How Hard Do You Work?

Media, World

NL068-Nov1975

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.

Let’s discuss!

27 comments on “How Hard Do You Work?”

  1. Alison says:

    Hmm… I absolutely agree that no job is unskilled, and it’s demeaning to think so. Personally the most jobs I’ve held down at any one time was four, all in the theatre in London, which involved working 7 days a week, 12 hours a day. As I got older, I became physically and mentally unable to cope with those hours, but unfortunately I still needed to work more than one job (having been left with a debt to pay by an ex) and so I then began work in an office – at the moment I start at 8.15am and finish at 5.30, with about 10 minutes for lunch, just due to pressure of work. I also have two transcription jobs on the side, so to speak, which involves, as the name suggests, transcribing work for outside agencies, so that takes up almost day for at least one day a week, plus evenings. I also have to take care of my Alzheimer’s ridden stepfather and aged mother. Out of all this, one person says thank you. Occasionally. The rest of the time I walk around like a zombie, beyond exhausted.

    The work *is* there, I honestly believe, but you have to be prepared to work hard and work at menial jobs that pay very little, and it’s certainly not an easy thing to do and certainly very hard to maintain over a long period of time. I suspect in every society there are work-shy groups of people or sections of the population, but by the same token there are people who work like loons because, for whatever reason, there is no alternative.

  2. Anchovee says:

    I work from home as a graphic designer (one of those jobs that people think they can do themselves if only they had the time) and I find I have little self discipline, hence me waffling on here rather than tackle an imminent deadline. I do find I have periods of extreme business when I work from the early morning until midnight and then there’s a period of calm. Whichever state I’m in, I wish I was in the other and there’s no middle ground. If those periods of calm were fixed I’d definitely get out there and supplement my income with a second job.

    I have friends on benefit for whom work is a last resort but I also have a friend who just has to work – absolutely anything as long as he’s learning a skill (and meeting all manner of interesting characters). I agree with Alison – no job is unskilled and he’d put his hand to anything, no matter how ‘menial’ and always see some benefit (and not in the handout sense).

  3. BangBang!! says:

    I work part-time in a national chain of stores. The contract is just 16 hours which means I have virtually no employment rights and they don’t have to pay a pension. I get minimum wage and if I’m one second late on the clock I lose 15 minutes wages. Of course it doesn’t work the other way round. I do the best job I can because my stupid pride won’t let me do otherwise. However, when my shift is over I leave on the dot, as does everyone else, no matter how many customers are waiting. If I’m not being paid for it then I’m not doing it – sorry!

    Perhaps in this current climate I should be grateful I have a job. Personally, I don’t see it like that. I’m a genuinely hard working bloke and if I think an employer is trying to treat its workforce with a modicum of respect then they will get more than they pay me for. Otherwise, just tell me what the job entails, I’ll do that to the best of my abilities and go home.

  4. Mike Cane says:

    Don’t get me started on this. In the 1960s you could really be a lazy bastard and work just *part time* and *still* be able to afford an apartment and food. Today, one false step — and, more likely, just one prick who doesn’t like you at your job — and you could be on an spiral towards homelessness and never be employed again (it’s been revealed employers won’t hire those who have been unemployed for long!). The rolls of those collecting “disability” have exploded in the U.S.. Those are the long-term unemployed clutching for *any* sort of financial support system. But they’ve doomed themselves. Once you claim, if you ever miraculously become “abled” again, you must pay it all back. Nothing but an increasing and inescapable spiral of debt. The American economic system has become a predator.

  5. Lara says:

    Your friend’s boss sounds like a total oddball to me! In my experience the best people to work with are those who have lots of outside interests. They tend to bring more experience, sense of adventure, fun and creativity to their jobs. I think it’s really important to have avenues for fun, especially given how stressful and time-consuming our jobs can be. I certainly wouldn’t be much fun as a colleague, a boss or an employee if I didn’t have my outlets for adventure and travel. Understanding that our colleagues have lives and dreams and interests unlike ours is what makes work bearable so why would we ever quash personality?!

  6. Dan Terrell says:

    The four posts above pretty much say it all.
    We Americans do work hard, but we are not the only ones. Our economy seems to be getting better and unemployment creeps up each month, yet times are still tough. We seriously need to raise the minimum wage and even that will not be enough, by far. I don’t see this problem going away quickly. Which is really depressing
    A friend of mine once said: “Never trust a man who wears a t-shit reading – ‘It’s Good to Be King.’”

  7. Chris Tandy says:

    @Dan Terrell: “Never trust a man who wears a t-shit reading – ‘It’s Good to Be King.’”
    Unless he is Mr King, of ‘King T-shirt’ enterprises, inc.

  8. Henry Ricardo says:

    I am a retired mathematician/teacher. When I taught university-level mathematics, I would prepare 7 days a week, looking through texts and journal articles for examples and exercises, teaching insights, etc. Then there was the “publish or perish” milieu. I managed to do all that was required, including writing two books. In retirement, I still do math problems posed in various journals, attend conferences, and try to instill a love of mathematics in my grandchildren. Dedicated teachers are not respected or compensated enough in the US.

  9. admin says:

    Well this has clearly touched a nerve (there are more posts waiting for me to clear). I think you have to be brave to survive in America – luckily, the people I’ve met there are optimistic and energised. Someone posted a comment earlier this week saying that the government shouldn’t be a Good Fairy, evening things out. I think they’re wrong – it’s exactly what the government should be, because with success comes social responsibility, otherwise you might just as well be a pond slug or a Kardashian.

  10. John says:

    I have never been interested in having a job that defines my life. This makes me sound unambitious. I guess it’s true to a certain extent. Still I cannot understand professionals whose career turns into their sole reason for living. There has to be a balance. Not having a so-called career has allowed me to live relatively stress free, have weekends free, and take as much time off as I want. I don’t feel particularly satisfied in my job, it’s a dreary desk jockey position. I find much of my time wasted doing tiresome tasks, serving as a paperwork custodian while my true skills are neglected and unappreciated. But this job allows me to pursue my real interests without the stress of having to produce and perform under the watchful eyes of a bureaucrat who has no interst in me other than as an employee.

    When I meet people who voice opinions like your friend’s boss I feel a little angry at first and then a little sad. Anyone who has sacificed real living for nothing but work is missing out on an awful lot. While I don’t condone the kind of devil-may-care philosophy of the French locksmith I cannot abide the rigid inhumanity of his antithesis.

  11. Chris Tandy says:

    A very wise view, @John, if I might say so.
    I am similar in many respects. As a theatrical propmaker, my work has been pretty sporadic to say the least, but I skewed my life around to accommodate this and have never had really big overheads in life. Thus I could be enthusiastic, even obsessive, about my work but it did not and has not dominated my life, but runs in harmony with other aspects thereof. But it’s interesting how my work is, I assume, many-a-pole apart from yours; mine is anything but desk-jockeydom, and I guess I would find that type of life very arduous indeed.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    My husband has worked hard all his life, just as his father did. He worked in a pharmacy as a teenager and in a fruit and vegetable cannery during the summer while he was at university. He started out teaching high school geography and history but left that to work in a trucking firm. Over 40 years in that industry he worked long hours, took seminars, night school, and other training and then taught those classes as well. He qualified to practice before government boards in Canada and in the U.S. back when the ICC governed the transportation industry. He represented various companies and for a while had his own consulting firm (for which I worked as well). He still maintained an interest in railways, in history, and the community. He started serving on church boards when he was 15 and has been on one board or another ever since. He served on the Vancouver museum board and pays attention to what is going on. He volunteered on the Bombardier streetcar during the 2010 Olympics and has been involved in a number of railway and model railway groups. You can tell which parts of that are paid and which are from interest and obligation and done for free. It’s all part of living and now that he is technically retired there’s only a slight slackening of effort. He’s still available occasionally to the industry and, yes, they pay him properly, but he was always able to find interest in what he was doing – and still does.

  13. Dan Terrell says:

    Chris: Yes, there is a King T-shirt company in Los Angeles, thanks for that.
    In my previous comment above, there is an typo, what else – typos have become my schtick – but then again it isn’t an error at all. You’ll see why.
    Today’s digital New York Times has these top two headlines: “Unemployment is at Year Low in U.S., Hiring Gains Steam” with 236,000 new jobs added. Good. But it does appear to undercut my use of the word “unemployment” above statement. HOWEVER, here’s the second lead: “Despite Job Gains, Austerity Takes Toll”. It is estimated 142,000 few jobs a month will added in the future due to the automatic Federal spending cuts – better called the “Let them eat cake” act? – er, better not.
    Let’s due the math… okay, that leaves us only 94,000 new jobs created per coming month. So my statement was unfortunately correct!
    As the Germans often ask: “Das ist Scheisse, ja?”

  14. Dan Terrell says:

    Ja, I know, I overdid the schtick in the correction. Sch**ss*!

  15. BangBang!! says:

    If the government of a nation isn’t there to help its citizens in times of need then why are they there? Yeah I know – that’s a a stupid question!

    http://m.youtube.com/?reason=8&rdm=8836#/watch?v=xjUA3RU4B8E&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DxjUA3RU4B8E

  16. Lee Ann says:

    Chris, I often wondered how you managed to get so much done. Between your books, reasearch and blog, that is a lot of work. Now I know. Thanks.

  17. Alan G says:

    Alison – thank you. I have been trying for some perspective. I face giving up my entire life to move to some godforsaken part of Scotland. My dad has advanced Parkinsons disease and 2 diabetes. This will not be fun since we annoy the Hell out of each other at the best of times. His care is brilliant – better than English – but he’s Dad.

  18. John Howard says:

    Lots of good stuff there. Two things occur initially. Since the corporate world has taken the word “creative” to its job descriptive heart it has become debased. What they seem to mean in my experience is “run this for me but I’m not going to acknowledge that things might be better”.

    As for the MP’s – do we think that, although they have of course only become MP’s because they want to serve their community, visiting a run down shipyard involves less opportunity for blame to be levelled, whereas copyright requires serious knowledge and difficult decisions to be made.

  19. Pip Dickens says:

    I recently completed a book ‘Shibusa – Extracting Beauty’ which examines creativity (and making) both through exploration of Japanese notions of beauty and skill and also music. My research drew heavily on Richard Sennett’s fantastic book ‘The Craftsman’. He alludes not only to creatives and the notion of it taking many years to become skilled at something but also discussed this in terms of business and industry and education. It’s a fantastic book and ever since absorbing its contents I have begun to scrutinize how people do their jobs when they are unaware you are observing them – there is a beautifully honest choreography watching anyone perform a task whether it is watching your bins being collected, a barista preparing your morning coffee or similar jobs which seem low skilled but DO have skill and an innate rhythm. Taking the time to watch others perform tasks of labour has also helped me identify my own choreography when working in the studio – when this physical rhythm ‘takes hold’ you become aware you are ‘in the zone’ thus entering a period of high concentration and intense creativity.

  20. Pheeny says:

    Possibly the most irrational thing about our present society is that the people who do the most useful and necessary (as well as the most unpleasant) work are generally the lowest paid (if paid at all).

    To add insult to injury the fiction is promulgated that if you are rich it must be because you are hard working, and if you are poor it must be because you are lazy; so the wealthy are venerated, and those on benefits are villified despite the fact that the latter camp are often receiving benefits not because they are unemployed but because their employer won’t pay them a living wage

  21. Pheeny says:

    Another annoying thing is the way in which the poor are always held to higher moral standards than the well off – as has been said there are lazy feckless bastards at every level of society but it is only the poor ones who are publically lectured

  22. laura says:

    Having grown up and lived in the US until I moved to Switzerland 15 years ago, I know exactly what you are talking about. When I arrived in Europe, it was surprising and wonderful to come to a place where 4 weeks of vacation (minimum) a year is the law for everyone–my dad was lucky to have 1 week for most of my childhood in the US–and where it is normal for working parents to go home at a reasonable hour to spend time with their families.

    When I moved to Europe, my career took an unexpected turn, and I left academia. Now I’ve been in the private sector here for over a decade. It’s funny that I have almost exactly the opposite impression about creative jobs than the attitude you describe. I’ve seen more sloth and taking it easy in the corporate world than I have among independents. Lots of people seem to make a good living doing as little as possible when they can pass the work off on others or point the finger at their colleagues when things don’t get done. Compared to having to buckle down on their own to make ends meet, it seems clear to me that while I do know hard workers in the corporate world, it’s far more likely to be the independents who are working the hardest.

    Of course, my observations mostly concern skilled professionals and may not be relevant to what are usually considered “unskilled” jobs. It seems to me that most independent creatives should be considered skilled professionals, so then my own values do seem to be at odds with the attitudes you describe.

    Perhaps the difference is due to a class, educational or generational divide. Or perhaps, having gotten a good dose of that Protestant Work Ethic while growing up, I am just too critical of my colleagues.

  23. Steve says:

    I’ve worked at many many jobs through the years…some of which were literally brutal, others of which were brutal AND involved handling deadly chemicals…I could go on waaaay too long. Not even spreading hot tar on rooftops in 90+ degree (F) temperatures could have been accurately called “unskilled”. And yes, we Americans work way too much. Even now, at 61, I am literally doing 3 (work related) things at one time twelve hours out of twenty-four. I work even when we’re on Holiday. The ONLY time I have a full day off is when we’re flying. I could count my days off over the past 14 years on both hands and have fingers left over.
    Obviously, I’m insane.

  24. andrea yang says:

    Pheeny is correct the most important jobs are often the most poorly compensated. Sad!

  25. Alan Morgan says:

    I’m a working single-parent – now that’s long hours. Thank Cope for computers and the internet, and the ability thus to work at home in an area where five thousand people applied for three hundred jobs at an Asda when it opened a couple of years back.

  26. Mahrie Lesher says:

    Though I find many things to be inspired by with the American work ethic and its dazzling innovation achievements, it’s clear that the pressure to grind ourselves up working long hours for that ephemeral concept of financial security is annihilating our longevity. There must be some middle ground between the nanny State and American style capitalism. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2102rank.html

  27. glasgow1975 says:

    The ongoing Edinburgh trams fiasco led to a recent numpty (local Councillor) waxing lyrical about how the project had so much community enthusiasm that 350 people had applied for the 12 jobs available.
    Erm, I doubt it was enthusiasiam so much as the current economic climate. . .

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