How to Avoid Work

How to Avoid Work

Part I

By Claire Wolfe

October 1, 2004

“Did y’ever notice? Nobody has a regular job in Hardyville.”

Marty Harbibi pontificated as he leaned back in his chair at the big round table at the Hog Trough Grill and Feed.

Janelle-the-Waitress, who’d been creeping up behind him on little crepe feet, hoisting her habitual coffeepot, paused and tipped her head to one side, puzzled.

“Fact is, nobody with sense would ever want a job, anywhere.”

Janelle’s pert lipsticked lips pressed into a scowl. Around the big table, old cowboy Nat Lyons, plump Mrs. Nat, big shave-headed Carty, and even the usually oblivious Bob-the-Nerd began to notice.

“Yep. Jobs are for suckers,” Marty assured one and all, picking up his half-full coffee mug and looking around as if wondering when new brew might magically appear. He didn’t see Janelle, standing behind him, gripping the coffeepot with white knuckles, looking speculatively from the pot to the top of Marty’s head.

“I have a job,” said Bob, carefully not watching Janelle.

“No you don’t. You own your own store. And you close it up whenever you want. That’s not a job. And,” Marty added, just because he couldn’t leave well enough alone, “you go off and fly toy airplanes in the middle of the day.”

“They aren’t toy…”

“Anyhow, only a body too dumb or lazy to work for himself would ever be a wage-slave.”

Janelle’s face turned red. She raised the coffeepot. Carty and Nat, sitting closest to Marty, edged their chairs just slightly away.

Still waving his mug around vaguely, Marty turned toward the kitchen and called, “Hey, what’s a guy have to do to get some coffee around here?”

Janelle took a deep breath and let it out. Then she stepped forward and poured Marty a brimming cupful without spilling a drop. “Jes’ ask real nice,” she purred. “and be glad that the new owner of the Hog Trough doesn’t want to waste a whole potload on you, Mr. H. Last week when I was just a wage slave and didn’t have to worry what stuff cost you mighta got your coffee a little extra strong.”

And so it was that we all learned that one of Hardyville’s last job holders has now gone independent. Being a brand-new entrepreneur, Janelle only has to work half days – and as the old saying goes, “She gets to choose which 12 hours!” She and husband Doug now get to hire “wage slaves” of their own. Fortunately, this being Hardyville, nobody has to do too much paperwork about it all, and everybody’s happier about the deal.

Although it’s true that most Hardyvillians don’t have regular jobs (we’re farmers, ranchers, freelance writers, computer consultants, professional scroungers, housewives, and part-timers all), we’ve all been “wage slaves” at some time in our lives – including Mr. Marty-the-Mouth, who ought to know better than to open his ignorant yap and insult half the human race.

But you know, when you really think about it, jobs – not work, but jobs – are weird. We take their necessity for granted. We even listen to that nice TV commentator telling us how good they are (“The economy created six bazillion new jobs in the service sector last month …”). But when you really sit down and think about them, it’s like noticing a big wart right in the middle of a pretty face.

Jobs are abnormal. For most of human history, most people didn’t have jobs. They didn’t earn wages for someone else’s profit. They worked – hunted, smithed, cobbled, sowed, sewed, potted, gathered, wrote, counted, harvested, cooked, baked, mined, acted, preached, begged, tinkered, weaved, and wainwrighted. They worked their patooties off. But they didn’t have to punch in at 7:00 (“Five minutes late; report to the personnel office!”) or sit in a cubicle in a windowless, air-recycled office year after year, never noticing the patterns of the day or of the seasons.

For much of human history, people worked when work was needed, spent their days amid their families and friends, hunkered down when the nights were long or the weather too forbidding, and took time off without asking the boss – because they were the bosses of their own time.

“Wage slave” isn’t just a clever metaphor. We really have sold ourselves to others – even if we like what we’ve received in return.

So before somebody else points it out, I’ll also admit that all those cobblers, cordwainers, and hunter-gatherers didn’t have DVD players, vaccines, 20 pairs of shoes in the closet, central heating, Monday Night Football, OnStar GPS units, sterile surgical instruments, microwave ovens, Britney Spears CDs, or – that most important development of humankind – indoor plumbing.

Indoor plumbing. Good stuff.

So we’ve made a tradeoff. And on balance most would consider it worthwhile.

Except that “we” haven’t made a tradeoff. That all-powerful entity, “Society,” has made a tradeoff – and most of us didn’t have much choice in the matter. We do whatever we have to, simply to survive.

The tradeoff mostly came about at the start of the industrial revolution. You can date it from the inventions of the steam engine and the spinning jenny in the mid-1700s. The efficient but inhumane factory replaced the inefficient but human home workshop. Suddenly, the clock, not the seasons or the market, became our daily ruler. Suddenly somebody else’s schedule became more important than our own. Suddenly, in exchange for survival (and eventually an uplift in prosperity), someone else’s priorities became more important than ours. Suddenly, instead of producing our own wares and taking pride in them, we were relegated to punching buttons or welding welds for someone else’s product, having very little connection to the whole of our work. Suddenly, instead of living our lives at an organic pace in organic communities, it was rush, rush, rush, rush, rush.

Today, although we’re more likely to work in a clean office, factory, or store than in one of the “dark satanic mills” of those days, not much has changed. We sell most of our waking hours to somebody else. And in doing so, we also limit our ability to educate our children, participate in our communities, appreciate the circle of the seasons, and honor our own physical and mental cycles (just try taking a nap next time you get tired on the job and see what I mean).

And rushing? Oh lordy, have we become experts at that!

We’re always worried about losing our darned jobs. But really … who wants to have a darned job?

Even when we like the work we do, it’s simply not normal to function that way, and we’re paying the price for it in depression, carpal tunnel syndrome, aimless and bored children, harried schedules, and in real money costs as well. (Most of us have no idea how much our conventional jobs cost us, in terms of fuel, clothing, taxes, lunches out, dinners we buy because we’re too exhausted to cook for ourselves, etc.)

You know, we’ve gotta put a stop to this. And of course a lot of us have. We work for ourselves. We work on our own schedules. We stay at home and raise our own children. We’re the few, the proud, the self-employed, the Hardyvillians. But we still pay a big price for living in a job culture. (Think about it; your own kids might be saner for having full-time parents; but you still have to live with the consequences of your neighbors having surrendered their kids to day care and government education camps.)

But how do we call a screeching halt to this crazy, abnormal culture of mad rushes, gridlock, headaches, clock-watching, repetitive-motion injuries, and Prozac-and-Ritalin gobbling?

And if we did, as a society, determine to climb out of the job mess, would we have to go back to some sort of primitive living?

Does health, happiness, and prosperity, as we’ve been told all our lives, really rely on big (but efficient!) corporations, inexpensive mass-produced goods, production lines, high-tech medicine, and things made out of plastic?

Well, sort of. I sure am glad that even Hardyville has DVD players and broadband Internet. And no darned way am I going so far back to nature than I can’t microwave myself a cup of tea, thank you!

But isn’t it possible to have a society in which people are well-nourished, healthy, prosperous, warm — and yet also where hundreds of millions of us don’t have to trudge off to jobs we hate, leaving our children at day-care centers to be raised by strangers, paying our ever-increasing credit-card bills and mortgages? Isn’t it possible for millions of people to have the option of a sane, jobless life, rather than only those who are super-determined to overcome obstacles to achieve work freedom?

You know what? Let’s start working on that problem.

In the next column or two, let’s go to go out there and look at individual non-traditional options for surviving the 21st Century – without jobs, but without privation, either. And then let’s go even further out on that limb and start considering ways that whole societies full of individuals might – if the people in them really wanted to — reclaim their time, their lives, their children, their communities, and their work from this too-weird, frantic-manic, stomach-churning, post-industrial grind.

But in the meantime … somebody’s gotta serve the coffee and flip the burgers. Not to mention guide the airplanes to the runway and perform the brain surgery. Hm. This isn’t going to be an easy problem to solve.

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