A hundred years ago, most people would work in the office or the factory from about half past eight in the morning to half past five in the evening with about an hour off for lunch if they were lucky. It was often boring repetitive work, but there was a sense of community in what they were doing and a collective identity in the organisation that they worked for. People talked as they worked, they knew each other’s lives, they helped each other out. In a way, it was an extension of school. I guess it was that same sense of collective identity and duty that made so many young men volunteer to fight for their country in 1914/15.
Work defined them; they were in it together. They were a community bound by the works or the office. Think of Port Sunlight, Bourneville or Saltaire. They had a sense of pride in being able to put money on the table at the end of the week, a sense of value in a secure job and they had the protection of their trades unions. Work conferred a structure to their lives. When the whistle sounded for down tools or they clocked off at the end of their shift, that was it. They could return to their families, their houses, their local pub or their working men’s clubs. People didn’t just live to work; they worked to earn the money to live; there was life outside work. Weekends were set aside for leisure; supporting the local football team, digging the allotment, perhaps a trip to the music hall, going for a ramble in the countryside, taking the kids to play in the park. The church still featured prominently in people’s lives on Sunday as a moral compass. Look at some of the old photographs of our grandparents; they illustrate a sense of pride, which was underpinned by the work that they did.
Sigmund Freud wrote that people had two major motivations, love and a compulsion to work. But perhaps both love and work both share that important sense of identity. There is something inherently narcissistic in all of us. We want to be recognised for the characteristics that make us different and special. The love of someone we admire enlarges us and the children we produce together represent who we are even after we have gone. That is the fantasy, but we have to work at it, making the most of the good times and enduring the bad. Work also gives us recognition and boosts our sense of self esteem. We achieve a more substantial sense of ourselves through the person we love and the work that we do.
God banished Adam and Eve from their pleasure garden with the admonition that they now needed to survive by ‘the sweat of their brow’. Perhaps that is why work always seemed to represent a penance in our collective industrial consciousness; something to be endured but also escaped. The philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in 1932 that a great deal of harm was being done by a belief in the virtue of work and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work. A year or two earlier, the economist, John Maynard Keynes had predicted that with greater automation we would soon be working a fifteen hour week. Well, 70 years on, many of us are working a 50 to 60 hour week. And all too often l too leisure is packed full of more work. Many young people leave work to sweat for an hour on the treadmills in the gym.
Since the nineteen fifties, the way people work has changed. Manufacturing industry has declined and where it still exists, many of the repetitive operations of factory workers are carried out by machines. In offices, computers and electronic mail have taken over the repetitive tasks that ranks of clerks and typists would have done.
Work may have lessened but it has become more complex and disruptive. Communication is instant and demands so diverse that there is little time to complete one thing before the next arrives and you have to change direction. So by the end of the day, it can feel like you have done nothing, but survive. And there is little opportunity to share the stress with colleagues.
More people these days are working by themselves from home. You would think that might be less stressful, but the reverse is true; they are more accountable, have less job security and less sense of community. There is no longer the relief a communal coffee or lunch break, the companionship of the printer or the photocopier or even the chance aquaintance on the commute into work. Also for women working from home, how do you cope with a fractious toddler when you are trying to draft an important email.
Job security is also a problem. There are always women looking for part time work. Most people live their life in debt and rely on their work to maintain payments on their house, their car, their television and computers. Austerity and the erosion of capital means that it is all too easy to get into debt and face the threat of losing aspects of lifestyle even one’s home. So people feel they have to work very hard to retain their job.
Work can be immensely stimulating and satisfying if you have enough time to complete a job to your satisfaction. Artists, musicians, writers, gardeners, chefs and people lucky enough to love their work, the time and effort is not a problem; their work is their identity, which they constantly reinforce. People want to be seen to work hard. My father once made himself the object of mockery with his riposte to mother; Yehudi Menuhin was a good musician, but I am a good insurance inspector. Perhaps he had a point.
Unfortunately, few people have the good fortune to do jobs that are so personally fulfilling, but they may nevertheless find a job where they can express their personality and connect with other people. The satisfaction and meaning of work is eroded if we are controlled by another’s agenda. The secret is to find a job that can define and enhance who we are. We are happy if we are doing what we enjoy; tense and unhappy if not. Productivity without meaning is a living death.
Perhaps people tend to work harder these days because they have less outlets for self definition. Work is who we are, but if we are not recognised, not seen or valued or have too many things to do for other people, then we feel worthless and get ill.