The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work: Reviews

Roy Williams in the Australian, 11 April 2009

Read at the Australian website

In The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham’s Cold War science fiction classic, most of the world’s people wake up one morning to discover that, overnight, they have gone blind. The Earth is otherwise intact but, straight away, civilisation collapses.

Within a few weeks most of the world’s population is dead from starvation, misadventure, suicide or disease. For the small number of sighted survivors, everything is there for the taking: huge existing stocks of equipment, materials and foodstuffs, as well as virtually limitless natural resources.

But they are hampered by almost total ignorance of even the basics of human subsistence. And the contents of all the world’s libraries are of limited help.

Bill Masen, the novel’s Everyman narrator, muses at one point: “It had never occurred to any writer on the subject that any potential farmer could be starting from absolute zero … My specialised biological knowledge was all but useless to me in the face of practical problems.”

Wyndham was writing in 1951. The world, then, was already a highly atomised place, but almost 60 years later the situation is far more pronounced. I do not know whether Alain de Botton has read The Day of the Triffids, but one of the core themes of his latest book is that so memorably dramatised by Wyndham. The “unremitting division of labour” is, with technology, the source of the modern human’s unparalleled affluence, yet it is also the principal cause of ouralienation, our lack of curiosity and our exquisite vulnerability.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is a collection of 10 essays, each devoted to a specialised vocation. These range extremely broadly, from deep-sea tuna fishing to biscuit manufacture, career counselling to rocket science. De Botton travels to some far-flung destinations (the Maldives, French Guiana, a medieval village in Belgium) as well as many not-so-glamorous sites in his home, England (Tilbury container terminal, Heathrow airport, “a run-down suburban street in south London”).

He interviews people at the coalface and has the knack of spotting and describing telling details. Each essay is accompanied by striking black-and-white photographs taken by the talented Richard Baker.

De Botton describes the book as “a hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace”. His twin aims are, first, to demonstrate the finely balanced interconnectedness of 21st-century global society and, second, to explore the factors that make a job meaningful (or not) for the person who performs it. This is easily the best of de Botton’s books to date. Some of his earlier titles, including best-sellers The Consolations of Philosophy and Status Anxiety, struck me as trite. But the tone here is pitch-perfect. De Botton writes with wisdom, conciseness and slyly mordant wit.

One reliable test of an essayist’s ability is to read something they have written on a subject about which you possess intimate knowledge. How often are such pieces marred by elementary errors and shallow prejudices? It is rare to find one that is even competent, let alone genuinely illuminating. De Botton passes this test superbly. I spent 19 years working as a commercial lawyer in Sydney, and can attest that de Botton’s photo-essay about the (closely comparable) world of mega-firm accounting in London is amazingly — indeed, frighteningly — accurate.

You will learn more in these 40 pages about the day-to-day reality of life as a “service-provider” for the neo-liberal corporate world than you would watching a thousand hours of Boston Legal or reading 10,000 pages of John Grisham thrillers. (Australia’s Lisa Pryor tried something similar in her 2008 book, The Pinstriped Prison, but despite some lively observations it didn’t quite come off.)

Importantly, de Botton does not over-egg the pudding. His treatment is merciless but balanced. Thus, for example, he does not mock the team of auditors who take “earnest pride in their mastery of a labyrinthine craft”. He recognises “the paradoxes and triumphs of commercial societies” and “the discrete charms of offices, with their intriguing blend of camaraderie, intelligence and futility”. That is spot-on. So too his delightfully dry observation about “the mask of shallow cheerfulness” behind which white-collar life is carried on. Workers are left “grievously unprepared to handle the fury and sadness continually aroused by their colleagues”.

There are passages that are intensely moving, in the way of the best short stories. One that stood out for me — again, because of its uncanny verisimilitude — was a detailed portrayal of the first two hours in the average day of a 20-something corporate accountant. De Botton sketches her ritual actions and imagines her thoughts: from the moment she wakes up, dreamily, at her home in Berkshire until her arrival, after a 50km train journey, at her office in London, just “in time to buy a muffin and a coffee from the cafeteria”. It’s Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, 50 years later.

De Botton is often wryly funny. For instance, he skewers “call me Phil” chief executives who affect a phony, self-serving egalitarianism.

He empathises with everyone who has suffered through a technological disaster at work: “The occupant (of the office) was squatting beneath his desk, dealing with a printer problem which had sunk him into the sort of cataclysmically sour mood which typically accompanies such a predicament.”

I cannot vouch for the factual correctness of de Botton’s other essays, those about cargo-ship operators, Japanese television executives, production line workers and so on. But the overall picture he paints is fascinating and — to my inexpert mind — rings true. De Botton makes his case that the West’s prosperity depends on “its members forfeit(ing) general knowledge in favour of fostering individual ability in narrowly constricted fields”. In its extreme form — and we are not far from it — “no one would any longer understand what anyone else was doing”. Hence our utter helplessness if anything major were to go wrong. One thinks of climate change …

This outstandingly good book is also a meditation on the role of work in individual lives. The Protestant work ethic still inculcates Western culture, albeit in corrupted form. Given that few people in the West would regard doing their job as a form of worship of God, when does a job feel meaningful? De Botton’s answer: “Whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others.” Past a point, he contends, remuneration plays a very little role, other than as a medicament for misery and stress.

This theory is borne out by de Botton’s case studies. The most fulfilled workers are those who retain their integrity and autonomy, together with a sense of “child-like excitement”: the unknown painter who loves his craft; the head of a French space station; driven entrepreneurs.

Also fairly content (given reasonable conditions and job security) are many low-skilled employees who eschew the myth that all jobs should make us happy. Instead, they work to live.

The most desolate people in today’s workplaces, de Botton suggests, are those whose jobs seem to them to lack any connection with the lives of real people (even if, indirectly, they do). Many in this situation earn large sums of money, but often were forced to decide what to do with their talents at too young an age. Thus pigeon-holed, they still strive guiltily to be “exceptional”, and risk their souls in the process.

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