Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work finds workplaces saturated with sex, with HR as the Taliban, who police and contain any signs of immoral behaviour. He notes that the sexual impulse is everywhere in the workplace as it’s unnatural to cram thousands of people into small spaces, five days a week for years on end, without them rubbing up against each other. The HR manual in the accountancy firm he visits is crammed with petty rules about sexual behaviour and he notes (wryly) that porn set in offices has exploited this tension.
Trite slogans, such as ‘We like people who demonstrate integrity, energy and enthusiasm’ adorn walls, yet within they get on with the murky business of tax dodging and signing off the false accounts of banks. They’re a little hostile and cold towards him as they know that his curiosity is likely to result in mockery, and so it does. Auditors have made their peace with ‘oblivion’. They know they have made a choice to make money at the expense of fulfilment. The training is in the ‘laboured tone of away day seminars’ and the CEO is a cipher, spouting nothing but clichés.
Work, for Botton, is an unexamined mystery. He’s puzzled at its absence in literature, film and TV, apart from ‘cops and docs’ shows. So he follows a tuna from the Maldives to Bristol and wonders at the logistic complexity of the journey. In a biscuit factory he finds that there are five categories of biscuits; everyday, treats, seasonal, savoury and crackers. For the Design Director biscuits are a branch of psychology, not cooking. He encountered no jokes at any biscuits expense! Unfortunately he drifts a bit in the chapters on painting and entrepreneurship but the essay on electricity pylons is beautiful – honestly!
Therapy culture has also invaded the workplace and he gently mocks the psychotherapist whose advice is largely to repeat ‘I am and here only for you’ and getting them to repeat ‘I am the author of my own story’. The poor, deluded chap is a follower of that charlatan Maslow, travelling the UK staying in joyless Ibis hotels doling out meaningless personality tests.
Worked as distraction
It’s only in the last 200 years that work has been seen as a worthwhile pursuit. Before this it was slavery, serfdom and servitude. It is only recently that work needed to become meaningful (for many it remains meaningless). This is difficult as many are very remote from the final product or outcome. Above all he sees work as a distraction. People seem to need to be distracted from having to think and do things for themselves, so they delegate this responsibility to others, employers. This gets interesting. In work, time masters you, you are not the master of time. You give up responsibility to become part of an organisation.
Work – fulfilling or instrumental?
There’s a big difference between working class and middle class views of work. The working class, by and large, work to put food on the table and have a good time at the weekend, whereas the middle class see work as a means to personal fulfilment. Nothing new here, but he cleverly takes it one step further. Unemployment for the middle classes is psychologically catastrophic, and in the current recession we’ll see lots of this.
What’s relevant here is the false assumption that everyone wants to learn and be trained. Millions see both work and learning as a necessary chore. Their heart will not be in taking the course. Work is instrumental, not fundamental. It is therefore utopian to see training as personal development, as many don’t live to work, they work to live.
HR puzzles him as it is seen as a joke department, so he shadows them in their attempts to get large numbers of people to work together in a confined space without killing each other. He has a go at their cringe-worthy, David Brent-like language and techniques, but ends up grudgingly admiring them.
A telling comment is his view that most of the jobs he observed were undemanding. They could be done by a smart 12 year old, as the essential skill is common sense. Education is relatively futile, as most of what we learn we never use. Education and qualifications are all about keeping people out of the middle class professions, they are not about essential skills. All professions are truly a conspiracy against the laity.
Alain de Botton’s is way beyond the journalistic jottings of Gladwell. I thoroughly enjoyed his book Status Anxiety where he sees happiness as equalling expectation over achievement. Apply this to work and for many work leads to drudgery and disappointment, as we realise that that we have to settle for what we’ve got, based on some odd decisions and accidents in our early lives. Work is almost tragic in its consequences.
Britain has an anti-intellectual streak, and unlike the French, doesn’t like deep analysis of everyday concepts, but Botton can certainly craft a sentence to strike a melodious chord. Of course, Botton is actually Swiss, and not short of a bob or two, but maybe this is why he can look upon the topic with real objectivity and depth. Works for me!