Work is for suckers.
The Rolling Stones sold out, most recently, to Bill Gates, to the catchy tune of $12 million. Bill Clinton sold out from the start. Kurt Cobain started to sell out but blew his brains out, ensuring himself a high place in the pantheon of the principled. What constitutes "selling out" for some people--working for a big corporation, changing one's image or work to conform to an accepted norm, being nice to people you hate--is mere pragmatism to others.
More often than not, selling out is associated with work. Usually, those accused of selling out are the ones who have taken jobs that pay well but compromise their professed beliefs. The equation is: Money over Principles = Hypocrisy. But it's a mistake to emphasize only the style of work. Work itself is never called into question. We take for granted that everyone has to earn a living doing boring stuff, except for the few people, like children and bureaucrats, who survive by living off other people's work.
But the fact is that most of the work done by most of the world's people--from the beginning of time, and now more than ever--constitutes a monumental sellout. Why? Because almost no one really likes his job. Because almost no one would go to work if he didn't need the money. Because everyone is all too willing to buy into and adopt the following Assumptions About Work:
The work you do is somehow necessary.
Your work won't be fun or interesting.
Your work will be performed in uncomfortable clothes, in a depressing setting, with people you don't like.
You will receive wages that will barely pay for your food and housing, ensuring only that you will be healthy enough to continue working.
You will do said work under said conditions for two-thirds of your life, after which point, if all goes well, you can stop working, play golf and die.
This is all bullshit. When Thomas More, Chairman Mao and Jerry Rubin suggested that work might not always be necessary, they were not talking about their own times, but rather of some period in the far-off future when technological progress and better social organization would allow everyone to sit around watching TV, building model airplanes or whatever else their little hearts desired. They thought that time was a long way off, but now it's here. Now there are options.
If you don't like doing something, but you still spend most of every day doing it, then you're cheating yourself. If you hate your job--and you probably do--and fantasize endlessly about quitting, then you should quit. Quit the job you hate. I'll say it two more times: Quit the job you hate. Quit the job you hate.
In August 1994, I got a job as a financial analyst at a San Francisco consulting firm, The Spectrem Group. (The name was purposely misspelled, to avoid confusion with another company where they were familiar with English.) Spectrem's clients are banks looking to increase their profitability, either by raising their fees without their customers noticing it or by merging with other banks. It's a very '90s company.
Before I was hired, my boss told me I would set my own hours, take vacations whenever I felt they were justified and dress however I wanted. In short, the only thing that mattered, she said, was that my work--mainly cranking out spreadsheets and charts--got done. In return for my services, I would be paid $32,000 a year. As a cartoonist whose big break wasn't yet on the horizon, I took the job in a windowless, airless office.
After I started, my boss told me that while I could set my own hours, I would have to be in by 8:30 a.m. and leave no earlier than 5 p.m. Vacations were greatly encouraged, except when you actually asked for a day off. Despite the company's rhetoric and quarterly New Age-style retreats where a licensed therapist "analyzed the company's dysfunctionality," in reality what I had was a generic, full-time job.
At first, I had a difficult time learning where everything was and how the computer system worked. But after a few months, I found I could finish all of my work in about two hours a day. This came in handy because I could use much of the remaining six hours engaged in far more personally satisfying activities, like calling newspaper editors, sending out faxes, talking to my friends on the phone and masturbating in the restroom. I learned to schedule my Spectrem work at times when the nosy office manager was around or when my boss wasn't on the phone. I got work done and no one ever complained about my output.
My experience at Spectrem was, I believe, typical of work in the United States insofar as style far outweighed substance. I soon noticed that my superiors at Spectrem--baby-boomer former middle-managers who'd been laid off from various banks in the late '80s, especially Bankers Trust--also worked roughly two hours a day. They used their six-plus hours of "face time" engaged in such pursuits as dealing with their spouses and children, gossiping with one another and planning trips.
Unlike the few jobs that require constant attention, such as answering phones or waiting tables, most desk jobs can be completely finished in a few hours a day. This is America's dirty corporate secret. Even well-paid executives, including an $800,000-a-year managing director I know, admit their real work day is much shorter than the official 9-to-5.
Still, I'd get up at 7 a.m. to be at Spectrem by 8:30. I'd never be home before 6:30 p.m. I'd go to sleep at midnight. So I'd spend 10 of my 16 waking hours--nearly two-thirds of my life--at work or commuting to and from work. I spent six hours messing around, doing my own shit. Only my weekends were truly my own. And that's not even getting into the moral implications of my job: contributing to mergers which cause massive layoffs and bank fee increases that hurt consumers.
In short, my work was a giant waste of time.
I have always suffered from an excessive awareness of my mortality. I feel every second, every minute of my life slipping by, bringing me closer to a horrible death gasping and wheezing on some dirty, crowded sidewalk. Once you can taste your own mortality, and how fleeting it all is, you realize something that should be obvious--there is no greater sin than wasting your time. You will never, ever get it back.
Wasting one's time is usually associated with idleness, but my working at Spectrem was just as bad, probably worse, than if I had used that time to, say, draw all over my body with a ball-point pen. What could be a worse sellout than squandering your life-force five days a week, 50 weeks a year?
That's what I was doing, that's what most people do, and you're a sucker if you buy into it.
The Buck Is Not Stopping
Employers are starting to catch on to the fact that not a hell of a lot of work occurs at "work." Across the United States, big corporations are laying off one worker every 20 seconds. While the official unemployment rate hovers around 6 percent, that number doesn't include "discouraged workers," people who don't even bother looking for work anymore. It doesn't include part-time workers who would rather be working full-time or people who are "under employed," such as college graduates working as secretaries. Full-time workers have become part-timers; professionals have become manual laborers. The fastest-growing jobs in this country are janitor, nurse and food service worker.
Much of what passes for politics these days concerns placing blame and proposing solutions for a shortage of decent jobs that dates back to the 1970s. Lefties blame greedy, short-sighted corporate executives whose tireless search for cheap labor causes them to shrink their payrolls--and therefore shrink the pool of disposable consumer income. Conservatives cite excessive government regulation, taxation and weak public education.
The Left believes corporations have an obligation to employ people they don't need. They don't. The Right and their corporate allies want a more educated workforce, though they can't challenge the workers they already have. Both sides refuse to adjust to a world with fewer jobs.
Jobs are disappearing without reducing productive capacity. The technological advances predicted by 19th-century utopian philosophers have finally occurred; the trend of increasing un- and underemployment ensures we're all going to have a lot more idle time, whether we like it or not. Under such conditions, working for a corporation isn't what makes you a sell-out. The real dilemma is how to learn not to do stupid work when you don't have to.
Resentment Grows, Wages Fall
In 1957, the socialist philosopher Fritz Pappenheim defined alienation as the state of mind that occurs when people are separated from the fruits of their labors. For example, working on an assembly line is alienating because each worker only sees a small component of the final product, and doesn't see each specific item as it's sold and used. My analyst job at Spectrem was a classic case of worker alienation. I only got to see a small part of the final product--my three pages of charts in a 70-page report. I wasn't told what the presentation was for, and I never met the client. When I was able to piece together the overall purpose of the project I was working on, I'd usually discover it was an effort to reduce the expenses of some huge banking corporation.
I resented every single second I spent working at the Spectrem Group. I felt robbed of the few hours I spent actually working. Getting paid to do someone else's work always breeds resentment. Your employer takes away time and energy you might have invested in yourself. Working for a company is like renting--you earn money to pay your bills, but afterwards you've got nothing to show for it. All that time, that huge, screaming chunk of your life--two-thirds, remember--is gone, with nothing tangible or meaningful left to prove you were there. You've poured your soul into a company that sells something you don't care about to people you don't know, and at the end of the day, at the end of the year, at the end of your life, there is nothing to show for it but someone else's profits. You have learned little besides how to best sell a product. Your mind hasn't grown, you've scarcely been challenged, because the decisions you make require little vision or innovation.
Working for yourself, on the other hand, is like buying equity in a house.
The only person at Spectrem's San Francisco office who really worked full, non-stop days, evenings and weekends was the chairman and founder. And why not? She owned the most stock, got her picture in the paper and her name at the top of the letterhead. She was the only one there working for herself. Everyone else was just a wage whore.
In 1973, 57 percent of Americans said they "derived no enjoyment" from their work. By 1992, that was true of 64 percent of us.
If our work is boring, it may be because so much of it is utterly useless. In fact, the number of workers who felt their jobs were not important to society increased from 58 to 68 percent in those same 20 years. Most workers feel nobody would be any worse off if their occupations ceased to exist overnight.
Productivity occurs when value is "added" to raw materials. Wood, for instance, is worth very little, but when used to make the frame of a house, its value-added component--from the architect's design, the builder's skills and other factors--increases dramatically.
In the new post-manufacturing economy, we don't make things, we move them around. Bankers collect fees on checking accounts and loans. Car salespeople are paid commissions for every car they sell. Their soul has nothing to do with their success, only their ability to convince people to buy products--like checking accounts and cars--that they obviously need anyway. Competition between brands spurs innovations in non-value-added fields such as marketing and advertising, but don't cause substantial improvements in the products themselves. In the vast majority of new jobs, there is no relationship between ingenuity and reward--people collect the same paycheck every other week regardless whether they make an effort. People sense they don't add value and lose their enthusiasm for work.
People who sell things feel a special form of alienation. Service-sector workers arbitrate the movement of things from one place to another. They don't make anything and they don't consume anything--they collect fees.
Huge segments of our economy operate in a similar manner. Bankers, stockbrokers, travel agents, advertising executives, middle managers, real estate brokers, tax assessors, notaries and auditors are all examples of professions that add little value; they merely shuffle paper back and forth and skim fees off the top. In other words, jobs are becoming more generic, less satisfying and less interesting. There are a lot fewer reasons--and less opportunity--for selling out than there used to be.
My analyst position at Spectrem was a classic no-value-added job. Most of the time, I was paid to fuck off. My contributions to the tasks were minimal at best. In fact, the company itself added no value--the banks that were our clients could easily have written the same reports themselves. We relied on information supplied by our clients to write our stuff. Arguably, our banker clients added no value either. My employment was nothing more than a four-level Ponzi scheme.
Get Paid More--Work Less!
When I was seven, in 1970, my father bought me a box of Cracker Jacks. The prize was a little booklet about how life would be in 1980. In 1980, it said, people would be scooting around in hovercraft instead of cars and working 10-hour weeks.
In 1949, the average work-week hovered around 38 hours, labor unions talked of bargaining for the 30-hour week, and the military-industrial boom of the 1950s and 1960s was still in the future. Now we're working 48-hour weeks, labor unions are all but gone and we're still not seeing the difference in our paychecks.
There's a lot of talk about improving the efficiency of workers in the United States. In fact, both per capita and overall per-hour productivity of American workers is by far the highest in the world. Productivity has more than doubled since 1949, mostly because of advances in technology.
This is not the story the media are telling us. We hear horror stories of the United States losing trade wars with Japan and other countries because of lazy American workers. Regardless of the motivations behind the slacker myth, working longer hours for fewer wages will not resolve the fundamental issue of increasing unemployment caused by technology. All this accomplishes is the sacrifice our personal lives--the ultimate sell-out--and we're starving other would-be workers in the process.
The answer is for us to work less, not more.
As Juliet Schor, author of The Overworked American, says, society could have taken that gain in productivity in several ways:
We could all have double salaries.
We could be working 20-hour weeks.
We could work six months a year.
Instead, some of us are working multiple jobs with absurdly long hours for low wages while others can't find work at all.
The money generated by that hidden boom in productivity didn't disappear. The vast majority of it went to create an unprecedented upper strata of wealthy Americans. The U.S. now has the greatest chasm between rich and poor in the industrialized world--one percent of the population owns 40 percent of its wealth. We live under a corpocracy that pays $10 million a year to CEOs and $8 an hour to file clerks. Unless you're part of the fraction of one percent of Americans in this new elite, your hard work is benefiting some rich white guy--not you. The more you work, the more you contribute to this increasing disparity of wealth and its resulting social instability. At least in the old days, when you sold out, you got paid for it. Now you don't even receive a bigger paycheck.
Work is for Suckers
As big business continues to lay off people, eliminate jobs by attrition and downgrade existing positions, the message has become clear: They don't need us.
When the local TV news interviews some putz, the network sends two guys out--a TelePrompTer operator and a cameraman. These days, the cameraman is actually doing three people's jobs--two years earlier, there also would have been a sound man and an electrician. The cameraman can handle all three jobs him- or herself--shooting the camera, checking the sound levels and stringing the wires and watching for power surges --because the equipment has dramatically improved. However, he or she can handle fewer assignments per day because each shoot takes a lot longer. Despite the reduced efficiency, the network prefers to cut its staff because payroll is the biggest expense in any company.
And, from a strictly business point of view, the savings from layoffs are almost always worth it. Instead of fighting to hold onto antiquated jobs, why can't we accept that our services are simply no longer required? We demand that companies hire people they no longer want or need, that the government subsidize employment programs and that other countries somehow stop competing with us to cut us some fiscal slack. Why can't we take a hint? It's over. Computers are replacing us at the office. Robots have our jobs at the plant. The company picnic, the gold watch and hanging out by the water cooler are all part of an anachronistic lexicon that people of the 21st century will struggle to remember while playing trivia games. They don't need us anymore, but there is hope: You can't sell out if they won't buy you.
Is Work Good For You?
We have been programmed to believe that work for work's sake is an intrinsic human virtue. We have always defined ourselves by our work. When Americans meet, the first thing they ask each other is: "What do you do?" And the problem is that we usually don't really want to know what that person does. It's too depressing. And it's too sad trying to explain to someone what minor, negligible role you play in making sure the right slogans are screened onto hamster sweaters marketed to East Coast divorcees.
We should be defined, it could be argued, by the way we spend the majority of our lives, but who wants to be defined by something they'd rather forget? We've taken jobs we don't like, bought ourselves into the dependency of consumerism, and have found ourselves trapped. "I'm a financial analyst," you find yourself saying, always tempered with, "but I'm going to quit." This sort of conflict--that we want to be violently disagreeing with how we actually spend most of every day--causes us to lose our sense of self-worth and of feeling rooted in society.
In New York City today, 2.8 million people work and 1.1 million are on welfare. As that 5-to-2 ratio continues to shift toward idleness, the social safety net created by FDR and LBJ is being dismantled. With total income tax rates already close to 50 percent of gross income in some cities, politicians are no longer willing to tax middle-class workers to pay welfare to those who will not or cannot work. At the same time, our socioeconomic system will disintegrate unless we find some way of dealing with the jobless.
Rather than view it as a social ill, Americans should embrace widespread de-employment from traditional jobs. This is the fruit of our long struggle to improve the way we live by developing new technology. Provided that a new class of people aren't needed to work anymore, why should we call the unemployed lazy? And from the perspective of the young, salaries and benefits are low, the work is boring and advancement is non-existent. In short, there's little financial inducement to work.
There are several options for dealing with the new, permanent jobless class. Here are some alternatives to condemning people to work insane hours at stupid jobs while others starve:
Reduce the work week. GM workers in Michigan recently went on strike due to excessive overtime. Although they earned much more money putting in those extra hours, they missed their families and were totally exhausted. Meanwhile, GM and other companies are continuing to lay off workers, as part of a strategy to maximize working hours and minimize health and other benefit expenses. Maxing the work week at a fraction of the current 40-hour week--including for salaried, white-collar employees--would slash the unemployment rate overnight, as well as provide health benefits to more Americans. This would impact corporate stockholder profits, but those profits have been coming out of employees' backs for years anyway.
Mandate more vacation. We could join the rest of the world, where eight weeks of vacation is considered the norm, and perhaps go even further. This is essentially a variation on the shorter work week, but would suit people who like their time off in chunks.
At Spectrem, these options would have translated to, respectively, hiring me for the 10 hours a week I actually worked; giving me eight months vacation a year; or, best of all, accepting that my job was utterly stupid and in no need of being done.
Money for Nothing
A national "de-jobbing" program would be extraordinarily expensive to a nation that prides itself on its habit of throwing used-up people out with the trash. Paychecks in the hundreds of billions of dollars a year would have to be issued to people whose jobs are deemed unnecessary; obviously the government does not have enough money to do this.
Corporate stockholders do. In 1994 the value of outstanding U.S. stocks increased from $4.01 to $4.68 trillion. That increase alone--$673 billion--is enough to feed the entire nation for a year, or pay every American worker $5,100. Stockholders have been the primary beneficiaries of increased productivity since World War II; clearly they could stand to be taxed more. Regardless of how it's financed, it is vital that society begin to confront the reality of work's obsolescence. Given that our government would rather debate school prayer and flag burning than anything that really matters, it's up to us to take action by refusing to do stupid work.
Sooner or later, the United States will have to acknowledge that work as we know it--the 40-plus-hour a week variety--has become obsolete. Economic and technological trends ensure that the ranks of the un- and under employed will continue to grow. If we continue to ignore this demographic shift, social disintegration is inevitable.
Regardless of how one defines selling one's soul, what could be more corrupt than to work longer hours at a meaningless job? Not only do you sell yourself to a machine that doesn't care about you, but you contribute to the decline of society as you do it.
But waiting for the government to wise up isn't necessary. It's up to individuals to make the decision not to work. In my case, I got fired from Spectrem because of my bad attitude. Apparently I hadn't kept my personal phone calls, faxes and side projects sufficiently secret (not that my employers knew the half of it). My instinctive response to getting canned, as someone who has worked my entire life, was to start looking for a job.
But I didn't. My wife and I decided that rather than start looking for another day job, I should concentrate on my own work--cartooning. I'd been doing okay as a cartoonist before, but giving eight hours a day to Spectrem had squelched my ability to make cartooning work for a living. I'd won an award earlier this past spring, some newspapers picked up my stuff, and I'd gotten some favorable press during the summer. To make up some of the $500 a week of post-tax income I used to get from Spectrem, I'll have to seek out freelance illustration work; so we're moving to New York where there are more magazines. I started working on a comic book and a new weekly column. And I filed for unemployment, which I'll use until my own work pays my way.
No more day job for me. I just wish I'd thought of it myself.
Now my time is my own. I spend a typical day--about seven hours straight--drawing, writing, calling editors and preparing mailings. I actually work a lot longer and harder, because it's all for me. I lose track of time. I forget to eat. I have a serious fire under my ass; if I don't make things happen, no one else will. So I keep my phone calls brief. And every second, every minute, is mine--not stolen by working for some stupid company.
I suspect that for some time I'll be making less money than I did at Spectrem. Maybe in New York, where the cost of living is so much higher, it'll be even harder to get by. But I sure don't have time to wank off during my work day.
We should stop whining over lost jobs. We don't want those goddamn jobs anyway. You've only got one chance to spend your life doing something you believe in. Quit the job you hate and start over, before you're too old and too stupid and it's too late to take a chance. We are on the brink of realizing humanity's oldest dream for the first time in history--the ability of the vast majority of people to stop selling themselves out. I can't wait.
Ted Rall's cartoons reprinted courtesy Chronicle Features, San Francisco, CA. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in Might magazine, a delightful new publication you're sure to enjoy. Pick up a copy today.
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