For twelve months now, I’ve taken special care over how I present my escape message. When all is said and done, “Take this job and shove it” isn’t a very useful phrase at the moment.
As much as anything, most office workers are working from home, which is at least 50% less horrific and depressing than toiling in an open-plan office. It’s even one of the halfway houses of liberty I explore in Escape Everything! and The Good Life for Wage Slaves.
I daresay it’s still fairly rotten to use Zoom or Skype so much and to worry about what your manager will make of your pajamas, but at least the commute is a thing of the past along with the noisy and tedious Hell of actual office life. I’m almost (but not quite) envious of people who get a healthy monthly salary on those terms. It might be worth holding in the words “I quit” for a little while longer, taking the money and pretending that your WiFi is on the blink.
There’s also a sense of public reckoning unfolding, concerning which jobs are the important ones. Anyone who was ever in denial over how food provision and care work are the valuable contributions while the white-collar professions are meaningless or actively malign must surely be coming to terms with reality now. We need those health workers and grocery store clerks and shelf stackers now more than ever. Encouraging them to utter the magic words, “I’m throwing in the towel!”, might still be in their interest but it’s not in that of the common good. I’ve even thought about applying for a job at my local Sainsbury’s, so profound is the feeling of wanting to help out. (Naturally, I haven’t done that. I’m better suited as a foot soldier in the war against Pina Coladas.)
There’s also an idea that to have a job is actually rather lucky when so many companies are going bust and financial assistance for the unemployed is still pretty crap. I wouldn’t see myself as lucky to have a stinking jay-oh-bee even in those circumstances, but I would not want to overstate the “all work sucks” message to people who want to work but currently cannot.
No. Better instead to weather the storm. Let’s use these lockdowns as an opportunity to regroup. With everything being shut, it’s never been easier to save money for an escape fund. We’ve never had more time to take stock and come to terms with what’s really important. Conduct the “life audit” I recommend in my books as the first preparatory step towards escape. Make plans. Collect the right tools. Minimise and downsize. Develop resilience. Spend time with your imagination, drawing up plans for how you want to live when this is all over.
Escape Everything! was recently republished under the title, I’m Out: How to Make an Exit. I don’t personally care for the title change, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the sudden availability (and unprecedented cheapness) of the book here. Get it NOW to help with your lockdown escape planning. It’s available at Blackwell’s and in all the usual bookish places.
Friend S writes to respond to my sentiment that “even if your job is to eat chocolates or watch sexy films, forty hours a week for forty years of your life is a breathtaking commitment.”
Checking in as someone whose job essentially is to watch sexy films: CORRECT! The bloom goes off the rose rather quickly when you have a boss checking up to make sure you’re watching enough sexy films every week. (Also, in my considered opinion, nobody should be watching sexy films seven hours a day, five days a week.) There’s a reason I call my job “the Porn Mines” and not “The Dream”.
I’d forgotten that S’s job is in fact to watch sexy videos. She’s an office-based copywriter and some sort of content screener in what you might call the erotic industrial complex. I don’t think I was thinking of her when I wrote that; I was probably just looking for something that would be universally seen as privately enjoyable and not very work-like. But here we are. Everything is jobbable and therefore contains the potential to be a grind. See also: just because you like cakes doesn’t mean you’d enjoy running a bakery.
I’m reading a compendium of nature writing by Kathleen Jamie. In a chapter of reminisces about her life in the 1970s, she writes of dropping out to work on archaeological digs with the oddballs and stoners:
The exams had been no triumph; if I’d thought about trying for university, which was not an easy process anyway, without a knowledgeable family or supportive teachers the idea was dashed anyway.
But you could sign on the dole. You could hide among the swelling numbers of genuinely unemployed, and claim a little money every week. That’s what people did: artists, diggers, mountaineers, would-be poets and musicians, anarchists and feminists. Anyone for whom the threat of a job, of conformity, felt like death.
The dole doesn’t exist in the way it did in the 1970s. We have Jobseeker’s Allowance now and Universal Credit. Doom, doom, doom. I don’t say we should bring back the dole exactly (though it would certainly be a positive step back to a happier time) but that Universal Basic Income be brought in to give the opportunity of quiet freedom to everyone who wants it. (And if you don’t want it and would prefer to work hard for loads of money, a progressive tax system would slurp your share of UBI away so you wouldn’t have to worry about it.)
Kathleen Jamie used her time on the dole (and by the way, we more commonly call it “the brew” in Scotland) to attend those archaeological digs, to experience the world a little, to meet new people, to sense the depths beneath the feet.
As well as being a well-earned break after years of unasked-for schooling, the dole could evidently be a useful airlock between life chapters in which to marshal one’s thoughts instead of foolhardily hurtling into the next thing. It grants the sort of space that is useful to anyone but essential to future writers and musicians and thinkers, people who might make a contribution greater than the gains of typical white-collar servitude.
UBI now please. Or if that’s not affordable, bring back the old-fashioned dole. If it was affordable in the 1970s, it should be affordable in the age of the iPhone.
In Escape Everything! I’m pretty sure I say something along the lines of “even if your job is to eat chocolates or to watch sexy films, forty hours a week for forty years of your life is a breathtaking commitment.” Excuse me while I misquote myself, but the gist is: “so much for the dream job.”
As soon as something becomes a job and has to be done under supervision or on someone else’s schedule or in an itchy uniform, it has the potential to become a bit of a bind.
Reader Tim draws our attention today to an article by Clio Chang that explores the “dream job” problem very well.
The concept of the dream job still persists, likely because so many of us are working in what the late David Graeber called “bullshit jobs,” or are simply not employed at all. Finding your dream job is a seductive idea: the do-gooder, Protestant version of the FIRE movement—rather than trying to escape work, why not try loving it instead?
I like that the FIRE movement is specifically excluded from the Protestant Work Ethic here! It is hard sometimes to convince people that all the bean counting and self-education is actually in service to sticking it to the man and living well!
The article points out that the whole idea of the dream job is open to abuse, and might even be why it prevails. American park rangers, for example, don’t get paid well and aren’t given the year-round private health insurance that Americans tend to get through their employers:
A common mantra among park rangers is, “You get paid in sunrises and sunsets.” The implication is that if you’re working your dream, you’ll take any conditions that come with it.
It looks like a trade-off, doesn’t it? Depressed office workers are compensated for the lack of stunning vistas with a decent paycheque while park rangers get the open skies but hopeless precarity. But this is where my angry Socialist side comes out: it’s a wholly artificial, manufactured trade-off. It doesn’t have to be like this and there’s enough resource in the world for everyone to have sensible hours (allowing for vistas) and sensible pay (allowing for safety). And as for nudging everyone into bullshit jobs, does anyone really think there aren’t enough genuinely useful tasks in the world to occupy us usefully? Just look out the window.