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.