The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work: Reviews

Richard Donkin in the Financial Times, 3 April 2009

Read at the Financial Times website

Many parents over the past 20 or 30 years will have come across the children’s books of Richard Scarry at some stage, with their detailed illustrations portraying the world of street-cleaners, firefighters and road repairers going about their everyday work. Perhaps his best known book was: What Do People Do All Day?

It is a reasonable question to pose in our complicated world and one that inspired philosopher and writer Alain de Botton to embark on his own distinctive and personable observation of the world of work that he found surprisingly difficult to access. Some 90 per cent of his requests to go inside companies and look at how they went about their day-to-day business were rej-ected.

Could it be that companies sensed they had a heretic in their midst, bent on ridiculing their strategy trees, mission statements, management jargon and sterile employment systems? It would not take long for corporate executives in conversation with the author to realise that here was a man they might reasonably describe as “not one of us”.

Yet the 10 per cent of companies that did acquiesce must have sensed a genuine desire for understanding in what developed into a forensic and not entirely unsympathetic examination of the minutiae of business operations.

This is business viewed through the lens of someone schooled in the arts. Passing the corner office of a United Biscuits employee working late on a brand analysis of McVities Moments, de Botton is moved to make comparisons between this scene and one depicted by the popular 1930s American artist Edward Hopper.

A common theme from the painting and this office work, he decides, is an imbalance between the interests of the product and the value of individuals. Why, he wonders aloud to the female analyst, have productivity improvements succeeded in making better material goods while neglecting the higher needs of people for emotional stability?

There are shades here of Marcel Duchamps’s questioning of materialism in the Dada art movement of 1915 when, in a series of works he called “Readymades”, Duchamps deliberately undermined the usefulness of everyday, serviceable objects by presenting them as art. But if de Botton was seeking to explore such avenues among employees of United Biscuits, his mission was frustrated by the practical necessity of the job in hand.

The biscuit analyst seems nonplussed by his attempts to engage her in conversation. “A terrified expression spread across her features and she asked that I might excuse her,” he writes. Could it be that the analyst was simply seeking to get her work finished for the night, rather than let herself be drawn into an abstract and almost certainly inconclusive discussion?

Throughout the book there are quite a few of these meetings of unsynchronised minds, where de Botton is pursuing themes that are alien to the corporate world view. It is a shame, because his questions are as important as they are unsettling.

His observations are laced with humour too. While musing on the United Biscuits moment, he recalls a passage written in 1866, “eighty-one years before the invention of the Jaffa Cake”. The passage is from John Ruskin, who wrote: “Of all wastes, the greatest waste you can commit is the waste on labour.”

The Ruskin quote gets to the essence of de Botton’s quest for meaning in work. The author’s language is far too eloquent to phrase a question in such stark terms but we can see, underneath, he is asking: “What’s the point of it all?”

At the same time, however, he is marvelling at the complexities and specialisations of work; but sentiments worthy of Scott Adams’s Dilbert are barely concealed. On a visit to an accountancy firm, he is given some time with the chairman whose dull responses lead de Botton to suggest that executive-living at the top of such organisations can “hollow out” a personality.

“I feel my boredom turn to pity for someone who one might otherwise imagine had precious little to be pitied for,” he writes.

Here is the sorrow in the book’s title. But this is not an anti-work book. Other passages celebrate what he recognises as the nobility of labour. People’s jobs, he complains, have too often been neglected by writers. “In fiction, people spend time falling in love or killing each other but never seem to go to the office,” he says.

Perhaps they should, since he argues that sexual repression arising from harassment codes has become a source of erotic tension in the modern office. “There are few settings today as libidinous as the laminated open-plan spaces of our corporations,” he writes. Sexual harassment codes, he suggests, protect the company as much as employees who might otherwise become distracted because of what he calls an “awkward truth: how much more interesting we might find it to have sex than to work”.

I wonder if there is a touch of guilt in de Botton’s writing since he notes that “writers don’t go to work.” In grappling with this uncomfortable admission he risks comparison with Jerome K Jerome, who once declared: “I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.”

If this thoughtful book has proved one thing, it is that work continues to fascinate and frustrate in equal measure.

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