Philosophy Weekend: The Crisis of Wanting a Job, or Having One

Economics Existential

It's strange to watch the news coverage of the unemployment crisis in the United States right now. The word "jobs" has become a simplistic mantra. We need to create jobs! Where are the jobs? Yet, as everyone who has a job knows, there's nothing simple about modern employment.

A good job is a wondrous thing, and can form the foundation of a meaningful and satisfied life. But many jobs turn out to be irrational at their core, and even the best jobs are riven with conflict. There's no doubt that our current 9.1% unemployment rate is a serious economic crisis. But for some people, the first day of a new job is the beginning of a different kind of crisis, and you won't find coverage of this crisis on any blog or cable news show.

As a software developer with marketable skills, I'm fortunate to have plenty of job options. I know that some people who struggle for employment think I have it easy. But I also struggle hard to balance my personal life with the requirements of my work. A typical software job means a commitment of five long days a week, with constant demands for overtime work, and only two weeks of vacation a year. Two weeks of free time a year!

Amazingly, most software developers blindly acquiesce to this unreasonable level of commitment, often for little satisfaction or appreciation in return. They take out their anger and resentment by goofing off on the job, developing negative attitudes ("this job sucks"), doing shoddy work ... and yet they'll still set their alarm clocks and trudge off to their cubicles every day. Some of them even feel guilty if they ever arrive ten minutes late, or if they only work straight hours and don't put in the overtime that's invariably expected.

Amazingly, they'll sacrifice deeply significant family or personal events to keep their mundane commitments. I've seen software developers missing their own kids' performances in school plays, or momentous family gatherings, just so they can sit at their desks playing sad games of solitaire while the boss isn't looking. I know software developers who get absolutely no exercise, who never go to a play or a concert, who never climb a mountain or swim in an ocean or walk through a park. This is pathetic, and yet it's the American way.

Myself, I'll work long hard hours, long days and long months -- but I'll only do it for a goal I believe in, for a project that's worthy of my sacrifice. I won't give up my time for appearance's sake, and I won't keep a job because I'm afraid of not having one. I work most often as an independent consultant, though I'll sometime take a full-time job if a particular opportunity excites me.

These exciting jobs do come my way, but when they don't, I'm happy to work less and enjoy the time off. I'd rather earn $80,000 a year and have some freedom than earn $120,000 a year and be miserable. It amazes me how many of my co-workers are unable to make the same kind of decision, though they sometimes tell me they envy me for the decisions I've made.

I once had a revealing conversation with a fellow software developer about a consulting opportunity I'd been negotiating. I told my friend: "they offered me $15,000, but I bargained them down to $10,000".

My friend gave me a strange look. "I think you're bargaining in the wrong direction."

No, in fact, I knew what I was doing, though my friend was unable to understand. What I meant was, this employer wanted $15,000 of commitment from me in a short time period, and it would have made my life unbearable to have accepted this offer on this employer's terms. I had to chisel down the requirements so that I could work less, earn less and enjoy my life during the period that I'd be doing this work. I wasn't ever able to explain this to my friend, and I guess he still thinks I'm the one who's confused. He's probably at his cubicle playing solitaire right now.

Henry David Thoreau wrote these words in Walden, a little over 150 years ago. I couldn't agree more, and I'm amazed how little has changed.

Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance—which his growth requires—who has so often to use his knowledge? We should feed and clothe him gratuitously sometimes, and recruit him with our cordials, before we judge of him. The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.

Some of you, we all know, are poor, find it hard to live, are sometimes, as it were, gasping for breath. I have no doubt that some of you who read this book are unable to pay for all the dinners which you have actually eaten, or for the coats and shoes which are fast wearing or are already worn out, and have come to this page to spend borrowed or stolen time, robbing your creditors of an hour. It is very evident what mean and sneaking lives many of you live, for my sight has been whetted by experience; always on the limits, trying to get into business and trying to get out of debt, a very ancient slough, called by the Latins aes alienum, another's brass, for some of their coins were made of brass; still living, and dying, and buried by this other's brass; always promising to pay, promising to pay, tomorrow, and dying today, insolvent; seeking to curry favor, to get custom, by how many modes, only not state-prison offenses; lying, flattering, voting, contracting yourselves into a nutshell of civility or dilating into an atmosphere of thin and vaporous generosity, that you may persuade your neighbor to let you make his shoes, or his hat, or his coat, or his carriage, or import his groceries for him; making yourselves sick, that you may lay up something against a sick day, something to be tucked away in an old chest, or in a stocking behind the plastering, or, more safely, in the brick bank; no matter where, no matter how much or how little.

I sometimes wonder that we can be so frivolous, I may almost say, as to attend to the gross but somewhat foreign form of servitude called Negro Slavery, there are so many keen and subtle masters that enslave both North and South. It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself. Talk of a divinity in man! Look at the teamster on the highway, wending to market by day or night; does any divinity stir within him? His highest duty to fodder and water his horses! What is his destiny to him compared with the shipping interests? Does not he drive for Squire Make-a-stir? How godlike, how immortal, is he? See how he cowers and sneaks, how vaguely all the day he fears, not being immortal nor divine, but the slave and prisoner of his own opinion of himself, a fame won by his own deeds. Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.

It's especially deft of Thoreau to point out that what most often motivates this modern form of slavery is not want of money but pride, or fear or embarrasment. I know many software developers who sacrifice everything for their mundane jobs even though they don't actually need all the money they earn, simply because they are too timid to seek arrangements that break familiar conventional patterns of employment. For these lost souls, the magnetic ID badges that open their glass workplace doors are the only keys to identity in the world.

The psychology of work is infinitely fascinating, and one could spend an entire Labor Day weekend reading various worthwhile points of view about it, from Timothy Ferriss on the Four-Hour Workweek (now that's an idea I like) to Mickey Z. on the history of labor protest movements to Sara Horowitz on the freelance surge (which is, I hope, an increasingly popular trend).

Despite my dislike of mundane workplace conformity, I am sympathetic above all to the 9.1% of Americans right now who want a job --any job -- and can't find one. Is it possible that we as a society can rethink jobs in a way that helps both those who have work and those who don't? For instance, why can't it become an accepted option to work three days a week, with eight or twelve weeks of vacation a year, so that each job currently held by one person can be shared by two? Each of the two would earn less, but this might not be much of a crisis after all. Many employed people earn more than they need, and waste their excessive earnings on dumb diversions to help drown their sorrows.

If many people worked fewer days each week, and fewer weeks each year, they'd also have more time for leisure activities, which would help to create jobs. More flexible and englightened workplace arrangements designed to allow Americans to earn less and enjoy life more could help all of us -- those who currently have jobs and those who currently don't. It's worth thinking about, wouldn't you agree?

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: September 11 and the Gift We're Still Carrying. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: What Martin Luther King Endured.
7 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: The Crisis of Wanting a Job, or Having One"

by Steve on

Very interesting post! I tend to agree with most of what you say here. Unfortuantely we live in a society that revolves around materialism and money. How much money, how many things, do we really need? Why wasn't 1 billion enough for Madoff? Why did he need 50?

I was laid off in May of 2010 and stayed unemployed for 14 months. I started a consulting/training business, but work was too far and few in between. I had one job offer back in June and turned it down - even though the money was great. I would've commuted for 3+ hours a day to an extremely demanding job. Friends and family thought I was crazy! I tried to explain the quality of life issue, but all I got were dumb stares. Two months later, I got another job offer, much closer to home, ironically for more money. It was an overly generous offer. So I took it.

Would I still like to do my consulting/training full time? You bet! It's just not economically feasible now. But I am in a better position to grow my side business in the future and be able to turn it over into a fuller presence. In the meantime, I'll take the regular paycheck. Fortunately, the company I work for truly believes in work/life balance. I work from 8:30 - 4:30. No overtime. I can work one day a week from home. And I get 4 weeks vacation. Right now, I consider myself very fortunate, but I really feel for the ones who are still out of work and struggling to get by. Keep plugging away and stay positive. Something good will happen eventually!

by Nardo on

I think Bertrand Russell proposed something similar.

by Michael.Norris on

Thoreau also said « the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”. I agree on the reduced work week. In France, a six week vacation is the norm after one year of employment at a company. It is also unusual to work weekends. But, during the week, French software developers work much harder than US developers, because they have more free time to look forward to. Also in France there are no questions asked if you take three weeks of vacation in the summer – every one does it, even the bosses. I once took three straight weeks of vacation when I worked for a software company in the US and I almost didn’t have a job when I came back. France somehow gets all its work done despite all that vacation time – I think it is good support for your idea, Levi.

Work doesn’t have to suck. Take working from home. This is something that really helps with work/life balance, and saves energy and time. Some bosses don’t like it, however, because they think if they can’t see you, you aren’t working. A lot of the people that they can see aren’t really working.

Echoing Steve – it’s always a good idea to have a little side business going. First of all, you spend more quality time doing something that you do for yourself, especially if it is something that you like to do. It makes the day job more tolerable, if you will. Second, if you get the ax, you still have some money coming in while you look for another job. And finally, that side job might turn into a full time thing

by Alan on

Hi Levi,

I feel the reason some of us strive for economic security at any cost is the belief that if we pass up any chance for more money we'll certainly regret it later. My working life has been up and down. Early on, I luckily stumbled backwards over a technique that allows a person to take control of their own happiness.

Researchers say that unresolved stress can artificially raise our threshhold for satisfaction. Daily stress management allows the brain to normalize and to stimulate the feel-good chemicals that stress can block. As you know, Jack Kerouac and his friends meditated.

A stress-managed person will be naturally happy. A happy person won't be obsessed with money or power. A happy person wouldn't think of preventing others from prospering. On the contrary, a truly happy person gets an extra jolt of happiness by helping someone else.

There's more than enough wealth and food in the world to go around. There can be enough jobs too, if we're not afraid to create them. There're no valid reasons for preserving the atrocious imbalance in the global distribution of wealth.

I believe it's possible for everyone to be happy and prosperous if we want it bad enough to relax a bit.

by mtmynd on

With the number of people unemployed or underemployed in today's work environment, I have often wondered if there will ever be full employment ever again. How many jobs have been lost due to the internet and the greatly reduced need for our brick and mortar buildings. Look at the financial difficulty the USPS is currently having with the possibility that there may not be a Postal Service as we know it in the very near future - email, paying our bills online, e-banking are some of the services that the USPS used to deliver not so long ago. Personally, I do far more shopping online than I do at stores in town, the exception largely being groceries.

How many people have been directly or indirectly affected by the internet is a subject largely overlooked by most people that worry about jobs, but it's reality is sooner or later going to necessitate another way of dealing with the large number of unemployed. This is where I see the validity of your subject, Levi. Add to the ideas you've mentioned, I would also recommend that more businesses stay open longer hours therefore increasing their need for more help. Why do so many businesses (other than fast food) still continue relying on the old 8 to 5 system? How about 12 - 18 hours?

With the businesses that remain viable without utilizing the internet for their sole success, using more employees for fewer hours and offering longer vacations would seem to be a step in the right direction regarding the crisis all politicians are using to win the next election, (with none offering any worthwhile plans as to how they would correct the problem).

I'm convinced we, the global society that we have become, in order to treat each other equitably, fairly and honestly as hu'manly possible have reached a period in our evolution where there is a definite need to get beyond most everything that is 20th Century. Despite the successes of that century of growth, we seem to have grown weary of the same way of doing business (the 40 hour work week, 2 week vacations, lack of health care in most cases to name a few). When ideas are rich 'out there' discussions need to happen. The job crisis is the crossroads where the Capitalist game has nearly choked itself out with the winner of the game fully entrenched to the point where the few winners have nothing left to play with, like a monopoly game where John & Jane have all the money and the fun of playing has become a god awful chore knowing the chances of ever winning is never-to-be. Surely, with the debt load of not only our Government but the debt load of our States, cities and towns throughout our country has weighed us down to the point that employment in no longer affordable to pay for the dreams of yesterday. A new dawn is still rising that hopefully will shed a new light on the solutions for our country and so many other countries in financial turmoil across the globe (Europe, Mid-East, Israel, African Nations, etc.). To believe that all that debt worldwide will ever be paid off is nothing short of a great lie perpetrated upon the peoples of the earth at the expense of the peoples of the earth for the exclusivity of a few to continue earning far more that they can ever use in 5 life times.

A new economic system is as important, indeed the most important need, for our global society as is the reinvention of how we manage the health of the planet.

by Bill_Ectric on

I actually requested a demotion at my job, about two years ago and I am much happier. It wasn't that I couldn't do the previous tasks, it was that I didn't like doing them. Without going into detail, let's just say that government agencies employ convoluted and sometimes arbitrary accounting systems that make it more cost effective for parents to split up rather than staying together. Now I am basically a paper-pusher and data entry operator. And I like it that way. I get my satisfaction in my spare time from writing, playing with Photoshop, and making experimental little videos. One good thing about being an old geezer: Looking forward to retirement from my day job!

I foresee a rise in independent business, not just in publishing, but in everything from farming to space travel. People who bought houses for $50,000.00 and tried to sell the houses for $90,000.00 will finally realize they have to settle for $75,000.00 or whatever. Doctors who once could expect to earn $200,000.00 annually for treating sick people will realize that $150,000.00 annually ain't bad if they like the reward of helping people.

Interesting. The problem I have with jobs or economies is that at most half of the jobs I have ever seen at any company are totally necessary. Totally. I don't honestly know why companies hire most of the people they do hire. Also, most overworked programmers I have ever worked with have been that way because they were inefficient. I always say that a busy programmer is a bad programmer. The goal of every programmer should be to put his or feet up on the desk and enjoy a good cup of coffee for a while. Of course, if your code is broken you can't do that.

But in general, I think the unemployment rate should probably reach something like 50%. That would actually represent something like reality.

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