Why Work Hard? On Facing The Myth of Work-Life Balance

why work? why be in the chain gang
Written by Jason Dias

Why work hard? Why indeed? Our capitalist system rewards people not for hard work, but for risking capital. Money. Stake some money, own a stake in the enterprise, reap the rewards. You’re never going to work your way out of poverty …

aNewDomain — Work-life balance. It’s kind of a joke here in the United States, and and it is sometimes a pretty bad one, too. This Cadillac commercial about sums it up, right?

“We” don’t take two weeks off in August. We can’t afford to.

In graduate school for psychology, this was the worst joke ever. Not the commercial – the idea of self-care. We had ethics classes where we learned the psychologist or therapist neglecting self-care was acting unethically. Avoid burn-out — that was a responsibility. Every professor would tell you to order your priorities.

At the same time, the school tried to kill us with class requirements, readings, dissertations and essays, the race to get published, and obligatory clinic hours. Oy, the clinic hours. Personally I wound up getting CT scans and biopsies, is how much self-care time I had.

But I survived it, and now I profess, and if I can’t exactly give students time for self-care I can at least be sympathetic when the papers are a little late or they need an extra day on class forums because they have to sign their divorce paperwork.

Who is it all for?

In the work world, we don’t get two weeks off in August or any other month. If you’re in academics you have some time where you aren’t in a classroom and are therefore invisible. I have two weeks before school starts up again, for example, but that time is filled up with creating syllabi for the next classes and getting all my grades entered from the last ones.

In the meantime I have to write like crazy because there’s going to be a pay gap. No, my “down” time isn’t paid.

You don’t take vacation days. If you earn them, you feel like:

If you went on vacation, your employer might find out you’re not indispensable.

Or, you can’t afford to do anything more interesting than work.

And if you went they’d make you take your phone and stuff and just harass you to death with calls.

And when you got back, none of your shit would be done; after the first day of catching up, all the restorative effects of work would be undone.
Let’s just never mind that fact that most of us work low-wage service jobs anyhow.

We don’t earn paid time off and if we did it would get spent on illnesses and maternity and hangovers.

Now who the hell are we working so hard for?

Do YOU have a Cadillac? If you did, would the Caddy be worth 50 hours a week at the office and responding to emails the other 118 hours of the week?

I couldn’t buy a Cadillac even if I wanted to.

If you can’t buy your dream car, is it because you aren’t working hard enough, not winning? If money comes from hard work, then Bill Gates is the hardest working man in America. Are you sure that’s not the guy up at four making the donuts, though, or the woman who takes the bus two hours into the business district to work at a restaurant, then another hour to do a janitorial job, then three hours home at night to make dinner and tuck in the kids? If hard work = success, how come she isn’t the world’s richest person?

Our capitalist system rewards people not for hard work, but for risking capital. Money. Stake some money, own a stake in the enterprise, reap the rewards. You’re never going to work your way out of poverty, and increasingly your expensive degrees grant the rich for-profit educators a stake in your future earnings so that doesn’t help either.

Work hard for a restaurant. You might scrape enough to get by. Might get promoted to management so you can earn enough in your eighty-hour work week to buy some nice stuff for the house you rarely visit. You might even make the shop owner rich. But chances are that restaurant is part of a chain, and the chain demands franchise fees, and those franchise fees support a board and some stock-holders – the people fronting the capital.

Work hard for a college or university. If you’re lucky, you can do well. Very lucky. Most profs these days are part-time, contingent workers with no benefits. Your hard work supports administrators and, in the for-profit system, those shareholders again.

Fifty percent of shares in companies are owned by the richest 1 percent of Americans. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that hard work benefits rich people.

So why work hard?

Why squabble down here in the lower 40 percent of incomes, skip our vacations, fail to demand health care and maternity leave and paid sick days and some retirement contributions? If it isn’t you, who is your work enriching?

I’ve been in a little trouble at one of my jobs, stepped on someone’s toes. They won’t employ me more than ¼ time so I refuse to work more than ¼ time. That makes some customers feel less than completely valued. And that’s tough shit, in the end: if you want your customers to feel valued, hire enough employees to work enough hours to attend to their needs.

When you go out to eat, or get work done at the mechanics, or go to college, try to remember this: the people serving you are just like you: they work really hard, trying to get to a point where they are comfortable. There’s a brass ring someplace in their lives they just can’t afford the risk to grab for.

And you’re there in their work space demanding their full attention, demanding they represent a company that won’t commit to them enough that they can take care of their selves.
They might be sick or working through pain.

They might have kids at home who aren’t strictly old enough to be alone but who can’t go hungry, either.

They might have not been home to see their family for a decade or two decades. They might be going through a foreclosure or a divorce.

Or failing college because their boss requires overtime of them and it’s just for this week because Mannie walked off the job or Carla got fired for smoking weed in the back but it’s never just for this week, it’s every week, because there’s always a Mannie or a Carla or a Dave. Fucking Dave, man.

We do it all because we have to.

We have to be perfect, all the time, every day. We aren’t ever going to be rich and skipping vacation won’t make us any richer.

But if we miss a day we might find out we have no job at all. And we tell ourselves day after day that something is better than nothing.

Isn’t it?

For aNewDomain, I’m Jason Dias.