The Paradox of Work

Blessing and Curse

Work is probably the most important thing we do. It is how we support ourselves, how we relate to each other, how we contribute to society, and how we build self-esteem. But our culture has always been ambivalent about it.

The bible viewed it as a curse we can’t escape because we disobeyed god. More recently, Marx saw it as the primary source of our alienation from ourselves as we are forced to sell our labor. Countless management gurus pore over schemes to make work more meaningful, flexible, and even joyful – but to little avail.

Recent studies show that many of us are working longer hours. As I noted on a June 28th blog post: “The time Americans spend at work has sharply increased over the last four decades . . . . We work an average of 1,836 hours a year, up 9 percent from 1,687 in 1979.” This is substantially above the norms for other industrialized western countries.

The conventional wisdom is that women suffer more from this than men because women are torn between professional success and taking care of their children. But the fact seems to be that men also suffer from lack of time with their families, and resent it.

Now, a recent study suggests our unhappiness with work is getting worse as it is increasingly incompatible with friendship. According to a report in The New York Times: “In 1985, about half of Americans said they had a close friend at work; by 2004, this was true for only 30 percent.” Moreover, “in nationally representative surveys of American high school seniors, the proportion who said it was very important to find a job where they could make friends dropped from 54 percent in 1976, to 48 percent in 1991, to 41 percent in 2006.”

Friendship increasingly seems incompatible with work. But why? Does the intimacy of personal relationships clash with the demands of making deadlines or production quotas? Do we fear that work will lead us eventually to betray our friends? Do we protect ourselves from exposure to that painful dilemma by keeping them apart? Or is it that work is becoming more relentless, leaving less and less space for personal gratification. Friendship, then, becomes an unwelcome distraction if we want to succeed?

There may not be a single reason, but the conclusion seems clear – as is the fact that more and more us us are reaching it: important and meaningful as it is, work is setting us at odds with our selves.

Economists and politicians have been paying a lot of attention to jobs recently, and for good reasons. But the their quality also matters and their compatibility with our need for gratifying relationships. We need to be productive, but we also need to be satisfied and fulfilled.

Our growing income inequality may well be exacerbating the problem. Those at the lower end of the scale will be relieved that minimum wages are being raised. That will reduce their anxiety significantly. But at the upper end, who can push back against the pressure to work longer hours, give up weekends and vacations, when the rewards are increasingly so enormous and the consequences of dropping out so permanent?