Dying to Work

In considering my tendency toward overwork combined with the useful responses I received toward how to view that, or change it, I realized something I had not taken into account.  One’s view of the nature and purpose of work varies depending on the age and time of life of whoever’s examining the question. I’m less than a decade from “traditional” retirement age.  Others responding to the query were younger.  I’m already examining what to do with my life at the point when I will be legally barred from many kinds of work, and was re-evaluating whether I thought my working past was worth it.  I wasn’t consciously in touch with that aspect when I asked for help.  Your responses assisted me in discovering that.

I began work at 12.  I was a paper boy at a time before cable TV, the current myriad of news mags, and the internet.  Back in the early 1960s, newspapers were much larger than they are now.  They were the main source of news.  My route had about 200 subscribers, and I delivered the evening and Sunday papers.  The alternate carrier on the same route had mornings and Saturday.  You couldn’t have handled both editions without using a car.  The size of the papers required transport via a large laundry cart affixed to my bike, which also had side and handlebar baskets.  Every space was full of papers.  On Sundays, the papers were so large I had to break up delivery into two or three trips, returning to the pick-up point to load up again.  It took about 15 hours a week and I think I made about a dollar an hour if you include the holiday tips left by customers and the occasional bonuses paid by the newspaper for periods worked without customer complaints.

By 15 I was washing dishes and cleaning golf shoes at a local country club.  I hated the work, and the attitudes of the customers, but it paid better than being a paper boy.  Classmates from wealthier families were planning their schooling to qualify for careers, but in my neighborhood no one could afford that.  We obtained jobs, and over time we tried to get better ones.  I held part-time jobs through high school, and then I began working in retail sales at department stores.  All life revolved around work schedules, because the money made paying rent and dating possible.  A young man without a job was nothing, and there was a definite stigma if your job was based upon any form of manual labor.

When you are in your prime work years, between 25 and 50, you experience the most upward movement in your earning potential and it’s easier to change jobs.  Most who buy houses do so at these ages.  Home ownership is the most complicated and costliest contract most Americans ever enter.  Raising children is also expensive, but unless you have many of them houses still cost more for most people who choose to buy them.  You work to pay for your house more than to pay for your children’s needs in most cases.  Poor people still have children.  They don’t own houses.

Living for work has killed people for a long time.  My father’s generation had a lot of cancer from smoking, alcoholism, and stress-induced heart attacks.  Feminism has caused needed consciousness-raising about the cultural oppression of women, but as more women have come into central roles in the work force, their rates of death from work-related stresses and disease have increased exponentially.  I’ve known hundreds of people who literally worked themselves to death.  I am afraid to be one of them, not because I’m afraid of dying but because I would like to have a better reason for dying than because I kept going to work until it killed me.

Americans work more and take less time off for leisure (or for family) than those in most other countries.  Americans use the monetary profit from overworking to buy more consumer goods by a wide margin over those in other countries.  We are chained by enormous anchors of manufactured goods, most of which do not last more than a couple of years.  It was the weight of this materialism that weighed upon my conscience.

I’m glad my wife and I took a step in the right direction by buying a smaller house.  Perhaps I will also be able to follow a more ethical road in the last decade of my working life.  Thanks for helping me clarify some of what troubled me.  I encourage you to examine these things before you reach my age, but you may consider yourselves normal if you don’t.  Most don’t.

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14 Comments

Filed under debt, Ethics and Morality, Money, Self-Esteem, symbolism

14 responses to “Dying to Work

  1. I agree with you that the perspective changes with age and other factors. Believe me, though, I am NOT younger than you are!!!!

  2. Great post as always! I hope you find just the right balance.

  3. I wrote you an enormous reply. Then realized that you really don’t need to hear it. You’re thinking it all in your own head already. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the figuring it all out.
    All I really wish you to know is that it’s nothing but conscious living from this point on. Decide what you want to place value on. Is it monetary value? Is it status? Is it personal joy? Once you have that value, consider how EVERYTHING fits into that scale, everything, not just the material things. It will be difficult at first, but rest assured, that it will become second nature. And it will be so worth it.

    I’ve been waiting for this moment from you. It’s my favorite part of the ride.

    • I’m sure I would have enjoyed reading it, but I know what you mean about allowing cool things to happen that you can see developing because of your own experience and sensitivity.

      The thing I’m trying to quantify is that slippery concept of “enough”. Enough money, but not excessive. Enough time and responsibility, but not overwhelming. Enough creativity, enough spiritual enrichment, enough emotional fulfillment etc.

      • Yes, quantifying. And then justifying.
        It does get easier to do as you move along. Sometimes overwhelmingly-so.
        Once it starts, it will come to you in leaps and bounds.
        Honestly Mikey, there are times when my heart just wants to explode. Times when I realize just how truly valuable something is to my soul. Those are the good times. Those are the times you have to look forward to.

  4. Sarah Baram

    A weekend away and I come back to see two thought provoking posts from you! Such a treat!
    I do not have much of a perspective to give. I have only heard five jobs. I have worked at a theater, been a nanny and a camp counselor, sold lingerie at a department store and my family’s store, and run my own production company all through high school. Most… I did all at the same time. But I found as long as I worked hard, and stayed optimistic I fell in love with every job. That’s the plan I have for as long as I am of working age… Just with writing.
    You sound like you have been thinking a lot lately, and doing very well with it. Keep it up Mikey!

    • If I thought as much or as well as you do when I was your age, Sarah, I might have avoided some pitfalls. However, I am satisfied with the adventure so far.

      I think it is also age-appropriate for me to be looking at the big picture at long last.

  5. I’m afraid I don’t have enough experience or success in work to provide any real advice or input, but I am taking everything mentioned in your blog and comments into consideration.

    For a long time I’ve seen work as a means to fulfill my dreams–finding something I love to do for work included. None of that has happened yet, though, as you know, so I’ve been taking inventory on what I want out of life (and what I should do instead if I can’t have that).

    What I do know for sure, though, is that if you left work dictate your time and what you do, that’s just a short path to misery. It’s amazing seeing so many people think they’re free because they can afford stuff they rarely get to use because they’re so restrained by their jobs.

  6. Every time I had a notable amount of money I fell in that trap – buying stuff I never used, especially recording gear. Anybody want a barely-used DA-88?

  7. Pingback: Life, as a Character « Sarah Baram

  8. Great post Mikey… the average European gets about 30 days full pay holiday per year, I get a bit more than that and know I’m *very* lucky indeed.
    There was article in Time Magazine a while back that noted that Americans take the profits of their work and put it into consumer goods whilst Europeans to put it in more days Annual Leave.
    I know which I prefer and luckily I live in a country that gives me my preference.
    I have observed that people need hobbies and they need to keep their brains ticking over with more than just work, the ones who don’t have an alarming tendency I have noticed, to drop dead very shortly after retirement.
    I think I’m ok, I have so many hobbies that I seriously need several lifetimes LOL, but I worry about people who I know that have nothing much in their lives apart from work.
    When you reach a certain age I think it slowly hits home how finite life is, when you are young, a lifetime seems to be forever.
    As you get older and gain a little Life Experience, you see some of your peers cut down in the prime of their life, cancer/sickness, self inflicted situations, accidents… and you start to reevaluate what’s important.
    If you have kids you start to want different things for the future than when you didn’t have kids, you start to look at the kind of world that you will leave behind for them to inherit.
    Focus, if you have any sense, starts to shift.
    You come to realise that THIS is your life, not the practice run, that time is limited and will run out. Hopefully you will review your life plans and make realistic, positive,less selfish goals and realise that people matter more than “stuff”.
    Work is a means to an end, not the be-all and end-all of life.
    Down-sizing your life can actually mean that you up-size in other areas, for example: Himself and I both collect books… but now we are far far more selective than in the past, and since some of the books no longer suit our needs we are slowing downsizing our collections, passing on, and giving away ones we know we have read, enjoyed or outgrown in taste.
    We are not only making space in our collection we are also weeding down the time we used to put into it and spending more of that time with friends.. old ones, new ones, … in due course, future ones.
    The only place where workaholic could be a good thing is the time,effort, skills, talent and caring that you invest in people around you… the dividend and salary from that is paid in smiles, laughter and happy memories, and that is the light-bulb eureka moment when you know that that whilst life might be shorter than you want it to be, that downsizing the material stuff can actually make you far richer in other ways.

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