50 years of work

Imagine sitting down with your younger self – in the full bloom of life – and telling him/her/it that you’d better enjoy your sh*t because you’re going to be doing it for a very long time; at least 50 years, if not longer.

In those terms, I’m not sure if the idea of a portfolio career becomes less or more appealing. You know, the idea of having to rebrand yourself every five to seven years with all the attendant risk. Or, perhaps, the alternative of becoming ‘so good they can’t ignore you’ (see the book by Cal Newport bearing the same title). That will mean a minimum investment of 10,000 hours, but the trouble is you might find that by the time you reach the starting line, qua expert, your job no longer exists.

Actually, it doesn’t matter the option, you’re going to be giving up not just the better part of your life to work but all of it.

Did you hear me? All your life will be devoted to work.

Forget the sabbaticals, holidays and weekends. The truth is, in our always-on world, you won’t be able to escape work; namely, you’ll either be doing it or thinking about it.

Back to the convo with your younger self. Are you feeling inspired? I doubt it. If anything, if you’re anything like my kids – aged 21, 18 and 14 – you’ll have no or very little appetite for work, let alone building some uber career where you’re dressed up like a parcel parading one label after another. You heard me. Generation ‘Z’ doesn’t give a fig about work. All they want is to know that what they’re doing is or will make a difference; they can do some cool sh*t; and earn enough money to pay the rent, eat out once in while (it’s like to be meat free) and go on holiday as regularly as they can.

As a slight segue, I wonder what parents think their kids are going to do with all those qualifications that the majority insist they obtain? Make more stuff we don’t need? Be part of the service economy where it’s hard to see what real contribution it makes to the survival of the planet? Or do something useful like become a carpenter, bricklayer or someone with the skills to clear up the unholy mess that will be the derivative of the industrial revolution, the rules of which were as outmoded when they were created as they are to this day.

When I look at my own trajectory, it’s a mess. Too many jobs, not enough depth. Too many companies, not enough purpose. Too many bosses, not enough feeling. I wish it were otherwise but despite my obvious impatience, what I’ve never yet discovered is a company that is prepared to put its people more first than all the other competing demands. Yes, they might blithely comment that their staff are their greatest asset but they’re never treated that way. Far from it.

(It would make this post way too long if I were to list all the incivilities I’ve witnessed let alone the people who’ve no idea how to manage themselves let alone the fragile souls in their midst.)

Think about it though. You’re young and impressionable and here I am telling you that you’ve 50 years of work ahead of you and not much of it is going to be more inspiring than getting a new computer, a better desk or office chair and if you’re very lucky a half-decent boss who will remember the names of your kids and say “Thank you” more than once a year.

It’s not the most motivating of message, is it?

Of course, there might be hordes of people and companies out there who buck this soul-sucking trend but they probably occupy the outlier spot so favoured of the writers and thought-leaders who are always trying to poke their Tribe into action. In my experience, it never works like that. Great companies are lead by great people; and they’re in very short supply.

Is there an immediate alternative or two?

Yes, of course.

Don’t work – and there are many different varieties who fall under this rubric from those who choose to live off the State (if it’s even possible) to those who try to copy their indigenous forebears to those who live in community and are not reliant solely on an economic exchange for their livelihood.

Or, you could choose a path where you actually follow your calling and not pay lip service to it. Take something like poetry. How many poets actually make a ‘living’? I don’t know but the ones I do know or I’ve met, don’t seem to be swinging by in the latest Tesla, adorned with the latest phone, spouting the latest management speak as if that was the only show in town.

I mean, check out someone like Charles (Hank) Bukowski. Perhaps he was a low life, misogynistic, alcoholic but one thing that’s undeniable is that he ‘went all the way’ for his art. In fact, at one point he was living off a candy bar a day and was very much a skid row journeyman. I don’t tell you any of this to romanticize his life, but he quickly realized that working for the Man was no substitute for life, and unless he could create there wasn’t much point in living.

What about the rest of us?

We settle for such a small life.

Imagine, instead of being told we must get a job, we pursued our one true joy as if money was not the object. Not only would this force our hand, we’d stop messing about at the margins of life hoping to find a connection with something.

Our work would truly be our life.

You might think I’m tilting only at the artists among you. In a way I am, but only because when you ask enough people what they’d prefer to do with their life (other than work) nearly all of them default to something creative. But you could just as easily find yourself in making something useful, or farming or saving animals. Hell, you might even find it in programming or answering service calls, but I doubt it.

The other thing that’s worth noting is that the bigger problem isn’t just the work/life divide, it’s the fact that we’re plugged into a material world. Even in those parts of the world not touched by our obsession with consumption, you’ll see the slow creep of capitalism as everyone starts vying for superiority in the ‘life-of-things’ camp.

Can we ever row back from our love affair with money and stuff? I bloody hope so for if we don’t we’ll simply run out of natural resources sufficient to keep alive the next generation, let alone the one after that. A depressing tale for sure but the numbers are there if you care to look hard enough.

I know there have been thinkers out there who’ve asked us to look very differently at work, but I don’t see any seismic change on the horizon. It’s all about the status quo. But think about it. What happens where there is no or insufficient work to feed all 11 billion people, let alone the resources to support the growing economic system that work is built atop? What happens then?

Mass unemployment?

Societal collapse?


Or something more beautiful?

Namely, a world where we figure out we don’t need any more stuff, we can live without money – i.e. the gift economy – and love is the touchstone to live in harmony, whatever our creed, colour or religion.

It’s a hard one to call but we sure as hell won’t make progress as a species if we don’t at least raise the issue.

At least that’s how it feels to me.

Take care.


Photo by Thomas Hafeneth on Unsplash