The Absurdity of Work


This question paves the way perfectly for our upcoming Absurdity issue. I giggled all the way down the comments thread. The question lets the madness in.

Would you do a completely pointless job?

In particular, we’re talking about the acts of digging holes and filling them up again, or writing the words “I am working” over and over before binning your efforts.

The comments left by the ERE readers fall into four main camps:

1. No, I’d never do it because my freedom is too important;
2. No, I’d never do it because my work must be personally satisfying or socially worthwhile;
3. Yes, I’d do it if the money was right;
4. Yes, because it’s no more absurd than my current job.

The latter is the whole point. The work we do is all too often not necessary or doesn’t really need to be worked on for so many hours. So many of us are in an absurd Touch-the-Truck situation in which we’re basically paid for physical presence.

The Escapologist, of course, recognises this Sisyphean torment for what it is and tries to escape it.

Most people, sadly, will inevitably pick up the shovel–largely against their will–in exchange for £10 or £20 or £40 per hour. For forty years.

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The Effort of Idling

Tom Hodgkinson of the Idler writes entertainingly in the Standard about his return to London after twelve years of self-sufficiency in the English countryside:

Country life is beset by disasters. Chickens get eaten by the fox. Home-grown lettuces get eaten by slugs. The cabbages get eaten by the pony when it breaks into the vegetable patch. Pipes freeze. The bees die. Homemade bread gets burned. The bore hole pump goes and you have no water for three days. The neighbours complain because you organised a gig in the village hall with Alabama 3 as the headliners. The authorities investigated us when we had our pigs illegally killed at home. Ten years of sipping martinis in the Groucho Club does not, sadly, prepare you for the self-sufficient life.

I’ve loved Tom’s epistles from the countryside in his Country Diary blog at the Idler website. It was precisely the kinds of disaster mentioned above which made it so entertaining. You’re on his side throughout, but it’s the comical floundering of an idealist townie that made it such a pleasure to read.

Such predictable disasters are why I try to avoid the countryside wherever I can. Too much hard work for my liking. Just daily, it’s always a chore to chisel the mud off one’s Oxfords and to get the smell of dung out of one’s three-piece suit.

The proffered alternative — running a trendy shop in a capital city — doesn’t do much for me either. Hobnobbing with Michael Palin and Rhys Ifans looks like a hoot, but the organisational woes would be far too much hassle for this idle gent.

My advice, Escapologists, is to keep things simple. Rent a nice little apartment in a non-capital city and live on a part-time paycheque or — ideally — on the fruit of your independent labours.

Perhaps the most important lesson in Tom’s latest move is that the idle life does not have to be engineered with big, showy lifestyle changes. Total relocation is rather drastic. If you want to work less and to shrug off the mind-forg’d manacles, you’re better off looking for smaller ways to shift your current lifestyle gradually into a idle-friendly way of being.

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Buy the complete back catalogue of New Escapologist with a 10% discount.
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Throwing in the Towel

I’m seriously considering resigning without a job to go to. I have enough savings to survive for several years. I have a number of projects outside work that I’m not getting on with (writing a biography; renovating the house; I’m on the committee of a motor club). I’m letting people down, people who are far more important to me than my employers. Mainly, though, I feel ground down, without even the energy to make a good job of looking for another job.

I’m a bit obsessed with the work and careers advice column in the Guardian. I find it interesting to read about the specifics of people’s job dissatisfaction and to try and spot trends.

Perhaps most revealing is that the advice-seekers aren’t usually complaining about individual things (power-tripping boss, negligent colleague) but a more general dissatisfaction with their job or the work system at large.

Over the past year or so, there’s been a tendency toward people wanting in various ways to throw in the towel, and so they write in to the newspaper to try and find encouragement or a ‘voice of reason’ that will talk them out of it.

It’s worth poking through the archives if you’re interested in people’s quit-or-stay dilemma or want to see the advice given by the expert and the readers in the comments thread.

I sometimes fancy that these people might be readers of New Escapologist, spurred into action by our silly pages. More likely, however, is that we live in a culture of dissatisfaction: where the kind of work offered by most jobs is not really required by Planet Earth in any real way and are only done to pay the rent. Often, you might as well be peddling on a stationary bike, generating electricity for the grid, than what you’re doing.

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Buy the complete back catalogue of New Escapologist with a 10% discount.
Or buy the complete back catalogue on PDF, with £1 off the price each issue.

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