Real Work

I’ve been busy — teaching a three hour a day class, and working on projects at home (yesterday it was the drainage system around the house and pulling stumps) is time consuming.   Yet it isn’t stressful or exhausting.   I think that’s because at a fundamental level, the work I’m doing is real.

This morning I reflected on the nature of work, particularly my experience of work, as I was carrying stumps pulled from the ground to a pile of stacked up branches, plants, and raked sticks we burnt.   Between digging in a muddy trench (we have an excavator, but have to dig to assure the right incline, and where power lines are), I ended up covered in dirt head to toe, strained my left upper arm muscle (rejecting help carrying a stump that in reality was a tad too heavy for me alone), and had sweat out what must have been gallons of water.

Yet I did not feel like I had been doing anything unpleasant.  I was physically tired, but not in a “thank god this horror is over” way, but “OK, we got a lot done, time to shower and get to class.”

Last night I was up until 1:00 preparing for the class.  I re-read the assigned reading, thought about various topics and how to discuss them, then did some work to look up side theories and evidence that might be useful.   When I went to bed I did not think “thank god that’s over.”   I found the work to be interesting and enjoyable, especially reading the daily student papers.  I was playing with ideas in my mind from the readings as I drifted off.

When I prepared dinner, put the kids to bed (an an hour and a half routine involving a bath, then laying with each one for awhile — not endorsed by Super Nanny, but it’s a chance to lay down and rest!), I realized that I don’t mind that work either.  It’s part of being in a family, it has meaning to me.

One topic of the reading lately has been labor.   Marx’s theory of alienation was a theme, and for yesterday we read about Fordism and post-Fordism (assembly line manufacturing, replaced by service sector employment).    I can’t imagine what it would be like to spend all of life working on an assembly line.    I did that for a summer at a kitchen cabinet factory, and it was the knowledge that “I’m getting my degree to get away from this” helped spur me to get through that summer!

I have come to appreciate that I am one of the lucky ones who have real work.   By that, I mean work that I enjoy doing for its sake, and have as much control as possible on how I do it — I can be creative and innovative, and change my routine.   This morning with the outdoor work I set my own pace, could leave for a few minutes if I wanted to, rest when I felt I needed it, and had no stress or pressure to do anything at a particular pace.   It was great to be outdoors on a sunny day, and I really appreciated the beauty of our woods.   I felt like I was part of a meaningful project — a marriage of materialism with a sense of spirit from nature and family.

At night I was reading for class, on consumerism and the economy — topics of interest to me, knowing my job would be to work with students to delve into these concepts.   With a group like the ones I have this summer, that’s fun.

To be sure, my paying job isn’t completely free.   There are specific time frames when class must be held, certain standards for grading and course content.  There are academic policies, and sometimes meetings I’d rather not attend about minutiae like how the academic departments are organized (evoking a reaction where the level of emotion is inversely related to the importance of the issue).   But I can choose my books, my methods of teaching, my way of grading students, my standards for class room conduct, and I can try new things.  I can be creative and spontaneous, there is no stress.

Most people cannot do that.  Demands from the boss, the competition with others, or just the stress of a work day where people have to multitask and deal with a variety of little stresses pile up.   Real work is not a particular kind of work, but an orientation to work.   As such, real work is not contained within the work alone; it includes both the nature of the work and the orientation of the worker to the task.   A contractor who works on remodeling homes and can use his or her skill and creative juice is doing real work if it hasn’t become a boring routine or stressful because of so many clients or demands.     A job like landscape architect certainly has a greater likelihood of offering a platform for real work than work on the assembly line, but it still requires the right orientation from the person doing the work.

I know of college professors who find their job too demanding and feel stresses and anxieties that I do not.   And, of course, if I had been complaining about the work this morning, I might have experienced it differently.   Misquitoes were biting, my body aching; if I felt I was there by compulsion to do a project I really didn’t want to help with, then it would have been less real.

It seems to me that a task for people to undertake is to think about how they can make their own work (at home or office) more “real.”   Are there ways to take control, to change attitude, to find releases for creative and interesting activities?  And if not — if things are so structured and constrained that the alienation is insurmountable — to look for an escape.    At home it’s more likely that people hold themselves back by their attitude towards their work “I wish I didn’t have to do this for the kids, for my wife, or because guests are coming.”  At times it could be an over demanding spouse or family.   For the former, try to make it real with the right attitude.  If it’s the latter, then it’s time for a family meeting.

Still, we’re in a culture where alienation in the work place is a mark of efficiency, and in many jobs finding meaning can be elusive.   Modern practices of controlling employee behavior can be dehumanizing and cause intense stress and alienation.  Personally, we need to claim our own sense of meaning in our work; politically, I think we spend too much time thinking about the material aspects of work (wages and benefits) and not enough on whether or not we’ve got a work culture that encourages authenticity — real work.

In general, the more hierarchical and exploiting the work place, the greater the chance of alienation, with work as unreal, disconnected from anything meaningful to the self.    You might be bribed to accept it thanks to a high paycheck, but if work is meaningless, the risk of alienated boredom increases.

  1. #1 by Lee on July 21, 2009 - 12:25

    A great post Scott! I have decidedly mixed feelings about my paying job. It provides a useful and necessary service to others and pays our family bills. But it is really mundane in some ways (OK a lot of ways as I deal with government paperwork for housing). I used to run a painting and cleaning business on the side before the children came and I often felt more satisfaction from turning over a pristine unit to the management companies that hired me. There was something tangible about what I was doing. There isn’t that in my job at present. Just ever increasing mounds of paper and regulations.

    My “home” job with the kids I love. I feel that the time I spend with family is some of the most meaningful in my days.

  2. #2 by Mike Lovell on July 21, 2009 - 15:42

    To be honest, I’ve always valued physical labor….to a degree. While most people dont consider working in a restuarant kitchen physical labor, try doing it on a 95 degree day, with little to no ventilation,a nd hot stoves, fryers, and the dishwasher running constantly. It never paid well, but I enjoyed it. I even liked siding houses, and I remember spending time in “my” ravine growing up, oftentimes clearing out brush and dead branches as part of some greater plan of mine. I always came away realizing I got some great exercise, and accomplished something.

    Most times, in the “real world”, no matter how hard or fast you work, you make the same amount of pay, and the work never really ends, where you have to search to set what you deem accomplishing something.

    At some point, I’d like to go into business for myself. I’ll let someone else do my PR work and paper stuff… I want to know that whatever it is I’m doing, makes a difference, if only to me.

    • #3 by Scott Erb on July 21, 2009 - 20:32

      When I worked at a pizzeria in high school our air conditioner went out. The first day wasn’t so bad because customers turned around and left when they felt how hot it was — we did mostly take out orders. But the repairman only had time to fix the dining room AC and so the second day as I was running four ovens (not the nice conveyor belt ones, but the old Blodgett ovens where you pop bubbles and wear scars home), I put a thermometer by my work area. It read 125 degrees. To be sure, that was only right as I was working the ovens (cutting the pizzas or not having them open helped), but I think I sweat and drank gallons of water and soda that day. I still wonder how customers felt seeing a sweat drenched worker cutting their pizza. Our local pizzeria has a couple of those old Blodgett ovens…if I won the lottery I’d buy one 🙂

  3. #4 by henitsirk on July 21, 2009 - 19:11

    I worked in an electronics factory one summer in college; I’ve worked in many white-collar office jobs; I’ve been a white-collar supervisor; I’m currently working freelance at home; and during some of that time I have also been raising my kids and helping to take care of our home.

    So: lots of kinds of work. Most of it quite un”real”, unfulfilling, unproductive in any real sense. In my current work, I am very free. I can choose my clients, to some degree I can choose my assignments. I can certainly choose when and where I work, other than agreeing to meet the deadline at the end. There are agreed-upon parameters for the work I do, but I am free to fulfill those parameters in any order I choose, as long as the finished product fulfills them.

    On the down side, there is as much stress as I will allow in terms of job security, financial security, lack of benefits, lack of retirement investment, lack of unemployment and social security investment, etc.

    But in the end, what I do helps create books. Real books that you can hold in your hand and read. I love that part. Someday I’m sure I’ll be involved in publishing electronic books (I’ve done that as a volunteer to some degree, with Project Gutenberg), which won’t be quite the same, but at least it’s still a useful service.

    As for housework and child rearing, sometimes it all really is in the attitude. I once read an essay by a woman who is a professional cleaner. She was responsible for cleaning (and/or supervising the cleaning) of a large building. She described how she truly loved cleaning the toilets, because she got a real feeling of completion and satisfaction in all those gleaming commodes! She knew she was performing a meaningful, tangible service.

    Amazing coincidence: my current book is on the labor history in certain industrial sectors of Lyon, France, in the early 20th century, and so Fordism and Taylorism and Marxism and Socialism an the mechanization of labor and all that are in there.

  4. #5 by notesalongthepath on July 22, 2009 - 19:14

    Scott, I don’t think your writing could be more true. My mom loaned me a book I’m reading now, called A Whole New Mind, by Daniel Pink. In it, he talks about the transition from the Industrial Age, through the Information Age, to the Conceptual Age, where everyone will have to use some of their right-brained skills to engage meaning from life–in order to earn a living. He says the six areas we will all be moved into are: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. It’s very interesting and wholeheartedly endorses your ideas.

    • #6 by Mac on July 24, 2009 - 03:32

      So with everybody working in Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning who is going to print his books?

    • #7 by Scott Erb on July 24, 2009 - 15:02

      I’ll have to check that book out. Thanks!

  5. #8 by notesalongthepath on July 25, 2009 - 03:43

    I think it’ll be someone in the Symphony group–a group of people/companies working together toward a common goal.

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