Making a Living

March 9, 2011

In the right sort of economy, pleasure would not be merely an addition or by-product or reward; it would be both an empowerment of our work and its indispensable measure. —Wendell Berry

On Sunday our Voluntary Simplicity group met for the third time to talk about work—specifically what we do, why we do it, and whether our jobs (paid or unpaid) add value to our lives. To open the discussion, we each answered the question, Is work a factor in your self-image? For me, the answer is yes, absolutely. I’m an editor—and not just between the hours of 9 and 5. I’m the friend who corrects your grammar, answers your questions about punctuation and spelling, and reads personal essays for grad school and work applications.*

I was surprised to find that not everyone in the group felt this way about their chosen profession. Mary, in particular, has not identified herself with a job in twenty years, since she left her career as an attorney. She found herself in law school almost as a fluke, after years of trial and error in various academic programs. Now that her kids have left home, she volunteers her time and skills to several nonprofits. She says her sense of self is defined more by the educational experiences that led her to her numerous, varied work experiences.

The readings for this meeting included a handful of stories like Mary’s in which a person found a productive, fulfilling work life without the forty-hours-a-week commitment. In fact, the forty-hour workweek is a fairly new concept. For most of human history, people have worked only two or three hours per day, just long enough to tend to chores necessary for survival, such as hunting, foraging, and growing food. By the nineteenth century, though, the Industrial Revolution had consigned men, women, and children to factories for fifteen hours a day, six days a week. Work’s purpose was no longer simply to meet basic needs; it was to make money to fuel the new material culture. In the twenty-first century, this industrial age model still holds, and despite the successful efforts of labor unions and the Fair Labor Standards Act, the average American works 350 more hours per year than the average European.

Clearly, finding and keeping a stable, full-time, paid job has a number of benefits, including financial security, a sense of purpose, and, if you’re lucky, access to affordable health care. But the full-employment model isn’t for everyone (nor is full employment readily available in this economy), and there are other options out there. The keys to finding those options seem to be thoughtful deliberation, creativity, and courage—courage to be true to your individual nature, to live with less (if necessary), and to close the door behind you in order to commit to a new path ahead.

Whether you love your job or hate it, here a few things to keep in mind: Work is not simply paid employment; it is any productive or purposeful activity. And work is not separate from the rest of your life; it is a major part of your life—your personal contribution to society. Enjoy what you do and make it count.

*But please don’t count on me to edit my own writing.

Thanks to Helene, Judy, Mary, and Nan for sharing their ideas and stories.



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