June 2005 - The search for balance in work and
One of the most disconcerting
sights when working by the side of a plate glass
window in a large office is the appearance of
the window cleaner. I always believed that the
Financial Times window cleaner enjoyed sneaking
up on dozing journalists and slapping his squeegee
over the glass for maximum effect.
Life outside the window seemed
much less complicated than life on the inside.
This impression was confirmed last week in the
first part of a short documentary series on BBC
Radio Four, The Workaday World*, presented by
Bill Morris, the former general secretary of the
Transport and General Workers Union.
To get both perspectives the
series producers interviewed a financial worker
called Jane in Canary Wharf and Patrick, a window
cleaner, who cleans the windows of big offices.
“We are now vision technicians,” he
Jane complained of being “chained
to a desk in front of a PC”, a kind of bench-work
she likened to working in a sewing factory. “You
could drop dead on the floor and they would pull
you out and bring the next person in,” she
said. “You have no control of your life.”
Patrick, on the other hand, said
he enjoyed his job. “Every day’s a
good day,” he said. “I think I’m
on the greenest side of the window.”
The idea, of course, was to suggest
that Patrick, who probably earns a fraction of
the salary paid to Jane is intrinsically better
off. This has been a classic theme among writers
and artists for more than two centuries in their
search for the working idyll.
Often they found it – or
thought they had found it – in farmers’
fields. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote of the
“blessed moments” to be enjoyed while
wielding a Scythe where it is possible to build
up such a regular and deliberate pattern of mowing
that worker becomes lost in his occupation. The
Welsh writer Ifan Edwards wrote about the skills
to be learned and satisfaction to be achieved
in shovelling earth in to a skip.
Other writers such as Herman
Melville and Richard Henry Dana observed the artistry
and respect to be found in the mastery of seamanship.
On my shelves I have a collection of the photographs
of Frank Meadow Sutcliffe who chronicled the work
of fishing people in Whitby during the Victorian
Era. There is a beautiful honesty in his pictures.
There is dishonesty too, because it is so easy
to forget that much of this work was hard and
But this was the point that these
writers and artists were attempting to convey
– that a comfortable life is denied the
sense of purpose to be found in what some have
described as “honest toil”. Is it
any coincidence that these people were living
during a time of rapid change that was influencing
their own approaches to work? Dana had qualified
as a lawyer and only went to sea on doctor’s
orders in the hope that it would remedy his failing
eyesight. Sutcliffe’s art was exploiting
the latest photographic technologies while Tolstoy
was witnessing the undercurrents of political
change that would culminate in the Russian Revolution.
Yet all of these people were
recording a world that seemed, on the face of
it, to be unchanging. In the BBC programme, Peter
Nolan, the director of the Economic and Social
Research Council’s Future of Work Programme,
reminded us that those who spend long periods
staring at a computer screen remain a minority
in the workplace.
One of the fastest growing jobs
in the UK, he said, was that of a shelf-filler.
Some 40 per cent of jobs in the UK, he said covered
traditional manual work while a further 25 per
cent were in traditional service industries such
as hotels, shops and clerical work.
Such statistics are sometimes
used to suggest that the way we work is changing
less than some have suggested. But statistics,
like the photograph, do not always reveal the
full picture. Change is subtle and gradual. More
than forty years ago when I started school I can
recall few of my classmates who had a working
mother. Those who did were called latchkey kids
because they let themselves in when they came
home from school.
The latchkey kids were pitied
because everyone knew their mothers worked out
of necessity to supplement their father’s
earnings. Today most women enter a career by choice.
Very quickly they become bound up in the debt
cycle that is introduced to young people as soon
as they take out a student loan. The service of
debt has become institutionalised to such an extent
that it has become an unconscious obligation.
Once that working people take on a mortgage they
can be denying themselves the opportunity to step
out of a career for at least half a lifetime.
In these circumstances it is
understandable that many working parents are likely
to welcome the announcement by Ruth Kelly, the
UK Education Secretary, that funding is being
allocated to allow sate schools to open their
doors from 8am to 6pm. This will mean that schools
will become not simply centres of learning but
supervised social arenas from which young people
are likely to draw most of their formative influences.
Such changes fail to address
a worrying deficiency arising from the growth
of organised working – a corresponding shrinkage
of opportunities to step outside those institutionalised
arenas we tend to occupy when we are not at home.
There is a mountain of literature
and expertise on the stresses and pressures of
work. But it is easy to be misled by the focus
of many studies in to believing that the biggest
problem is the work itself. Real physical work,
like wielding a scythe, digging a hole or working
the nets on a trawler, is far less stressful than
the indeterminate distractions of the workplace.
The pressure builds from so many directions –
the expectations of managers, colleagues, customers,
suppliers, investors, politicians plus a hundred
and one ill-defined individuals who intermediate
in our lives.
This pressure starts early, in
the schoolroom and the play ground, so in that
sense the new “Kelly day” might be
equipping young people authentically for a future
in which most may find themselves dancing eternally
to someone else’s tune.
For myself, I count my blessings
that I finished school at four, came home, ate
my tea (dinner was lunchtime), then set out to
play with friends before returning home for an
hour or two with the rest of the family before
bedtime. I’m sure my memories are rose-tinted
but I remember there was a warmth and security
in the sanctuary of the family. That too is no
longer reflected in the disjointed relationships
of contemporary life.
The stable family, like the traditional
job, still exists but not as I recall it. Today
my family lives together under the same roof but
rarely combines as a group beyond meal times.
We may never find that idyllic
combination of work and rest that sometimes seems
as unattainable as the alchemist’s dream.
But I cannot help thinking just now that too many
of us are looking in all the wrong places.
as a pdf file