The fatality of modern work

This is translation of a text originally written in french and published around April 2009 on, a friend`s blog. The original version can be found here. It turns out that translating is not as easy as it seems, even if I am both the original author and the translator. Incidently, my apologies are given in advance for everything that still has a french syntax to it.

At the time I am starting to write this piece, I have only spent two months and half in this field of cubicles but I feel like a man in his forties, jaded and purposeless from all those years wasted away in floors of false-walls, desks and computers. How can they do it, those colleagues of mine to whom I have never spoken a word, but on which I spy relentlessly in the hope that I will someday understand; understand how they came to accept this fatality of modern work.

What I mean by fatality.

On many occasions, I have shared my desire with my relatives to do what I love most full-time while possibly making enough money to live a frugal but comfortable existence. Almost systematically, I have been replied that work is a necessity before a leisure, that it’s one of those things in life you cannot avoid and that whatever your occupation, you should see it from a positive eye, especially if it pays well. In brief, work is a fatality every member of a society at least a bit conscientious of his quality of life must submit to.

The individuals I work with, should I present them the same question, would most likely give me the same answer. Not that I have asked around, but the fact that I have great difficulty in conceiving them being empty enough to fall under the charms of this paradigm, brings me to the same conclusion.

Times have changed; the western man no longer works solely for subsistence. It seems the American dream has taken over the latter as the first motive of work even tough it is no synonym of accomplishment. Yet, we still justify this quest for manufactured and artificial comfort as a necessity not unlike that of serfdom a few centuries ago. Only now, we seem to be in servitude of economical growth.

A disconcerting superficiality.

It took about ten seconds for discomfort to settle inside me. The moment I first sat in my cubicle, number 441 on the 4th floor of some government building, I kept immobile, stopped my breathing and opened my ears to the ambient sounds. On a background noise of typing, computer hums and various other humanly sonorities, I could hear two women converse; one explaining the traumatizing experience of driving her pet in emergency to the veterinary hospital and the other mechanically acquiescing. The rhythmic flow of typical linguistic constructions evoked a profound disinterestedness from the latter, but the axioms of office life dictated that she could not politely bring this conversation to an early but still overdue end. Trough extrapolation or empathy, I saw myself in a few years time in the very same situation and this is when I really sensed the discomfort. I could not see past my walled cubicle, but it felt like the field was closing in on my person, engulfing me in an insipid lifestyle.

Every day now I encounter this sort of situation where my colleagues chat about the weather (even though they will spend the entirety of the day inside), ask one another how they are doing (even though they do not care) or how their week-end went (even though they still do not care). I agree, those are sometimes legitimate questions, but I am also fully aware that they most often are asked out to promote a polite and concerned image. An image that I am currently forced to project myself, but which I find profoundly dishonest and artificial so incidentally I do my best to avoid those discussions like the plague for I do not want to foster any false friendships in this context. And I could be in the wrong, it could be that all of this is authentic; regardless, I do not want to hang around individuals who cannot converse about anything else.

They do not do it because they believe in it, but because they play the game; or is it that trough inevitable conditioning, they no longer question themselves? How can you show any interest about the low-level bureaucratic hardships of project in a sub-organization or some massive department? I don’t understand. Is it egoism? A desire for promotion? A tacit acceptation of this fatality? A pure lack of consciousness? The sheer variety of human minds that populate this planet leads me to believe to some entertain a genuine interest for this occupation, but that a thousand of them ended up in the same building appears to me as improbable. So, what type of person must you be to accept to spend a sizeable chunk of your conscious life as a cog of this administrative machine?

Profile of a victim.

Who are they and who should I be in order to become comfortable in such an environment? How can they tolerate an existence passing before their eyes in a monotonic cycle of work days, short evenings of numbing TV watching and a week-end instantly ruined by the perspective of yet another Monday? To this question I have found only one plausible answer: the absence of ambitions that cannot be realized by the simple accumulation of capital or social status. The fatality of work matches perfectly the very human goals of family, material comfort and peer recognition. However, it is grossly insufficient at fulfilling any desire for creation or intellectual development, which can only be fully realized when one is in full control of their existence and even more so their intellect.

Buried alive

My ambitions, I believe, are part of the second category and cannot consequently be fulfilled in this present context. I am then forced to choose between the pursuit of those ambitions of the plain acceptance of this fatality. Both options are risky, but one is necessarily nobler while the other confers greater security. If I select the path of reason and continue my progression in this present situation, certainly a physically comfortable one, I will be constrained to bury part of myself with the risk of it coming back to haunt me later on in life. On the other hand, if I follow my ambitions, I risk failure and could see myself having to accept the fatality of modern work and live with the sour taste of defeat for the rest of my days. I prefer the second options, burying a part of oneself is seldom advisable; plus, there is merit in the simple act of trying. But when I expose my vision to others, all I get for feedback is that I am an idealist, that my projects are nothing but utopia and that I am heading for a major disappointment. Although my interlocutors most often fit within the aforementioned descriptions, it remains that there is wisdom in their sayings as for lack of examples, they can only judge my success as unlikely. It seems that their solutions always consist of a change in attitude and an increase in openness towards variety of experiences my situation could bring me.

A question of attitude.

There exists a multitude of trades on this planet which could be classified as interesting. If I suppose for one second I had an infinite lifespan, I would have no problem with trying each and every one of them. However, the transient nature of our existence constrains us to make choices, and I have decided to spend my energies on things I genuinely like rather than trying to convince myself of the good of my present position. We have to be honest with ourselves.

The prevention of the creative process or the constraints of intellectual work.

Intellectual work, in an organizational context, is more than often issued and controlled in a hierarchical manner as the responsibility for success lies generally on higher echelons. Incidentally, those higher echelons expect that work be done in accord with their vision and with tools they are familiar with. While this state of affairs is totally justifiable, it has the major drawback of impeding the creative process, which can only strive in a horizontal manner when cooperation between individuals is involved. Mechanical work that requires no imagination and thus no creativity is generally attributed to workers. The difference here is that we are not transforming metal but information; since information is manipulated with the intellect, bureaucrats are then intellectual workers.

A place of decay.

The location this text questions is a place of decay, where every employee’s brain is slaved and drain of its energy in long hours spent facing a screen repeating more or less the same administrative processes. Upon coming home, this employee is overwhelmed with a feeling of mental fatigue and can not do anything but mundane leisure. The origin of this phenomenon is evident: the body tires. Sadly, after repeating this routine every single day, the individual looses his intellectual vivacity, killed by years of cycling between office work and television. A schism is created, where work and leisure can no longer cohabit. Work being intellectual, leisure time can no longer be of this type. He becomes uniform, inanimate, but more so less interesting and less interested; what used to make him question and think has been replaced with a never satisfied need to evade to a world where everything is simple and unchanging. Some do evade this fatality; those who have and authentic love for what they do; a passion exempt from the prospect of social promotion or peer recognition. But those are too rare of a species.

Manipulating oneself.
An ambition is a dream in effort of realization. Consequently, what transforms a dream in an ambition, what constitutes the effort is action. The amplitude of this action then depends on the magnitude of the ambition and its nature. Can it be realized in the near future? What sacrifices need to be made? How much effort needs to be expanded before coming to an end?

Some ambitions will materialize themselves without any work while others will require constant action, which is regrettably not the easiest for humans who have a strong tendency towards stability and facility once they are within reach. On top all the effort required to accomplish an ambition, we must also combat ourselves, fight this desire to let go and let the flow against which we were advancing overtake us; “what’s the point…” Against ourselves, two weapons are of particular efficiency, conviction and manipulation. Conviction pushes us towards realizing our ambitions trough faith while manipulation entices us to act on ourselves and our environment for the purpose of creating conviction. One must precede the other; conviction only is very often not sufficient, especially for more rational types. We can dream all we want, but sometimes, we must artificially create the conditions necessary to break ourselves out of comfort and push towards battling an imaginary nemesis whose sole function is to motivate us. To barricade ourselves in fortresses of biased beliefs and see evil everywhere except where our ambition lies. Sometimes, this can be the only way of escaping the sea of facility we live in.

A personal opinion in a relative world.

Does salvation resides in the liberation from organizational thought? Not for everyone. Most appear to be perfectly content where they are at, because of personality, because of unconsciousness, because of ambition, because of necessity, because of a need for servitude, etc. In a sense, what seems to be a fatality pleases the majority; negative for some can be positive for others, or it could be the simple acceptance of the order of things. So how do they live within it, what drives them? Most likely the instinctive ambitions upon which western society is built and the need to preserve them once they have been acquired; the rest is only consequent. The only thing that is certain is that I cannot accept this fatality.

Why all this? Moralizing others is a very audacious activity that very often turns sour, so I content myself with asking questions and sharing the results of my thinking with whoever will bother reading them; with the hope that they will in turn questions themselves.

One Reply to “The fatality of modern work”

  1. I know this article dates from more than 2 years ago, so maybe your view has changed a bit. Still, I have to say that even though I agree with some of parts of your discourse, I believe modern work is not such a fatality for most people. If men and women are working in, say a governmental job such as the one you had for a short time, and they hate it, then it’s their problem and they are the ones that need to act on it.

    It seems you believe that having an occupation means it becomes the centre of our focus and our life, but I hardly believe it’s true (It’s a big part for sure). If we do something meaningful to ourself or society, then great! It can be quite simple, but it doesn’t mean it’s stupid or pointless. What I’m trying to say is that we have to be very careful when you put judgements on how people find happiness, sometimes it’s a reflection of our own unhappiness.

    Maybe I’m naive for thinking that people can be satisfied, even happy, working in a cubicle on a 9 to 5 basis, but then again maybe so are you for thinking that you can simply live off your hobbies.

    Finally, as a woman living in the western society, I feel fortunate just being able to have an occupation other than being a housewife. Talk about fatality!

    Think about it as you ride your bike!

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