Lately I have been hearing a lot of talk about people reassessing their lives. Juliette Lewis put it succinctly. “Only recently, I was like, life-work balance? That’s an amazing concept. I didn’t even know there was a name for it. I thought it was just like, work your ass off until you crash and burn, and then take some time off to heal your body and mind.” Her discovery is not new. It reminds me of the old adage that many people seemed to have newly repeated ‘No one ever says at their death bed, I wish I spent more time at work.’
Obviously Covid is having a profound effect on people’s attitudes. The death all around us has changed us. What is it all for? In untold numbers, perhaps millions of people are not returning to their jobs. I don’t know if it is the daily reminder of death, or people are enjoying being home and don’t want to go back. But it is such a huge phenomenon that our economy is reeling from its effects. Companies can’t find workers to do work that needs to get done. There is a breakdown in supplies, a shortage of people able to answer customers’ questions and respond to evident needs. We are all feeling it.
At its very best, this may be a good thing. Finding meaning and purpose before it is too late should not be taken lightly. How can we judge for others the right balance people are trying to achieve? Moreover reportedly, companies are being forced to give higher wages and tailoring jobs more to their employee’s needs (and wants). Even before Covid, many employers were being forced to make work more in line with their workers ideals, whether it was responding to global warming, racial and gender inequity, or keeping the ocean free of plastics. Any number of social goods have been elevated by workers, perhaps a late regret by them they hadn’t joined the peace corps when they might have. So many people in college have decided they will only work for non-profits. The new attitude is especially appealing to a generation of millennials who were particularly made to understand that they had to work their asses off to get anywhere in their occupation, not to mention paying off their college debt.
There is only one thing that may be underestimated in this more modern mantra. America and Americans have been very rich and comfortable compared to the rest of the world. If people stop working hard this may come to an end. The Chinese are busting their asses. That is their misfortune. It is also their opportunity. The world has become fiercely competitive. If too many of us refuse to go back to working hard at what we consider meaningless effort, our future will not be bright. Yes, being inspired in our undertakings is very satisfying and can be productive, even lead to competitive advantages. But that hasn’t been common in the work most people do.
Not long ago I watched a Netflix documentary about a Chinese glass factory that took over a mothballed glass factory GM once ran. The Chinese workers were amazed by the Americans working beside them. They found them lazy and inefficient, with horrible attitudes. The Chinese worked much longer hours, slept four in a cubicle. Every day the Chinese participated in song and dance pageants extolling their employers and their nation. They seemed to be into them. By contrast the Americans didn’t stop squawking. Many had once worked for GM before it shut down its factory. They were bitter that they weren’t earning what they once earned. They thought their bosses were slave drivers. There was one scene where the Chinese workers were asking the Americans what they thought of China. They were eager to hear good things, proud of their nation’s accomplishments. When they tried to brag about their country it went nowhere.
The Chinese worker’s attitude reminded me of the culture I knew in the 50’s. My mother worked as a secretary for many years. She never made much money. Nevertheless, she was proud that she worked for Pfizer. Proud of the wealth and history of the company. She looked up to her boss over the years. She was proud when he was promoted. She didn’t know his views on affairs of the day. She knew the names of his children and where they went to school, but little else. She happily reported to us that he told her he now understood Jews after he had seen Fiddler on the Roof. My mother never wondered what anti-Semitic views he might have had before he saw the show. When several times he told her that she was indispensable it delighted her. She did the work of two men. I didn’t doubt it. My mother was very intelligent and made sure everyone, including herself, did things well. It never occurred to her that she was being exploited. She made it clear that she was an executive secretary. Dressed very professionally she was crowded like sardines in the bus she took every morning to the subway. Which then took her to Manhattan. Neither bus nor train had air conditioning. Waiting for the bus, she stood in line during snow storms and during heat waves. Her attitude resembled the postmen’s motto. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night could stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. She expected that kind of devotion from herself and the mailman. She had incredible energy. She didn’t complain. On the contrary, she enjoyed her job. On her death bed I very much doubt she regretted anything about her long years of labor. It was a given. If anything, the harder the challenges she faced the more pride she took in her sacrifices. Her persistence, her effort, her victory over adversity highlighted the depth of her character. The meaning of her work was simple. Her work helped make possible her children’s accomplishments. That was plenty.
Here is the important point. During the 50’s my mother wasn’t unusual. Compared to the depression her family faced in the 30’s her life was like a cakewalk. Like most Americans she sensed things would get better and better. She was sure it would.
I fully understand how unfair her life was by today’s standards. And yes, I sympathize with people who are not too thrilled with their jobs. I want to do what I want to do as much of the time as I can. I get it. Their attitude rings true. That is how it should be. But I can’t ignore the implications of what Covid is making clearer than ever. We are now a bickering, dissatisfied people. Angry at our bosses, at all of the people in charge. They are seen as enslaving us. Our anger began before Donald Trump, before the Iraq war, before Nixon and all of our failing leaders were exposed. It was there before we thought of priests and boy scout leaders as perverts, before cops were seen as malevolent. I’m not sure when our anger and unruliness began. Nor when it escalated to its current level. The internet reveals an awful lot of people frothing at the mouth bursting with hatred. Yes, those Chinese workers participating in their company’s song and dance pageants seemed mindless, almost childlike. Yet, I’ll bet their children don’t see them that way. They probably see them like I saw my mother.
The point is that the new seemingly enlightened perspective about work that Americans are discovering may be a sign of a nation in decline. We will work less and suffer the consequences.