The work trance: can we escape the vortex?

Hello Everybody,

I hope you’re doing well and enjoying the start of Spring?

The recurring theme I see and hear day in and day out, is how work, and the workplace, contribute to people suppressing who they are, who they want to be and what they want to do.

We are in a climate emergency, have an ageing society, we have technological disruption and advancing automation and the stats don’t lie, our work and workplaces are making us ill. For 150 years economists have been dreaming about we’ll become so productive that we’ll work 10–15-hour weeks, whilst still acquiring the things we need to live well, and yet we’re working more and more hours.

In our hunter gatherer history, work was about survival, to eat and avoid being eaten (at least some things about work have improved ay!). We “worked” just 2–3-hour days, and despite the drivers for doing so, we enjoyed what we were doing, it was part of our cultural life, our community, our belonging, and purpose.

When I was writing my book, I went down a history rabbit hole and wanted to share some of this with you as I find it really fascinating.

Where ‘Work’ all began

In the 1200’s, a constitutional charter was sealed at St Paul’s; the Charter of the Forest, demanding that people had the right to subsistence and the right to access raw materials to enable work. It said the rights shall be forever.

Living off the land and the consequent back-breaking work was our reality and the thought that we wouldn’t have the materials we needed was unthinkable. People would take materials they had access to, make stuff and trade it or sell it. The ‘currency’ used was market monies, chips that would expire, that enabled people to exchange goods. This is where the middle class was born. As people got wealthy, the aristocracy got poor.

How things escalated

Despite the charter, land was privatised by the wealthy elites, dispossessing people from the land they traditionally inhabited when people refused to do work on their land (Talk about spitting your dummy out!). When people no longer had access to the things they needed, they started to sell their bodies for labour, to earn money.

The Charter of Monopoly prevented people from doing business in a sector/territory unless it was chartered by the King. Where a shoemaker would usually trade or sell at the market, they now had to work for the Kings shoe company. Currency was invented (with the King’s head on it of course!). If you didn’t have any currency, you would borrow from the king, with interest added.

and so, the spiraling begins

We went from living off the land, using materials we had access to, making goods, trading goods to now working for somebody, selling our time, instead of our value. We saw work as having a job, working for somebody, for a set time, in exchange for money. Anybody going against the King would find themselves killed.

17th century England saw the puritans drive a culture, not of wealth and accumulation, but of work ethic. Selecting an occupation, dedicating your life to it, never wasting a moment… because it was Gods will.

The late 18th century saw industrial capitalism, a factory system of manufacturing, a division of labour, work processes and routinisation of tasks. We clocked in, we clocked out. Divorced from the land and dependent solely on wage labour.

The 19th Century saw two world wars. Up until WWII the west was growing until the colonies pushed back. The west then grew through consumerism instead, expedited by TV marketing.

Nothing is enough

The “Buy, consume, landfill” cycle was born; the plastic soup in which we swim. Consuming “stuff” to fill the gaps left by the collapse of community, alienation of the living world, alienation of ourselves.

It’s probably no coincidence that it was the 19th Century when “neurasthenia” – a lack of energy, fatigue, irritability, emotional disturbance was born… by the 1980’s the term “Stressed out” was part of our vocabulary.

The 20th Century is one that drives bigger, better, more. Society applauds it.

Today

The more we work, the more we earn; we squeeze more in as we race against the clock.

The research speaks for itself, and employers know they have a problem. There’s been a huge rise of wellbeing fixes within the workplace, as individuals we engage with them to “fix ourselves”. Yet we’re still in a world where overwork cultures are rewarded…exactly the thing that is causing it. We leave work, and to relax we shop, scrolling through Amazon to find that one thing that we “need”, the thing that’s going to satisfy us. We even ‘work’ during our ‘play time’ – answering emails, scrolling through LinkedIn.

Work. Earn. Buy. Consume. Landfill. It’s a toxic insanity fueling circle.

The digital age is an industrial age model, but with flashy technology. Not disrupting capitalism but automating industrialism. “Robots will take over” – we should be so lucky. Robots weren’t created so we could work less, they were invented for businesses to automate efficiencies and make more money. Cyncial? – Well look at what’s happening around us. Robots and forms of automation and yet, we work more, and more, and more.

Why do we work?

Reliant on an income, controlled by societal norms and living under states who do not support people sufficiently who can’t/don’t work. The majority don’t really have an option but to work, so why don’t we at least make it all a bit nicer for each other?!

It’s not all bad though. Work provides us with a routine, goals, purpose, community, recognition and yes, an income.

Throughout my working career, I’ve only ever been unemployed for a couple of months and in summary, I found it a miserable experience.

Hope

I’m hoping that at some point we will realise that the ‘stuff’ we buy and consume isn’t the ‘stuff’ that gives us our true inner happiness. Not just because of the plastic soup and the ridiculous impact consumerism is having on our planet, but because the culture of nothing ever being enough is making us want to work more, to earn more, to buy more…and increasingly just to live to the standard of living that we have come to expect whilst trying to navigate the increases in cost of living.

There are known knowns

We know we’re consuming way too much.

We know our seas are full of plastic, our icecaps are melting and an area of Amazonian rainforest the size of a football pitch is being cleared every minute.

We know that as a society we’re increasingly sedentary.

We know we have too much office space and that real estate accounts for 40% of global carbon emissions. We know that reducing our commute time will have a benefit for the planet.

Globally there are around 1.35 million tech startups. The world has produced 90% of its Big Data in the past two years. Every second, 127 new devices are connected to the internet.

There are known unknowns

The planet is warming and will increase between 2-6c over the next century, depending on how fast carbon dioxide emissions grow.

The population is ageing with senior and geriatric population projecting to reach 2.1 billion by 2050.

Birth rates have been steadily declining for the past 8 years, with people delaying having children and many opting out altogether.

The number of smart devices collecting, analyzing, and sharing data is estimated to hit 50 billion by 2030.

Unknown unknowns

…only time will tell what they are!

Pause and reflect

  • Why do you work?
  • How many hours do you currently work each week?
  • Are you in a work trance?
  • Is work having a negative impact on your wellbeing, leisure, or family life?
  • What do you want to change about the world of work?
  • Can you escape the vortex?

Be a good human,

SFJ.

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