Opinion: Why We Work

Remington Write

And how we work....for the time being

I don't work this hardPhoto byTammy Remington

“Work” used to basically just be a matter of making sure there was enough to eat and someplace secure to sleep at night. And, really, for many of us that’s exactly what it still is. People also used to work their entire lives. Little kids started by learning from Mom which plants to pick for dinner. Of course, once agriculture hit the scene they began learning which weeds to pull. Then came the days of untangling thread in the massive weaving machines of the industrial revolution. When we got too old to work, it was off to the ice floe or the poor house.

The kids who survived that nightmare would then have to count themselves lucky if they were able to score jobs in factories or mines as adults to conceivably earn enough to eat more than once a day and sleep indoors. And feed the kids who were booted out to work as soon as they could reach the spools or levers.

Ah, the good old days.

Professionals who specialize in particular areas and who seem to have a mission in life are not new phenomena. Shamans and prostitutes have been in business for millennia. Hard on their prestigious and/or lucrative heels have come the doctors and lawyers and collectors of taxes. The explosion in careers, however, is a relatively new development.

Bartleby would be scratching his head trying to figure out what hedge fund managers, aestheticians, lobbyists, or human resource managers do. I know I am.

Most of the people in this world are not professionals, however. We do not have careers. Few of us are driven by a sense of mission. We did not invest years of training to attain a prestigious place in any discipline although many of us have certainly put in years of hard work in order to cover the rent and keep the lights on. And thus many of us find ourselves on the other side of the retirement question. The wrong side.

This idea that one could work their entire adult life and then retire to golf, learn to speak Esperanto, or babysit the grandkids is foreign to many.

Frankly, it’s one I don’t understand or aspire to but then that might be because I am one of the multitudes of people who simply work. This even though I somehow managed to earn an undergraduate degree from an Ivy League university (go figure). Many of my fellow students had clear objectives and were on a predestined trajectory toward high-paying careers.

Foolishly (perhaps), I’d sought admission to that particular school basically so I’d have an in to a city where it was — and is — notoriously difficult to get a foothold. So I wasn’t there to land a great paying career and didn’t. What I got was a rent-stabilized apartment and a series of jobs I mostly haven’t hated. Turns out having that school on the resume opens doors even for an under-achiever such as myself.

While my “problem” — if you want to call it that — is a lack of motivation. However for most of the folks in this part of the city the real problem is a lack of opportunity. Many of my neighbors have given up on this whole work-for-a-living song and dance. Many of those with kids (aka women) buckle down and tolerate garbage wages and appalling work conditions.

The rest are on the corner selling drugs.

If it weren’t for relatively our cheap rent and the extra income brought in by my partner’s monthly Social (In)Security check, we’d be hard-pressed to continue eating multiple times daily and sleeping indoors. I do have the privilege of working remotely. Unlike several close friends, however, there are no retirement plans in my future. The plan remains to do my best to make it to full Social Security age…and then keep working.

This of course depends on no one programming AI to do my job.

Here we have yet another weird work wrinkle: How will we be able to work to support ourselves as more and more jobs are automated? This is not a new concern. Ask any group of workers since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. What is new is that we who earn our daily bread with our noggins are probably next on the chopping block. After all, AI can handle the work I do for a paycheck with one ability to assemble different artifacts tied behind its back.

While AI may not yet have perfected the ability to smooth the ruffled feathers of frustrated authors and/or editors, it might be determined by the bean counters that that’s not crucial to the bottom line.

For an elite cadre of workers, the bottom line exists only as a theory. They’re the ones whose “work” is their passion, their reason for living, their mission. They show up for meetings at 6 am so they can then get into the lab or the office or the shop or the studio to do what they were Born To Do. Here we're talking about surgeons, fashion designers, rockstar computer geniuses, biomechanical researchers, university provosts, concert violinists, librarians, and professors of every discipline.

Musicians may not consider this as being workPhoto byTammy Remington

Frankly, they make the rest of us look bad.

Nevertheless, no, I’m not getting up in time to get to some office across town for a meeting before the sun rises. On the flip side, however, I don’t have a big, fat 401k keeping me awake at night as it fluctuates wildly with the market.

Furthermore, I don’t see writing as My Reason for Living. I do, however, consider it to be meaningful work even if it doesn’t (yet) cover more than the electric bill once in a while. The fact remains that it’s not necessarily more meaningful than the work I do to earn the paycheck. In fact, given the great societal benefits conferred by the company that pays me a weekly bribe, I can admit that the work I do on the clock is probably more meaningful than what many people consider a cute hobby.

May we all be so lucky as to have our cute hobbies to keep us from despair. And may we all also be so lucky as to have a way to support ourselves with whatever work we can manage to do for as long as we can do it.

Our best hope is often simply that it be work we don’t hate.

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Covert dilettante with an omnivorous capacity for wonder. Writing because I can't not write. Always watching for the hidden patterns and connections. I don't know I cannot fly..........and so I do.

New York City, NY

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