When I lived in America, I was shocked by how hard everyone worked. They took no time off, stayed late, had few public holidays, worked incredible long hours and seemed to get little thanks for their efforts. Many people I knew had two or even three jobs.
Millions of Americans work full time, year round, for poverty-level wages. In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that a job — any job — can be the ticket to a better life. But how does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich left her home, took the cheapest lodgings she could find, and accepted whatever jobs she was offered.
Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, she worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing-home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. She lived in trailer parks and crumbling residential motels. Very quickly, she discovered that no job is truly “unskilled,” that even the lowliest occupations require exhausting mental and muscular effort. She also learned that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you intend to live indoors.
What I saw inspired me to write the story ‘American Waitress’, which went on to win awards.
There’s a general idea that the engines of hard-working Northern Europe drive the ‘slutty-Latin’ half of Southern Europe, but recent research has undermined that theory. The Greeks, it transpires, are among the hardest working people in the world. The French, on the other hand, seem barely to work at all. When I lived in France I let an acquaintance borrow the place and he managed to break the keys in all the doors. I couldn’t get a locksmith to come out, it being France, so I went to one and had new keys made. He promised faithfully they’d be ready in an hour. When I returned to collect them I found the shop closed up. I asked his neighbour what had happened. ‘The sun came out – he’s gone to the beach,’ said the neighbour.
My father never regarded my job as real work. This week I kept a check on my hours; I started at 6:00am on Monday and didn’t finish before 9:00pm on any night, with an hour for lunch. Weekends, the time was broken up more but never less than 4-5 hours, often much longer.
Much of the work I am paid for comes with freebie extras, so I’m asked to write introductions, articles, charity stories, interviews, lists and personal insight pieces for nothing. Then there are the pitched projects that don’t work out. My new play is finally finished but I have no theatre company created to handle it, so the script will stay in a drawer for now. Of my film scripts, although they’re both delivered, neither is moving forward at any speed. So there’s a lot of wastage.
Even now, creative jobs – real ones, not jobs which slip the word in to sound more enticing when what you’re actually doing is licensing plush or marketing soft drinks – are regarded with suspicion. People think you’re work-shy and will never earn much.
It’s still easier to get half a dozen MPs to visit a defunct Clydeside shipbuilders on the spurious notion of restarting it than to get those same MPs to discuss creative copyright – something the US has discovered to be a goldmine.
A friend of mine’s boss says she thinks that if any of her staff have outside interests, then they’re not working hard enough.