Collision Course: Live to Work, Work to Live

The question may sound glib, but it isn’t. Do you live to work, or do you work to live?

The underlying issues certainly precede our current debates over work-life balance, and those of us who have been in the workforce for 15 years or more will attest to that.

We remember being “asked” to take on more hours and responsibilities without additional pay, much less a change in title or job description. Weekends were routinely sacrificed, which meant less time with family or socializing.

In order to take any time off at all, extra work was required so you could then “relax” on your week of vacation. My own recollection of this change places it in the mid-1980s. But your recollections may differ, and historians may say otherwise.

Still, there’s no question that the rules of the game have changed. We live in a society that seems to have sped up, taken on more as “normal,” while realizing less fulfillment in the process. What it takes to get by is in direct conflict with our desire to do more than “get by.”

The New York Times offers two articles that touch on precisely this conflict. The first, by Thomas Friedman, “New Rules,”  makes reference to Bill Clinton’s recent speech at the Democratic National Convention, and resurrection of his 1992 phrase, “work hard and play by the rules.”

Work Hard and Play by the Rules?

It’s the lesson that many of us were raised with, the fundamental principle at the heart of the so-called American dream. If you work hard, you can earn whatever you set your mind to. And we’ve passed this teaching along to our children. But Mr. Friedman says it no longer applies. He writes:

… if you just “work hard and play by the rules” you should expect that the American system will deliver you a decent life and a chance for your children to have a better one… There is just one problem: It’s out of date.

The truth is, if you want a decent job that will lead to a decent life today you have to work harder, regularly reinvent yourself, obtain at least some form of postsecondary education, make sure that you’re engaged in lifelong learning and play by the rules…

Ah. Yes. Reinvention, Once Again

Regularly reinvent yourself. Check.

Engage in lifelong learning. Check.

Play by the rules. Maybe.

But what about the fact that “regular employment” is no longer the model by which our economy operates, or at least, not for huge segments of the population?

What about those of us for whom there isn’t even a pretense of security, as we move through a succession of temporary contract, freelance, or consulting gigs – sans benefits of any sort, much less the ability to plan for contingencies?

As for those (theoretical) rules, while I’m not certain that breaking the rules hasn’t served many well – excuse my cynicism – I know my own nature to be one of following rules which is not to say that I haven’t struggled in learning to bend them, just to survive. But I believe in a level playing field to the extent that’s possible, knowing full well that we’re dealt a certain hand when we’re born, and with a nod to nature, nurture, determination, and luck – we take it from there.

I would agree that 15 years ago (or more), we felt as if playing by the rules would keep us in the game, and working hard would not mean working all the time – simply to hang on.

The Times, They Are A-Changing

Mr. Friedman continues by driving home how times have changed:

Technology and globalization are wiping out lower-skilled jobs faster, while steadily raising the skill level required for new jobs. More than ever now, lifelong learning is the key to getting into, and staying in, the middle class…

Any form of standing still is deadly.

Isn’t that exactly where most of us find ourselves? Aware that standing still is impossible, but dog tired? Aren’t our children equally stressed and fatigued, though their youth allows them to renew more quickly?

Don’t we go to work sick? Don’t we have to – if we’re to be paid? Don’t we send our children to school sick, because we can’t afford to keep them home? I might go so far as to say that slowing down – much as we desire it – is utterly out of reach for many of us.

And wasn’t it only a few months ago that another article in the Times was touting less?

What is Work For? Work vs. Leisure

In a column focused on the more philosophical side of work and leisure, Gary Gutting describes the reality of our economic system as work smarter to produce more, rather than work smarter to yield more leisure.

In “What Work Is Really For” he writes:

We applaud people for their work ethic, judge the economy by its productivity… But there’s an underlying ambivalence… in our capitalist system it means work-for-pay, not for its own sake… something valuable not in itself but for what we can use it to achieve…

He goes on to quote Aristotle, “we work to have leisure, on which happiness depends,” explaining that if we can transform work into something we feel good about, something we value, then we may lead more fulfilling lives.

I understand Professor Gutting’s observations.

I like the vision he would bring to bear.

BigThink summarizes his position in “Why Our Work Should Also be Our Leisure,” and concludes:

The central problem of the current economy, in terms of leading a more fulfilling life, has to do with the single-minded nature of capitalism in its search for profit… Sadly… it seems [the consumer] is buying a lot of junk that caters more to fads and insecurities than to genuine human needs… we must encourage a population of thoughtful, self-determining individuals who seek to fulfill their own deeper needs.

Fulfilling Our Deeper Needs

While I might enjoy the sentiments expressed by Professor Gutting, unfortunately they strike me as unrealistic to say the least. I see no mechanism in place for us to hop off the hamster wheel, chase our dreams, and simultaneously earn a living. This doesn’t mean I don’t believe in trying, but how does this mesh with the requirement to take on more? The reinvention, relearning, and broadening of job expectations Mr. Friedman explores?

It seems to me that “live to work” has been battering “work to live” for at least a decade, and likely longer.

I will use Mr. Friedman’s pointed example of the journalist – as it is one I am somewhat familiar with.

Here’s what a reporter does in a typical day: report, file for the Web edition, file for The International Herald Tribune, tweet, update for the Web edition, report more, track other people’s tweets, do a Web-video spot and then write the story for the print paper… That’s your day. You have to work harder and smarter and develop new skills faster.

Pursuing Your Passion

Pursuing our passions is a lovely proposition, isn’t it? Wouldn’t we all like to substitute more leisure for work, or work at what we love and better still – at something which adds meaning to our lives, and does some good while we’re at it?

Ideally, we would add to the ranks of the “helping professions” including those who teach, who give care, who care well. We would also add to the scientific community, and to the arts – which our culture continues to devalue in my opinion, which is another discussion.

Yet I don’t see that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has lost relevance. Aren’t we still fighting at the two lower levels, physiological and safety needs – food and shelter long before self-actualization?

Isn’t pursuit of one’s passions that offer us deeper meaning the dream, not the promise?

And once again, when you are continually off balance because the end of your job or assignment may come next week or next month, and the next paying position is far from guaranteed, how does pursuing your passion – much less leisure – even make it on the list?

Lifelong Learning – A Given

Mr. Friedman suggests that only through supporting lifelong learning will we be able to keep up, which necessitates infrastructure that encourages job training, just as an  example. Then again, the perpetual “more” we face will ultimately land us at a breaking point, if it hasn’t already.

Mr. Gutting suggests that we re-examine our capitalist system and since we are increasingly required to work so much, we should seek to channel more efforts into what we love (or at least, tolerate?) – thus transforming work into something closer to leisure.

  • Are they both right?
  • Are these positions compatible or on a collision course?
  • Is this conflict a significant force in our well entrenched 21st century Happiness Industry?

Even if we can reinvent, relearn, and take on an ever-enlarging sphere of tasks and responsibilities, will the American work ethic as it exists today, equating leisure with guilt, prevent our moments of happiness – or at least, tarnish them? Are we doomed to a perpetual juggle and the resulting conflict of interest? Is “happiness” yet one more challenge of the privileged?

So where do you find yourself in this debate – and its necessary compromises?