Caught in the Routine

When the alarm goes off in the morning, it’s the beginning of a sequence of actions that happen because we are obliged to a schedule. Eric works his way through the dark apartment to the shower where he proudly does everything with his eyes still closed. I sit and contemplate why I have to get up when my first thing of the day isn’t until 2:00, but eventually I do. Breakfast and lunch are made, teeths are brushed, there’s a silent battle of who will go back to turn off the light in the kitchen, and upon leaving one of us pulls on the door so the other can lock it.

He goes to work. It’s still dark. “Have a wonderful day, I love you.” “Have a wonderful day, I love you.” It’s too early to say much more than that. When he gets home at 5:00 he’s already talking about going to bed. How can he not when he feels dead unless he gets 9 hours? It’s as if he’s still in jr. high. Work doesn’t energize him. He told me that 10 years is about the time it takes to climb the ladder to department manager or whatever. I think, I would die doing this for 10 years.

Schedules are good. They keep us responsible. Bills have due dates, paychecks come on certain days contingent upon if we show up to work. Schedules help make goals a reality. I of all people can testify that schedules make work get done.

But the why of the schedule, to be productive, starts to replace the why of life, to have joy. This study as reported by Lonnie Golden explores the effects of unemployment, underemployment (desire for more hours) and overemployment (willingness to get paid less for working less). Schedule variability is a common factor in today’s part-time employment sector. Hours are determined by employers and change some times at the last minute. Schedules that are subject to change lead to income volatility. Not only is work determined by some one else, but pay also then is unpredictable. Golden writes,

A common consequence is that such practices limit employees’ opportunity to balance work, social, and family responsibilities…Employees’ dissatisfaction with their work hours, not too surprisingly, is intensified by the interaction of want of schedule control and the variability of their hours.

Work, which is supposed to sustain us and enable us, becomes a source of dissatisfaction. Statistics in the report measure “work-family interference, work stress, and fatigue”, all of which are affected by one’s work schedule. The thing that ought to improve all of the above is one of the biggest contributors to their existence.

Eric, who works 50 hour weeks, does not receive benefits and can be laid off at any time. He is at a computer screen all day. He doesn’t get any incentives, bonuses, there is no opportunity for a raise in sight. He is the newer of many workers of the same position, all of whom are hoping for the same thing, to rise in the industry.

Yoko Ishikura of Hitotsubashi University writes on the World Economic Forum about why we work. Her number one reason: “It is critical to have financial means to support oneself. Without economic independence, we cannot design our life.”

Work is empowering. It is part of who we are, and also determines how we live. It plays such a crucial role in everything we do, for better and for worse. While work may be the means with which we can design our life, it also takes up a considerable amount of the composition of life. Ishikura continues.

It is crucial that WE feel we are in charge of our own work, and not be subject to the decisions forced on us. When we feel we can control what and how we work, we become productive and find work fun and meaningful.

Crucial to what? To our well-being. To our sanity. Control over how much we work and what kind of work we do will eventually determine what we live for, and ultimately, who we are. When Eric has to submit to menial work and long hours, he starts to surrender authorship of his life and instead of creating his own design, resigns to a pre-made template. This acts as a drain to what he had in mind for himself.

In his TEDtalk in 2014 Barry Schwartz talks about the effect ideas on behavior, and from there the effect of capitalism, Adam Smith’s big idea, on society. Of attitudes, he says:

If you think your poverty is God's will, you pray. If you think your poverty is the result of your own inadequacy, you shrink into despair. And if you think your poverty is the result of oppression and domination, then you rise up in revolt. Whether your response to poverty is resignation or revolution, depends on how you understand the sources of your poverty. This is the role that ideas play in shaping us as human beings…

We have the idea, or at least Eric’s line of work has the idea, that one has to put in the time at the bottom of the ladder, take one’s turn working long seemingly meaningless hours so that one day long down the road, one can get paid millions per year for sending an email per day. This is not a truth, but an attitude and habit that has been carved from years and years of practice. Schwartz continues:

It is not true that you "just can't get good help anymore." It is true that you "can't get good help anymore" when you give people work to do that is demeaning and soulless. And interestingly enough, Adam Smith -- the same guy who gave us this incredible invention of mass production, and division of labor -- understood this. He said, of people who worked in assembly lines, of men who worked in assembly lines, he says: "He generally becomes as stupid as it is possible for a human being to become."

Those same people who did their time at the bottom of the ladder are actually continuing a practice that decreases the capacity of everyone else to succeed. What if the entry-level position was the most intellectually challenging? What if we were required to do more? Had more responsibilities? More depending on us? If this doesn’t happen, The consequences can be severe. Last quote from Barry:

…the very shape of the institution within which people work creates people who are fitted to the demands of that institution and deprives people of the opportunity to derive the kinds of satisfactions from their work that we take for granted.

The alarm will go off tomorrow at 6:00. Eric will get home at 5:00 and talk about going to bed. He can control whether or not he continues to follow this pattern, but the consequences of not doing so would be severe. What he has to figure out, and me, and everyone, is how to shape the institution of his life, my life, our life so that our daily demands are enough to save us from stupidity, to use the words of Adam Smith. If instagram is the most mentally stimulating thing I do in a day, then that day I’m afraid that I got dumber. Entry-level positions may inevitably be boring and seemingly unnecessary, so then it becomes my responsibility to find mental stimulation elsewhere. It may be hard to find the energy, but my brain depends on it!

Go out and challenge yourself!