The war on work

I write a lot at Get Rich Slowly about Financial Independence, by which I essentially mean early retirement (or semi-retirement). That is, accumulating enough money that I no longer have to work. To me, escape from work has always seemed like the ultimate goal.

This is probably because my father held out retirement as a sort of Promised Land. He worked hard — if not always effectively — and he always made retirement and the end of work seem like the goal of life. And the sooner one reached retirement, the better.

But whenever I write about early retirement or Financial Independence, I get e-mail and comments from readers who never want to stop working. They love their jobs. Others write to say that we’re not supposed like the work that we do, but we’re supposed to do it anyhow. It builds character, and helps us pay the bills.

I’ve never found these arguments convincing. To me, early retirement has remained the goal.

Dirty Jobs

Last week, Eileen e-mailed a link to a video with a one-line explanation. “This video is WEIRD and COOL and speaks to many GRS ideas like working and satisfaction,” she wrote. Yesterday, I finally had a chance to watch it. This video made me pause to reconsider my notion of work:

I didn’t know what to think at first. Mike Rowe, the host of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs and the voice of Deadliest Catch, starts by relating an anecdote about castrating lambs with his teeth. “What does this have to do with Get Rich Slowly?” I wondered — but because his story was so compelling, I kept watching for all 20 minutes, 34 seconds. Turns out there is a connection.

It takes about half the presentation for Rowe to make his point, but eventually he does. “People with dirty jobs are happier than you think,” he says. “As a group, they’re the happiest people I know.” And his work on Dirty Jobs has led him to realize that there are a lot of misconceptions about work in the United States.

Example: Rowe notes that a lot of people say that you ought to “follow your passion”, and that if you do then things will work out. But that’s not always the case. Millions of people chase their dreams but never reach them. Meanwhile, millions more do work they’re not passionate about, but which brings them fulfillment (and sometimes riches) anyhow.

We hear these messages over and over and over again so that we, too, come to believe that work is something to be fought against. It’s something to be avoided or escaped. Work has been marginalized. It’s looked down upon. In essence, there’s a war on work.

The War on Work

“We’ve declared war on work. As a society. All of us,” Rowe says. “We didn’t set out to do it […] but we’ve done it. And we’ve waged this war on at least four fronts.” The war on work is being fought:

  • In Hollywood. “The way we portray working people on TV — it’s laughable,” Rowe says. “We turn them into heroes, or we turn them into punch-lines.” Television and movies don’t do a good job of making work complex and three-dimensional.
  • On Madison Avenue. The central message of so many commercials is, “your life would be better if you could work a little less, if you didn’t have to work so hard, if you could get home a little earlier, if you could retire a little faster, if you could punch out a little sooner.”
  • In Washington. Lawmakers use work as a political tool, exploiting our notions of work for their own gain. And the policies they implement shape the way we view work.
  • In Silicon Valley. New technology changes the way we think about work, and changes the way we actually do our work. Not all of these changes are bad, Rowe says, but overall technological advancement contributes to the war on work.

“The collective effect of all of that has been this marginalization of lots and lots of jobs,” Rowe says. “Somebody needs to be out there talking about the forgotten benefits [of work].” He believes that what’s needed is a PR campaign for work.

Rowe says that the war on work has casualties, just like any other war. For one, the U.S. infrastructure is a shambles. To make matters worse, trade school enrollment is dropping fast, meaning we won’t have enough workers to rebuild that infrastructure. In order for this to change, we have to stop marginalizing work and start talking about the benefits.

The Forgotten Benefits of Work

I’m disappointed that Rowe’s presentation ends before he can explore this topic further. I’d like to know more about what he thinks are the hidden benefits of work. After thinking about it most of the day, I have a short list of my own:

  • Work gives us meaning. I know plenty of people who hate their jobs. I’ve had shitty jobs too — jobs I’ve hated and wanted desperately to leave. But almost without exception, the folks I know who are happiest are those who work hard, even if they don’t have jobs they love. And those who are unhappiest? They’re the ones without jobs for one reason or another. Does the unhappiness lead to the lack of work? Or does the lack of work make people unhappy? I’m not sure, but they seem to be connected.
  • Work gives us money. For most people, their career will be the single largest source of income they have in their life. Your health is your most important asset, but your career is a close second. Your career is your cash machine, which is why I stress the importance of networking and learning how to negotiate your salary. Without work, you probably don’t have the resources for anything else either.
  • Work builds relationships. Again, for most people, their jobs are their primary social activity. I’m not saying this is good or bad, but it’s true. When you spend 40 hours a week with a group of people, you come to know them. In many cases, your co-workers become your friends. And work also teaches you how to build other relationships, especially through networking.
  • Work builds skills. And, of course, work teaches us to do stuff. I wasn’t born knowing how to write. Sure, I learned some theoretical stuff about writing in all of the classes I’ve taken, but most of what I know (which still isn’t much) is a result of tens of thousands of hours of actual writing. By doing the work, I’ve built the skills. The same is true of any work we do.

Though I found Rowe’s presentation entertaining and thought-provoking, I don’t agree with him completely. (I rarely agree with anyone completely.) For one, I still think that you ought to follow your passions, if it’s feasible. Yes, people can get into trouble if they’re slavish to this advice, but I truly believe that work you love can be tremendously fulfilling.

Still, I may have to re-evaluate my dogged pursuit of Financial Independence. I’ve already been shifting my aim from an ideal of early retirement to one of simply semi-retirement (in which I’d continue to work in some fashion). Maybe work isn’t the enemy. Maybe there are reasons to keep doing something I love.

What do you think about work? Is it marginalized in our society? Do you think there’s a war on work? If so, what should we do about it? What sorts of benefits does work provide? Do you love your work, or do you hope to retire as soon as possible? Or both?

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