After the presentation of a new comic book with stories from the German occupation in Athens, some friends and I went to a nearby place for some drinks. After a few sips, and being unable to mute the ontological ethnographer inside me, the discussion revolved around work. One of the people in our group said he is a full-time employee in the public sector, doing a repetitive and uninteresting job. He has to check promotion and corporate material such as brochures, posters, and websites to make sure that the organisation’s logo adheres to the brand guidelines and thus, the visual identity remains consistent. He is also a children’s book writer. He has published 7 books, including picture books, novels and at least one in a more experimental form.
“My job is quiet and I can work on my books the rest of the time. The only issue with this is that when something else is bothering me, I cannot shut it out.”
“But is this type of work socially responsible?” The objection came from a journalist and artist, who works in a worker-owned progressive newspaper.
These two lines of dialogue encompassed many of the frictions and tensions of contemporary work. Unlike those who internalise managerial perspectives, the author did not regard his job as a means for self-actualisation or some type of ladder he has to climb. For him, work provides a quite space, one that remains contained within the working place and hours, pays the bills, and enables him to focus on his creative activities unaffected. However, the lack of motivation at work has another side-effect. We have seen cases where work penetrates life, either by working long hours or by taking time to recover from work. In this case the opposite happens. The type of work is so uninteresting that it cannot act as a filter, blocking out negative thoughts related to everyday life. In either case, the interesting point here is that work and life can been seen not as separate phenomena, but as nods in a complex network that permits two-directional flows. Like electrons flow from the negative charge of an electrical circuit to the positive one, anxieties and concerns flow from the negatively charged nod to the positive one (graphic below).
On the other hand, the artist, part of a collective herself, raised the concern of work as something socially meaningful, something that one does not solely for her own interests, but has a wider societal benefit as well. This point was perhaps reinforced by the fact that the author was a public employee and thus, paid with money of Greek taxpayers. At the same time, someone could claim that the writer is not paid to fix a logo, but to subsidize himself in order to write books, and to organise and run writing workshops, often with kids. The writer himself said that he made very little money from one of his books, despite being received very well by critics.
At that point I starting thinking how one could balance between all these tensions and arguments, to the point that I have a fuzzy recollection of the rest of the discussion. I drifted amongst radical policies like the shorter working week, technological potential like automation and theories of subjectivity and ownership. When the mental processing was completed, I raised my glass:
“What you do in your job with the logo seems highly automatable. We could automate it, and you would no longer have to work on it. You would probably have to monitor it now and then to see if everything is ok, but that’s it. Now, there is no longer a need to work full time. From 5 days a week, you could go down to three. In these three days, you will leverage your skills in fiction to create stories for your organisation, offering something that is tailored to your skills and interests*. Something that only you can offer. Your salary will go down only by, say, 15%, which is still a big save for the organisation, given that you are offering a new service. By having more free time you will be able to write more books, and you will hopefully make up for the loss in pay.”
“Yeah”, the author responded, “I think working 3 days would be good”.
Having reached some kind of consensus, we kept on drinking and chatting about things other than work.
*To keep my friend unidentifiable I chose not to mention exactly what he does, but the sector he works at that could really benefit from his storytelling skills.