Addressing our changing relationship with our work

In this blog entry, Peter Fleming, author of Resisting Work, addresses some of the consequences of too much work.

When 21-year old banking intern Moritz Erhardt died in his London apartment in 2013, it attracted worldwide attention. What was so disconcerting about his death was that it followed 72 straight hours of stressful work. Reports of the banking culture discovered firms gleefully celebrating such arduous displays of commitment. Working incredibly long hours was a badge of honor.

Erhardt’s parents stated that they had become increasingly worried about their son’s lifestyle, noting how his emails were sent at unusual times, 5am or even worse. A story in the London Evening Standard cited how the intern worked “crazy hours” because “he felt under intense pressure to succeed.” Meanwhile, the Independent wrote about the “furore that developed over long hours and macho culture at banks.”

In January 2014, Li Junjie, a 33-year old investment banker for a large U.S. firm jumped to his death from its high-rise tower in Hong Kong. The story was reported in the Daily Mail and on Alex Jones’ Infowars.com  Reports suggested that he had a rather stressful job, but it was news of an impending financial crash that had prompted this awful act. The wave of banker suicides in 2014 has shocked many of us, with some large firms even banning its employees from using email after hours so they can unwind. But the fact remains, why would someone take their jobs so seriously that they can contemplate ending their life when something goes wrong in the office? How does such a lack of perspective come about?

Resisting Work_smResisting Work seeks to challenge the overly sunny reputation that work has gained in our society of late. It suggests these two sad events tell us much about how a growing number of people approach their jobs in the post-industrial workforce. Many of us have become completely wedded to our work. Whereas our grandparents could ‘switch off’ after leaving the office or factory, workers today no longer see their jobs as something they just ‘do’ among others things, but something they ‘are’. While suicide and death-by-overwork are extreme cases, my book reveals numerous examples of people in similar situations who see their jobs as everything, who cannot switch off, are unable to holiday and even destroy personal relationships for the sake of it.

I hope to show that this changing relationship with our work – and some of its deeply negative consequences – is no accident. Using historical analysis, I demonstrate that it represents a new configuration of power that is symptomatic of the neo-liberal economic paradigm, which tends to glorify work as the highest virtue. But here is the rub: if we actually had pure neoliberalism in the office – say, complete individualism, no state regulation, rampant competition, no mutualism or open co-operation – absolutely nothing would get done. Neo-liberal ideals are completely chaotic when actually applied in most employment settings. As a result, corporate capitalism requires us to be fully present, socially resourceful human beings in order to pick-up the slack. We need to live with its problems and employ our whole persona to deal with them. This I call ‘biopower’, whereby life itself is literally put to work.

All of this sounds bleak, and it is. But the true focus of the book is about how we might resist work today. Given the above trends, this is easier said than done. For how might we oppose ‘biopower’ when our jobs are now somehow tied up with our very sense of self, our identities and personal worth? And what would a world without work actually look like? I argue that a new resistance moment is emerging in post-industrial societies and beyond that seeks to put work ‘in its place’. However, unlike older conceptions of employee resistance (such as the strike or sabotage) which tended to call for more, better or fairer work, these newer forms of opposition seek to escape the paradigm of work altogether. It does not view our over-attachment to working as a natural part survival, but as a political construction that we now live as if things had always been like this.

I give many examples of this new anti-work movement. And it is for this reason that I really admire a moving study by Bonnie Ware, a nurse who cares for the terminally ill. She recently reported on the most common regrets people had when close to death. First and foremost was not being true to themselves, living a life that was not authentic. A close second, however, was the regret that they had worked far too much. From the perspective of near death, all of that labor and worry seemed such a waste. For these patients, it is too late. The central question of this book concerns the following. What about us? How might we embody this final epiphany throughout our entire lives, and what might an alternative to work look like?

 

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