From July to December after I graduated, I worked part-time at a small cupcakery. I was the assistant baker, helping out the head baker for day or two during the week and working alone at weekends to keep the shop stocked and to make orders for birthday parties and corporate events. I would get in at 7.15am, open the window, crank the ovens up to 150, make a strong coffee, switch the radio on and set about making thick gloopy batter. I would be alone until about 9.30am, when the sales assistants would arrive. I cracked a lot of eggs and whipped a lot of buttercream and piped a lot of pastel-coloured swirls and, on one memorable occasion, fashioned some lego bricks out of red, blue and yellow fondant. At the end of the day I would wash up, clean the kitchen and lock up shop, my whole body aching. It was wonderful.
I mean, obviously in many ways it was terrible. During busy periods, I would be in the kitchen for twelve hours straight, delirious with tiredness, leaving only to grab a sandwich from Prêt or run out to Tesco to stock up on Oreos or baking powder. The work was repetitive and occasionally maddening. The radio was stuck irreversibly on Kiss FM, which back in 2013 usually meant having to listen to Robin Thicke’s menacing ditty, Blurred Lines, eleven times in one day. Once, a jug of red velvet batter flew out of the fridge and directly onto my shoes. Interesting new pains blossomed in my wrists and hips and feet. Flour became embedded in my skin in such a way that I’d constantly smell starchy. Little stinging burns peppered my hands. I would head home at 8pm only to find that, full of adrenaline (and, to be honest, filched buttercream), I could not sleep.
But something about it, something beyond the solitude, the sugary air and gleaming silver trays, was immeasurably reassuring. The closest I came to defining this was to say that the job was simple. I had a job I could explain to a child: baker. Like nurse, singer, cleaner, writer. Not like ‘brand consultant specialising in search-engine optimisation.’
The changing nature of work in post-industrial society is a topic of growing interest to philosophers, economists and sociologists, bearing fruit in the form of titles such as Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Martin Ford’s The Rise of the Robots and Joanna Biggs’ All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work. Matthew Crawford’s The Case for Working With Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good is an illuminating and critical study of the rise of ‘knowledge-work’ and corresponding decline of the manual trades. Crawford argues that this shift – compounded by cultural assumptions about the inherent superiority of knowledge work – steers young people towards ‘the most ghostly kinds of work’ and is responsible for the decrease in individual agency and fulfilment throughout working life.
The central problem, Crawford theorises, is that those who work in an office often feel that, despite ‘the proliferation of contrived metrics they must meet, their job lacks objective standards of the sort provided by a carpenter’s level – so there’s something arbitrary in the dispensing of credit and blame’. Simultaneously, the rise of ‘teamwork’ culture makes it difficult to take individual responsibility for anything. (9) The epitome of this is the management consultant, ‘who swoops in and out and whose very pride lies in his lack of particular expertise.’ (20)
Crawford describes the way in which, in an increasingly globalized world, the activity of self-directed labour planned and conducted by the worker, is ‘dissolved and abstracted into parts and then reconstituted as a process controlled by management.’ (40) White-collar professionals are being subjected to the same degradation which hit manual work a hundred years ago with the introduction of the assembly line. Cognitive elements of a job are appropriated from professionals, instantiated in a system or process and then handed back to a new class of workers – clerks – who replace the professionals. Research has shown that types of work where individuals have no skill discretion or decision authority trigger the release of cortisol into the blood. Feelings of malaise and restlessness – the feeling that one never really accomplishes anything tangible at work – are therefore attributable to economic and political forces which lie largely beyond our control. Meanwhile, the self-employed mechanic, who is responsible for the process of fixing a sink or motorcycle from start to finish, enjoys a feeling of mastery and agency. It is no coincidence that plumbers consistently rank among the happiest of all professionals.
Imagine you are a fresh-faced humanities graduate who has just started working in the marketing department for a company that makes juice drinks. You like juice, and you like writing, and you want to be creative, so this seems like a great idea. What you’d really like to do is open up your own juice company and have a little market stall where you stand in the sunshine and sell delicious juice to stressed-out commuters. But you also need to pay the rent, so you knuckle down enthusiastically in the office of Big Juice Company, which is nicely air conditioned and full of colourful pod-like sofas. You learn that the juice production is broken up into innumerable stages which are then outsourced to various people, many of whom are literally on another continent. The marketing for the juices is also broken up into various different stages, coordinated by different departments. Among other life-changing responsibilities, you are put in charge of scheduling tweets on Hootsuite (for the Raspberry Rhumba and Lean Green Dream accounts only)*. You are not allowed to actually write the tweets, even though you are more than capable of doing so, because that is the responsibility of the Marketing Officer, not the Marketing Assistant. Your working day is fragmented, bitty and, as with most office jobs, principally involves emailing people. You leave feeling restless and rubbish and not really knowing why – you have a cushy job, in your chosen industry: juice! And being paid for it! Real money, once a month into your account! You are supposedly living the English-graduate dream. But you don’t – and this is REALLY common – feel like you are accomplishing anything. When people ask you what you do, you say marketing and hope they don’t ask for further details. You are a stressed-out commuter. And you really, really hate juice.
The increasing proliferation of ‘bullshit’ jobs, where professionals aren’t 100% clear on what it is they actually do all day (you only need to look at this Armstrong and Miller video if you’re not sure what I’m getting at) is coupled with a pressure to ‘identify with corporate culture and exhibit a high level of ‘buy-in’ to ‘the mission.’’ The lines between private life and work life are blurred (as Robin Thicke prophesised) as we work longer hours, answer emails on our commutes and attend ‘enriching’ networking events in the evenings. Our employers have a vested interest in our psychological and physical wellbeing. We are all encouraged to love our jobs and the organisations we work for – if we don’t, we are possibly mentally ill. (This enforced merger between personal and work lives is beautifully satirised in Dave Eggers’ The Circle).
The Emperor’s New Clothes is a fairytale of two dressmakers who promise an emperor a fine new suit of clothes invisible to people who are unfit for their positions, stupid or incompetent. When the Emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, no one dares to say that they can’t see any clothes at all until a child cries out: “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!” The clothes don’t actually exist, but loath to go against the grain and be called stupid, no one points this out. It’s a beautiful little illustration of group psychology. In some offices, life in the workplace feels akin to one big game of the Emperor’s New Clothes. To sustain the collective illusion that everyone is devoted to their (probably shit) jobs, people stay after hours and work through their lunchbreaks and let out tight little laughs after they get back from holiday and say ‘I actually quite missed it here!’ And the hours and the days and the weeks pass this way, until they leave or go crazy or both.
Reading The Case for Working with Your Hands helped me to pinpoint what exactly was so good about working at the bakery. The job was logical. It made sense. There was a product to be made, I made enough of the product so we could make a profit, and then I was free to go home. If I worked faster, I could go home earlier. As William Davies puts it in The Happiness Industry: How Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being, ‘traditional paid work has a transparency around it which makes additional psychological and somatic management unnecessary.’ There were no emails to check on the tube. No pointless meetings to go to with middle-managers allegedly keen to discuss ‘recent cross-organisational learnings’. There was no requirement, explicit or otherwise, to be committed to the bakery, above and beyond getting the job done to the best of my ability. I didn’t need to rhapsodise about how great the company was with evangelical fervour. I didn’t need to sit sheepishly at a desk during quiet periods with nothing to do, feigning busyness. I wasn’t forced to attend those awkward appraisals with a manager where you pretend you want nothing more than to grow within the organisation and definitely aren’t planning to leave as soon as possible. I didn’t have to go to sinister corporate away-days and have profiles made about my personality. I didn’t have to eat lunch at a desk. Best of all, I didn’t need to action anything. Work was work. And then I’d go home and play.
Crawford states that the purpose of his book is not to provide a solution to the problems of post-industrial society, beyond his suggestion that school-leavers and graduates should try and find work which thwarts the damaging logic of fragmentation and outsourcing (he suggests academia and engineering as potentially fulfilling career paths: Crawford himself is an academic and a self-employed bicycle mechanic). Increased technologisation and globalisation are inevitable at this point; becoming a self-employed craftsperson is rarely economically viable, though people try (think of all those Etsy shops). A few months after I left, the bakery closed down, presumably because it wasn’t making much money. In the Starbucks age, maintaining an independent business is a long uphill struggle.
So at some point, you’ll probably have to do a ‘ghostly’ job. You’ll coordinate or consult. You’ll spend your days doing a series of surreal things that don’t really feel much like work at all – ‘connecting’ on LinkedIn or sitting in meetings for no particular reason or sorting your emails into different categories. But please read Crawford’s book and try to understand that you’re not going mad. Although you may not actually want or be able to ‘work with your hands’, the book still offers valuable insights about the importance of individual responsibility, mastery of specific skills, and leaving work at work. Not everyone can become an academic or a motorcycle mechanic, but if you are in a fortunate enough socio-economic position to be choosy, think outside the box. Thinking long and hard about the kinds of jobs that might actually be rewarding – not by virtue of being cogs in glamorous multinational media conglomerates but due to the genuine levels of responsibility they offer – will help you (again, this only applies if you’re in a position to make choices about your career path).
Because not everyone is in a position to up-sticks and open their own business or re-train, the responsibility for rethinking work lies with companies themselves. To employers – might it be better if we let work be work? If employees were free to leave as soon as they’d finished their tasks for the day? (Professor John Ashton, among others, has argued that a 4 day week is the best solution to the problems of both overwork and underwork, both causes of stress.) If you weren’t implicitly obliged to be contactable outside of office hours? If you could do your tasks and leave without having to make your entire identity about work? And then when you went home – at 3pm say – you could get on with your reading or surfing or tapestry or painting or whatever other small silly thing it is that sets you on fire.
I don’t know if any of these suggestions are tenable. But what I do know is this: working in the bakery, I was exhausted and poorly paid. But I was, in a modest but important way, my own master, and the day this way of life becomes unfeasible is one to dread. As I wiped the sweat from my brow, taking a minute to watch the daylight slowly dying outside the window before removing the last batch of hot, spongy cakes from the oven, I’d feel like the queen of the world.
*Obviously, I am never going to run a successful juice business.