Work Less, Contribute More

[Just to preface: I really love my job–that is, the work I do for money. I love it because I like my co-workers, I like what I do, and incredibly importantly, I love that I work 26 hours a week, have every Monday off, and still make enough to add a decent chunk of change to my household’s income. I’m not writing this post to brag–I’m writing it because I am one of the lucky ones, and my case really shouldn’t be so unusual. I believe my current department benefits almost as much as I do from this arrangement, and it should be more common.]

William Morris textile print

William Morris textile print

Work isn’t “work” anymore.

Work isn’t “a good day’s work” anymore.

Work is a Holy Grail for those who don’t have it, and an abusive partner to those who do, telling them, even if their job demeans and short-changes them, that they’re so lucky to have it, because who would take them if they left?

Work is not productive. It rarely “produces” anything of value.

Work no longer defines you–work is divorced from your personality. Work is a thing that takes so much of your humanity from you you must have expensive hobbies and Instagram just to know who you are.

Most of what we call “work” is of little benefit to society, and of no direct benefit to ourselves. We are not growing the food we eat, we are not building our homes, we are not weaving our clothes. Those of us who are employed to benefit our communities in the most direct ways (i.e. those on the public payroll, like teachers, nurses, garbage collectors, public works crews, etc.) are often resented by us for “stealing our tax dollars”.

Now, work means “making money”. If you can make money by taking someone else’s money (or a surplus of your own) and multiplying it through investments or interest or the stock market or some other jiggery-pokery, you are among the most highly respected and well-to-do members of society, even though the janitors in your office probably have to put in a much harder day at work than you do. We accept this as fair even though deep down we know that it’s not.

Work is not fair.

Work is not healthy–work sickens us, mind and body.

Work is not the best thing for your family–you hardly get to see them.

Work does not connect us–if it did, we wouldn’t need so many “team building exercises” in our workplaces. Meaningful work is a team-building exercise in itself, but most of us are not engaged in meaningful work.

Simply working is not an end in itself. If we have worked enough to accomplish whatever it is we need to accomplish, we should be able to stop and go home for the day. If we have become so efficient that we can do what we need to do in less time than we used to, our reward should not be additional work. Our efficiency should not be a reward to our employers, who can now gain more work from less people.

“Jobs” are not natural. If they were, how can we explain the many people in North America working more than one full-time job to support their families? If a job is a natural part of the human-societal contract, i.e. you have a job and in return you are given what you need to support yourself and your family in society, how is it that any full-time job can exist which DOES NOT support you?

Employers profit in bad times. Their salaries and bonuses do not change. They can lay off employees and blame the economy. The remaining employees are scared. They will work more hours for less money. When the good times come back, the employer now has a lean workforce, overworked and underpaid, chained to the employer by fear. They will not raise wages. They will not bring back the permanent full-time jobs they cut. They will accumulate the difference.

Work does not enrich our lives. Work cheapens us, keeps us poor, and makes us dependent on the cheap labour of others in order to afford the things we need and want.

“Growth” is a misnomer. “Growth” is a decline. Our economy does not need to grow for the sake of growing. We are growing our civilization into an early destruction because the planet we live on is not growing with our avarice and ambition.

So what do we do? We’ve moved away from a social and economic structure in which we produce the necessities of our survival. It is unrealistic to expect a widespread return to a time of growing all of our own food, making all of our own clothes, building our own homes, and meeting all of our other needs within our local communities. Many of us don’t know how to “make” things, and so cannot live directly from the products of our labours. Most of us are inextricably linked into a system that involves selling our labour and time to our employer.

So.

Governments should stop being the plaything of wealthy corporations dangling “jobs” in front of them like a bone in front of a dog. Governments should not be compelled to provide subsidies, or green-light environmentally destructive projects, or keep cancer-causing asbestos mines open, just to provide “jobs” to more people.

We don’t need that many people working. We need less people, working less, and making more.

The minimum wage should be a living wage. Those who work the least desirable jobs should make the most money, since they are bearing a burden the rest of us disdain to take on.

There should be no reason for both parents in a family to work unless they want to. There should be no reason for parents to have to leave their children in childcare all day unless they want to. Employers should pay their employees enough to support their families, the way the employee is expected to support their employer.

And what should we give our employers and society in return for this increased financial security and free time?

We should give them what I give mine. I have always been a good, honest, and reliable employee and have striven to do my best in any job I have had, whether I actually liked that job or not. But since my switch from a full-time job to a part-time one, I have realized that I previously had not been everything I could be.

I am more engaged. I spend more time trying to anticipate my department’s needs and trying to become better at what I do. I feel that my department takes good care of me and I want to return the favour.

I am more productive. I work less hours, but the hours I do work are spent working, not refreshing my e-mail. Not waiting for the phone to ring.

I get sick less often than I did when I was working full-time. I have more time to recharge, be physically active, and sleep well, and eat well. I experience less stress. I can go to appointments on my day off, instead of taking time from work for them. I rarely need a sick day, and I rarely experience being sick at work.

And outside of work?

Because I work less, I can go outside more. I appreciate my community more. I appreciate the beauty of this incredibly beautiful province more.

Because I work less, I can pursue a masters degree, and, as it turns out, my liberal studies program is teaching me to be a better person.

Because I work less, I can be a better friend, and a better wife.

Because I work less, I can volunteer many hours of my time to a theatre company that makes art I believe in.

Because I work less, I can write this blog.

Because I work less, I can march for climate justice, and go to Burnaby mountain, and have the time to conceive of a world that is not all about dollars but is instead about common sense. Money will not help us on a dead planet, but you might not have time to care about this, because everyone who works a full-time week works too damn much.

When we work less, we can contribute more, to our families, our communities, and ourselves. But only if we’re paid what we are worth.

We are better than we feel we are, when we’re busy and stressed and all our running just keeps us in the same place. There’s nothing wrong with us. We’re doing everything we’ve been told we’re supposed to do to be happy and thrive, but instead we’re just surviving, and that is not our fault. We are good. But maybe our work is not. We’ve been lied to about work.

Maybe work just isn’t working anymore.

[Endnote: though I haven’t read it in a while, this post likely owes more than a nod to William Morris’ “Useful Work versus Useless Toil”. His vision of work was radical, but also beautiful. To anyone who dismisses labour reform simply because it is “radical”, consider how radical the Industrial Revolution was, with families ripped from the land and forced to live in squalour, working in factories for just enough to keep them from starving to death, all in the name of the “progress” and “capitalism” many consider to be so natural.]

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