The agony of returning to work in September
For eight improbable years, TS Eliot earned his crust as a clerk for Lloyds Bank. He did not have the excuse of ignorance, therefore, when he misidentified April as the “cruelest month”. All working people know the real ogre to be September. Millions of us are winding down our summer holidays around now and answering the call of necessary employment.
I enjoy my job to an almost indecent degree. Yet even I felt a pang as I flew out of Perugia recently and into my nine-to-five (or, if you must, my eleven-to-two). La rentrée is all the harsher on people with proper jobs.
The sour atmosphere in airport departure lounges does at least clarify something. The search for pleasure and meaning in work is, beyond a certain point, a fool’s errand. No doubt, some jobs are better than others. But as long as work is an obligation — something one must do, to uphold a standard of living — there is a limit to the joy it can ever bring. Leisure will always feel better, and by a margin that is unbridgeable with worker-friendly offices and other blandishments.
I started my career just before any of this needed saying. But then the promise began to emerge of work that need not feel like work. Companies vied to lay on the most ergonomic environments, the kindest mentors, the loosest schedules. A generation of in-demand graduates came to expect not just these material incentives but a sort of credal alignment with their employer’s “values”. The next recession will retard this trend but it is unlikely to kill it.
All of this is as it should be. I was raised by people who had to toil without any of these perks. I don’t romanticise it as an era of Spartan virtue. Whatever companies do to nudge their staff up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is to be saluted.
It is just that the kindest service we can do for the young is manage their expectations. Work can be made a lot better than it might otherwise be. It cannot be made to be something other than work. The idea is taking hold, I sense, that it is odd to do something that is not exactly what you would wish to be doing at a particular moment. But this is the lot of even the most “creative” worker, the most self-governing entrepreneur. Very few professional tasks are so absorbing as to be one’s first-choice pursuit in circumstances of total freedom.
A personal ambition is to reach the end of my career without having managed a single person. Friends who have been less lucky, who have whole teams under their watch, report a quirk among their younger charges. It is not laziness or obstreperousness or those other millennial slanders. It is an air of disappointment with the reality of working life. They will be among the people described in Bullshit Jobs by the anthropologist David Graeber. They will not be among the mere 18 per cent who told YouGov in 2015 that work was “very fulfilling”. As much as the fogey in me blames their entitlement, they were promised more than was plausible by company brochures and a culture that pretends an office can feel like something else.
Companies are only able to soften the experience of employment so much. What they cannot finesse out of existence is the crux: the surrender of time for money that you would ideally fill with something else. The perk to really haggle for, then, is not in-work comfort but the maximisation of paid leave.
Twenty years have passed since Office Space, and the cult film remains the acutest satire of alienating employment. In the central scene, workers do to an eternally malfunctioning printer more or less what liberated Iraqis did to statues of Saddam Hussein.
It has one dud note, though, and it comes at the end, when the main character quits his office cubicle for life as a construction worker. The message is that manual labour does not have its own kind of soul-sucking boredom and pressure. It takes a cocooned sort to believe this kind of thing, but lots of people believe it of careers other than their own. The simplest jobs and the most cerebral are both heroised. But the defining thing about work is not its exact content. It is the fact that you have to do it. Look around at the faces in the departure lounge. In a stratified labour force, a rare unifier is dread of the cruelest month.