued our stipend for those extra few weeks.)
He couldn't understand that at all, and I didn't have the words to explain it to him. It's only been in the last few years that I began to understand the difference between work that's worth doing and work that isn't.
I hadn't thought about those CETA workers for a long time until I came upon the fascinating article Doing More with Less by Franklin Schneider. He makes the case for refusing to slave away at a soul-destroying job, choosing instead an intriguing alternative: Provide for your needs by taking full advantage of unemployment insurance and living in squalor. When those means fall short, he suggests that fraud and theft can postpone the dreaded return to work, perhaps indefinitely.
Let me quickly deplore the theft and fraud--crimes that are morally wrong, harmful to everyone, and can ruin your life if you get caught--because I'm much more interested in grappling with the underlying assumption Schneider makes: That the only jobs that exist are pointless, unrewarding ones. If you really believe that, then milking every last cent of your unemployment benefit makes perfect sense, and finding a new job is crazy:
Given a choice between getting a check every week for doing nothing and getting a check every week for flushing 40 hours of the prime of their lives down the toilet, they chose the latter. I mean, what kind of self-hating, masochistic Protestant bulls*** is that?
The fascinating thing to me is the huge fraction of the population that simply accept it as given that jobs are crappy. It's so sad that there are so many people--that entire CETA work crew, for example--who don't know that there is work worth doing. Hang out with working-class folks and you'll find endless variations on the theme that jobs suck, bosses suck, and that the only two good things about their job are quitting time and payday. Their goal to put in the absolute minimum effort to keep from getting fired--and once they qualify for unemployment, they might very well choose to cut back on the effort level and see if they can't manage to get fired and milk that unemployment check once again.
It's easy to see this as a class thing, but I don't think it is. Middle-class and upper-class folks also find themselves in crappy jobs for one reason or another, and among them you can find this attitude in full measure.
Frankly, it's not an unreasonable attitude. If your work isn't worth doing, it isn't worth doing well.
I've always been sorry that I didn't have the words to explain to the CETA guy that there is work worth doing--work that isn't a waste of your energy.
There are lots of ways that work can be worth doing. It's worthwhile to make something that's useful or beautiful. It's worthwhile to help people or teach people or entertain people or comfort people. Some work is worth doing entirely in its own right, and other work is primarily worth doing as part of some larger project that gives it meaning.
The way we structure work in our society makes it easy to lose sight of this.
Schools are a big part of the problem: Most schoolwork is not worth doing. It's an imitation of real work designed to teach some skill or another. But giving children nothing but mock work for 12 or 16 years makes it a lot harder for them to understand that there is real work out there--work that's worth doing.
I think parents also do their kids no favors when they encourage them to take low-skill, part-time jobs to earn pocket money. (Sometimes they do so with the explicit motivation that it will teach their kids the value of work!) Kids will be far ahead of the game if they're taught how to identify work that's worth doing, and how to find a job doing that work. Among other important reasons, it's good to keep them away from the Franklin Schneiders of the world who can't imagine a job that isn't soul-destroying drudgery, at least until they've got some personal experience to teach them otherwise.
It's possible to shake yourself free from those ideas. Start by keeping clear the distinction between work and a job. A job is something that pays the bills. Reserve the word "work" for work that's worth doing--whether you get paid for it or not.
Over time, increase the amount of work you do. That will sound like crazy talk if you're still stuck in the notion that work is the stuff that's so awful that no one would do it unless they were getting paid. But it comes naturally, once you find work that's worth doing.
If you can increase the amount of work you do within the context of your job, that's great. If you can't, look for another job where you can. If you can't find work within the context of a job at all, do work for yourself. Think about what makes work worth doing, and look for those traits in the tasks you perform anyway--much of that work is worth doing. If some of it isn't worth doing, try to do less of that to free up time to do more of the other.
Whether or not work is worth doing seems to have little to do with how much you can earn doing it. Plenty of crappy jobs pay low wages. Plenty of high-income occupations require that you spend large amounts of time and effort on tasks that provide no benefit to anybody. It takes effort to understand what work is worth doing. It takes effort to find that work. It takes effort to arrange your life so that work worth doing becomes a larger part of it.
The thing is, after your family, having work that's worth doing is very possibly the most important factor determining whether you're happy or not. It's worth some effort. One might even say, it's worth some work.