Working for a living
Last week I spoke to a group of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders about what it’s like to be a reporter.
They were enrolled in an afterschool program that encourages kids to stay in school, and had clearly prepared for my visit. They asked a lot of questions, all fairly basic: What sorts of skills are required to do your job? Why did you want to become a reporter? Did you go to college?
Every time they asked a question, I found myself squinting at them, wondering whether newspapers would still exist when they became working adults. I tried to remember to mention the Internet and the fact that you can write news for websites, too. Whether they understood anything I said remains a mystery to me.
My favorite query came from a girl in the back row.
“How many hours a week do you work?” the girl asked.
“I work 40 hours a week,” I explained. “There’s nothing unusual about that. If you have a full-time job, that’s generally what you work.”
This was news to the kids, who basically fell out of their desk chairs with astonishment.
“Forty hours?” they exclaimed. “That’s a lot!”
I felt a little bad about breaking this news to the kids.
I’m not sure exactly when it dawned on me that I would one day have to work 40 hours a week, but I know for a fact that I didn’t give getting a job serious thought until I was in high school. Even then, the whole concept of working for a living was not something I cared to think much about. It sounded dull and dreary, and my basic feeling was that I should enjoy my freedom from adult responsibilities for as long as possible.
Which isn’t to say I had no concept of work.
Technically, I started working in middle school, picking up baby-sitting jobs here and there and helping my friend Jon deliver newspapers. In high school, I continued baby-sitting and also did yard work for an elderly man who lived up the street. Eventually I got a job at a local convenience store, where I made sandwiches, occasionally manned a cash register, kept the cooler stocked and sold lottery tickets. During my college summers, I worked at a summer camp, and after graduation I eventually landed a job at a newspaper.
I enjoyed these jobs. Each of them taught me interesting and useful things, such as discipline and the satisfaction of providing a valued service. But a few years ago, I finally realized that work was primarily something I did to earn a living, and that I would have to do it for the rest of my life. I was driving to work when this occurred to me, and I almost started crying. And I like my job!
Of course, we live in a country where plenty of people are out of work and would like jobs, and I sympathize with them. But I often think that the ideal work week would be 32 hours and that we’d all be better off with more three-day weekends and more vacation time.
Perhaps this attitude explains why I’m not even bothered by my recent jury summons. Because I have a low number, I expect that I’ll be ordered to show up at the courthouse and be part of the pool. In the past, I would have been completely stressed out about this, concerned about falling behind at work and losing ground on whatever I happened to be working on. Today I understand that I have several decades of work ahead of me and missing a little bit of work for jury duty doesn’t really seem like that big a deal.
Some people don’t like to talk or think about work, but I actually think work is fascinating . . . and absurd. We spend so much of our lives at work and invest so much of our energy in it. What effect does this have on us? Is it good for our lives to be so dominated by work?
I recently started reading “Working” by Studs Terkel to learn more about how people feel and think about work. Published in 1974, “Working” consists of more than 100 interviews with people about their jobs, which include factory piano tuner, waitress, executive secretary and stockbroker. I just started reading the book, but Terkel’s forward suggests that people have been conflicted and angsty about work for a long time.
“Working,” Terkel writes, “is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
He opens the book with several quotes, including a typically grouchy one from William Faulkner: “You can’t eat for eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours a day — all you can do for eight hours is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy.”
In recent years, I’ve sought out movies and books about work. My favorite is the cult comedy “Office Space,” which is ridiculous but also quite perceptive in its portrayal of office life. But I also like the comic novel “Then We Came to the End,” about a wave of layoffs sweeping through an advertising agency, and the more serious films of the French director Laurent Cantet, whose 2001 film “Time Out” is about a man who loses his job, doesn’t tell his family and continues to leave the house every morning, dressed in a suit and tie.
One of the most fanciful critiques of work is the 1931 French film “A Nous la Liberte.” This film portrays the factory where the men work as little more than a prison, and the film ends with the men dancing and playing cards by the river, while machines do all of their work.
Such an existence obviously isn’t feasible — most of us have rent or mortgages to pay, after all — but I wouldn’t mind spending more days by the water, cavorting with my friends.
In the meantime, I’ll continue my endless quest to pinpoint the right balance between work and play, to take work seriously but not too seriously, and to find meaning in it whenever possible, but to look for meaning outside of work, too.
Foss Forward makes a weekly appearance in print, in The Gazette’s Saturday Lifestyles section. You can email Sara at firstname.lastname@example.org.