Farewell Santa Claus
It was one of the hottest days of summer and I had travelled to a local fair in South-East England, with hopes of meeting members of the Idlers’ Alliance (hereafter TIA). They had plans to set up a stall at the fair and had kindly agreed to let me join them. Nobody was hollering slogans or waving banners. A couple of people were tentatively giving leaflets to members of the public who happened to drift over, but the event seemed like an excuse more to get together than to campaign. By around lunchtime most of the idlers had wandered off, and it was then that I noticed Jack lying in the sun some distance away from the stall. Jack was in his thirties, an unassuming man who initially seemed reluctant to take part in an interview. He did not seem to believe that his perspective on the world was worth my travelling halfway across the country. Shielding his eyes from the sun, Jack eventually agreed to sit down with me, beginning his interview in an apologetic tone. As we spoke, however, his mood became more philosophical. He took time to consider my questions, taking a breath, before quietly explaining his outlook on the world. In a thick regional accent, Jack explained that he had switched down to part-time hours in his job as a librarian, in an effort to gain more free-time:
I thought ‘wait a minute, life isn’t just about working nine to five and commuting and things like that, there has to be more to it’. So I was quite attracted to the idea of doing less perhaps, and this model of working half a day and having the rest of the time to yourself.
Jack conveyed a strong desire to do creative work, but believed that this desire had been stifled in his previous, full-time jobs. He outlined his belief that creativity develops through a leisurely lifestyle, full of conversation and reading, but regretted that his previous jobs had barred him from doing these things often. The purpose of switching to a part-time role was to feel less exhausted, and hopefully rediscover a thirst for creative activities. He especially enjoyed writing, and was pleased to announce that he was finding time to do it again.
I didn’t think I’d stay with [part-time working], but it’s funny that you find yourself drawn to different things at different times in your life, and at that moment I just wanted to explore this. I’ve stayed with it so far and I suppose, for me, it’s led to greater creativity.
Jack said that his new routine of working for around four hours a day had come to feel ‘perfectly natural’, even if he understood that his lifestyle was unconventional. I believe he was referring to the work ethic when he described the way that the majority of people live as ‘like a religion or some kind of madness’. Jack described his decision to work less using words such as ‘epiphany’ or ‘awakening’, believing he had pierced through the madness in the world around him:
The trouble is that once it’s happened you can’t really see things in any other way because it’s almost as if you’ve seen what is – it’s like seeing through a disguise actually. It’s kind of like the adult equivalent of realising that there is no Santa Claus.
Many of the people I met would describe their decision to work less in similar terms, as a result of having punctured through nurtured cultural beliefs. Sometimes this critical distance had begun developing during the person’s working life, but sometimes its roots seemed to extend much further back. Another idler, Mike, talked about having reached a point in his thirties where he ‘saw through’ the work ethic instilled in him by his schoolteachers. The participant Eleanor started to believe that ‘we are really just socially conditioned to think that we should work all the time, earn loads of money, and do all of this’. For whatever reason, the need to be employed had appeared to these people as a social construction rather than a fact of life. The question of why they worked was suddenly on the table and, as Jack said, there was no going back. It is impossible to rediscover one’s belief in Santa Claus:
… we cannot slide back and unreflectively accommodate again to routine, for by its very nature such an orientation involves the feeling that life could not be otherwise, and sadly we have already arrived at the position where our self-awareness has destroyed this fiction. There is no going back to such an unreflective condition.
These experiences beg comparison with Bernard Lefkowitz’s research into voluntary joblessness in 1970s America, in which interviewees also regularly talked about awakenings or revelations. Lefkowitz referred to these as ‘breakpoints’: the point at which people decided to take a break (often a permanent one) from work, but also the point at which they ‘broke’ in an emotional sense. The breakpoint represents a kind of personal crisis in which a person’s accustomed habits and beliefs are thrown into doubt. A biographical incident, a new moral insight, or an accumulated sense of repression leads a person to question their accustomed habits and beliefs, making their usual circumstances and routines less and less tolerable. In more heavyweight sociological terms, the breakpoint can be described as the moment at which people transcend the phenomenon known as reification. Originally used by Marx, the concept of reification was adapted by Peter Berger and colleagues in their analyses of human consciousness. Like Marx, Berger and colleagues began with the idea that humans are always engaged in a dialectical relationship with the world: the social and institutional order, which stands above and shapes the lives of humans, is always itself an ongoing product of human activities. In The Social Construction of Reality, Berger and Luckmann remind us that the social world can only ever be the result of human activity: ‘It is important to keep in mind that the objectivity of the institutional world, however massive it may appear to the individual, is a humanly produced, constructed objectivity’. Remembering that society is – and can only ever be – the product of human actions and choices is vital if humans are to experience the world as a field of open possibility, awaiting their influence. The concept of reification describes a process in which the fundamental truth that humans are the producers of the social world is forgotten.
Berger and Luckmann suggest that the development of a complex social and institutional order leads people to apprehend human phenomena ‘as if they were things, that is, in non-human or possibly supra-human terms’. This reified consciousness is an outcome of the socialisation process, which discourages disorder and promotes social cohesion by making sure that individuals take the norms, roles and structures of society to heart. It is a central principle of sociology that, through socialisation, society enters the human consciousness, moulding it into the socially desired shape and ensuring that individuals conduct themselves with a minimum of reflection. If the socialisation process is successful, society’s integrated individuals accept the determinants of reality as natural and given: the world has a direct or pre-reflective presence in the mind and social roles are ‘taken for granted and lived through as a necessary fate’.
Cohen and Taylor describe this default or everyday mode of consciousness as one of ‘unreflective accommodation’, suggesting that it signifies a person’s feeling of relaxed at-homeness in his or her role. Yet, if reification to a certain extent represents a mental and functional necessity, Berger and Pullberg suggest that it also represents a kind of alienation. When it is represented in human consciousness as an inert or fixed entity, the social world ceases to represent an open horizon of possibility, awaiting a human imprint: ‘Through reification, the world of institutions appears to merge with the world of nature. It becomes necessity and fate, and is lived through as such, happily or unhappily as the case may be’. The world is encountered by man as an inert or natural ‘given’: ‘It is there, impervious to his wishes, sovereignly other than himself, an alien thing opaque to his understanding’. In our everyday lives, this alienation prickles us with a sense of uneasiness. It produces a disturbing and often repressed feeling that too much of life is being conducted according to prescribed, scripted regularities. As Cohen and Taylor express it:
Instead of being grateful that unreflective accommodation allows time to pass, helps us to get through the day, we become disturbed by the ways in which we can allow ourselves to be swept along so easily by the mundane, the trivial, the readily predictable … This is the experience we call boredom, monotony, tedium, despair.
This feeling of being personally disturbed by the mundanity of conventions is a good description of the feelings of many of the people I met. Rachel, an earnest woman in her early fifties, described her decision to switch from a full-time to a part-time position (in her job as a human resources officer) as an attempt to ‘take life off autopilot’. We can compare this with Anne, who had quit a high-commitment job in television to become a freelance photographer. She referred to her decision as the product of having ‘woken up from a long sleep’. Several participants were disparaging towards ex-colleagues who appeared to go about their lives in a ritualistic fashion, without a clear rationale or purpose in mind. Lucy referred to people she had worked with ‘who had been at work forever and just didn’t have a negative thing to say about it’. Here is a quote from Adam, who had serious doubts about the modern notion of a career:
A career is just sort of one job plugged into another job, plugged into another job, and if you don’t really know why you’re doing it all – not to know is to admit that you’re wasting your life.
Adam said he liked to gently provoke people into clarifying their reasons for working, but identified this as an uncomfortable or taboo area of conversation:
[People] give you quite a flippant answer, which is their way of saying ‘oh, don’t ask me that’. They’re quite happy to talk about other things and engage in small talk, but no one really wants to talk about these deep issues.
In each case, the interviewees expressed a strong desire to live with intention, often referring to some earlier period in their lives that had been conducted in a less-than-lucid state of consciousness, without them being in the driving seat. Within this context, the breakpoint represents the welcome moment at which they began to question the work role. In Berger’s terminology, it represented a moment of de-reification, in which they became more aware of the socially constructed nature of the need to be employed. This is not to suggest, of course, that the breakpoint sees a person completely lifted from their culturally embedded position in society, or that it is tantamount to freedom from the structural and ideological impositions to work. What the breakpoint more humbly represents is the moment at which people began to reflect more clearly on the nature of cognitive power, and on their own powers of self- direction within the constraints of the society around them. The need to be employed was no longer accepted as a natural law or feature of human nature, but instead represented an object ripe for critical attention. With high spirits and a note of pride, people described a process of reflection on their stock notions and habits, a shedding of their roles, and a rediscovery of their lives as open to possibilities. They spoke out against the prescriptive world of timetables, duties, routines and rules which threatened their ability to maintain an image of themselves as unique, deliberative and responsible people. They achieved catharsis as their sense of repression culminated in a bona fide change.
What was it exactly that afforded the people I met this degree of critical distance from a previously naturalised state of affairs? The breakpoint represents the moment at which reification was punctured, with people’s lives taking on a renewed feeling of malleability. But when and why do people cease to accept their social roles as natural and given? In spite of the normalising functions of socialisation, social discipline and ideology, social struggles show us that the integration of individuals into the social order is never a finished process. But if there is always an element of the self that refuses integration, then what causes this element to wake up and be heard?
The causes of a breakpoint are difficult to pin down. Critical reflection might be prompted in the most unpredictable of situations: by the vague sense of desolation that descends in a traffic jam or a crowded shopping mall; by the resentment that surfaces in a pointless team meeting; by the meditative quality of mind which can follow a trip into nature or a drive down an open road. The interviewee Eleanor talked in almost mystical terms about a kind of transcendence or flash of insight: what Cohen and Taylor, writing on the theme of escape, call a ‘momentary slip through the fabric’. The person is briefly overwhelmed by some vague and indescribable force or spirit which leads him or her into a process of re-evaluation. Eleanor chose not to discuss her experience at length. Her inability to articulate the experience seemed to frighten, or at the very least, somewhat embarrass her:
Maybe there was a key turning point. It’s a bit difficult to go into because it’s a vaguely – I haven’t really spoken to anyone about this really and it was quite – I walked away from it feeling um, hmm. I should sit down some time and figure out what actually happened there.
Berger and Pullberg speculate that de-reification may occur in ‘times of trouble’, which rattle the world down to its foundations and allow it to be rebuilt anew. Illustrating this idea, several of the people I met discussed the destabilising effects of having witnessed death:
My step-dad died when I was ten and that was a kind of wake-up call. It puts a lot of things in perspective. It set me on a path of thinking, ‘well, life’s too short. It can be over just like that, so I’m going to do my own thing’. (Mike)
I mean bereavement or redundancy – those can be good things sometimes, forcing people to make that move and realise that doing the same job for the next twenty-odd years, nine to five, is not the only option. (Rachel)
In these rare cases, interviewees isolated a key life event that had unsettled their realities, prompting a fresh perspective on the world. The sight and thought of death had acted like a jolt of electricity, prompting them to reflect on their values and priorities. This ability to isolate a key, precipitating event was a rarity among the people I met, however. More often, the breakpoint appeared to be the outcome of a more sustained, gnawing feeling of malaise or anxiety. In such cases, what we observe is not a sudden epiphany but a more gradual disillusionment with the working world, incubated in the space between desire and reality. To borrow a term from the interviewee Bruce, we witness the feeling of ‘dis-ease’ that breeds in the gap between personal aspirations, ethical ideals and self- perceptions, on the one hand, and the unpalatable realities of life as it is really experienced, on the other.
If we want to understand why people resist work, it seems we need to go a little deeper. This is what I will attempt to do in the remainder of the chapter. What I present are of course simplifications of reality. Quite understandably, many participants bristled at the suggestion that there could be one overriding cause or moment which defined their decision to resist work. Perhaps even calling it a ‘decision’ is to some extent misleading – maybe it was more like a building feeling, or the result of a long chain of events. For those participants who felt too unwell to work, resisting work can hardly be described as a ‘decision’. It was more like a necessity or an act of self-preservation. I discuss the factors that led people to resist work only in so far as any of us can really say exactly why we do the things we do. With this in mind, I will look at three common ‘routes’ into resistance to work: the rubbish job, the mini utopia and the broken body.
The rubbish job
I encountered Larry about halfway through my investigation, having been provided his contact details by a friend (and ex-colleague of Larry’s). Larry declined to meet me in person, so we talked about his experiences over the phone. In his fifties, Larry was a longstanding social worker who said he had been suffering from stress. He had negotiated a reduction of his working day by one hour (bringing it down to seven, rather than the usual eight), believing that the change would help him improve his ‘chance of feeling half decent’. The extra hour to himself meant he could dodge the rush hour during his commute, and also relax a little better: ‘I’m less tired in the evenings and I’ve got a bit more time to do what I want to do.’ Over the course of his interview, Larry focused on the changes he had witnessed in his many years as a social worker. He seemed nostalgic for an earlier time, when he had been permitted the freedom to work on a social work case from start to finish. He valued this model of working because he believed it had allowed him to understand his clients’ needs and make a tangible contribution to their well-being. Larry contrasted this with the ‘bureaucratic machine’ of modern social work:
Client contact is very small these days. We follow the set assessment and planning process, so we’ve got a comprehensive assessment plan. Basically, it’s a whole lot of forms to do, a lot of paperwork, probably relating to people you’ve never met before. It’s either very boring or quite stressful. You’re trying get through all these administrative tasks, which you can never keep up with. There’s so much recording and so many people you have to tell different things to: finances and forms, identifications, authorisations, contracts, and then fill in forms to say that you’ve done all these forms.
I asked Larry if he took any satisfaction from his job. He said, ‘It’s not satisfying at all. I used to love my job, but now I don’t like it at all really.’ The most troubling aspect was that the labour process had morphed over the years, so that instead of managing a relatively small number of whole cases, each social worker was assigned a narrower, more routine set of tasks across a wider range of cases. Larry believed that, as a result of these changes, he had been dispossessed of the freedom to make judgements about the best course of action for his clients. The wisdom he had gained from his years of service had become redundant: ‘your experience is less valued than your typing speed’. His daily experience of work had become one of wading through administrative tasks in a state of impatience and resentment, even though he appreciated that the papers on his desk pertained to people ‘with quite pressing emotional needs or crises’. As a conscientious man, he found his mounting impatience troubling. The old Larry had generous reserves of patience for his clients, but the new one was pissed off all the time. He said it was largely as a consequence of these experiences that he had come to develop a purely instrumental relationship with work, performing it without enthusiasm, only in so far as it was necessary to his survival. (Following our interview, news reached me that Larry had actually stopped working altogether.) He wondered whether he might one day be able to rediscover his attraction to social work through some other outlet, outside formal employment: ‘If I needed no income I would just do voluntary work, maybe get involved with some of the voluntary bodies that do things with learning disabilities or other kinds of voluntary work, like adult literacy, or maybe even some kind of environmental group’. I wondered if Larry ever would.
Larry’s account speaks to a range of broad and well-established themes from the critiques of work explored in Chapter 2. He despairs at the intensification of bureaucracy and its world of ‘aims and objectives’, ‘outcomes’ and ‘mission statements’, believing that standardised procedures had interfered with his ability to do the job sensitively and well. The standardisation of the labour process and a shifting division of labour had undermined Larry’s identity as a social worker, destroying his ability to experience a sense of moral agency and pride in his work. He felt estranged from his younger colleagues, who were favoured for their slick efficiency, even if they were ultimately less experienced. The tragedy for Larry was being forced to observe these changes taking hold gradually, over a number of years. A job that was supposed to draw on his personal reserves of wisdom and empathy had, in Larry’s view, been steadily reduced to a set of administrative procedures, in which the personal needs of the client were held at arm’s length. It seems that these experiences had figured prominently in Larry’s desire to push away from work.
The negative experience of work itself also figured prominently in my conversations with a participant called Matthew. Matthew was the husband of another participant, Lucy. They were a young married couple in their early twenties, and I would meet them several times over the course of the research, talking over cups of tea at their home in South Wales. Each time we met, the couple would update me on any changes in their circumstances, before going into earnest detail about their hopes and fears for the future. I always enjoyed interviewing Matthew and Lucy. Their accounts were spontaneous, surprising and often emotional. It sometimes seemed like they were explicating their views on work for the first time.
When first we met, the couple had recently moved to the area for Matthew to study philosophy at the university. Since he was studying full-time, unburdened by decisions about work, it was mainly Lucy who I had come to meet, but I will come back to Lucy a little later. At the time of our interview she did not have a job, and nor did she intend to look for one in the near future. The couple were instead financed by Matthew’s student loan, plus a small amount of savings from previous employment. By the end of the research, however, the couple’s circumstances had changed considerably. Matthew had finished his degree and now, like Lucy, was out of work. He claimed to have a strong sense of self-direction and said he was enjoying his jobless life: he spent quality time with Lucy, wrote articles about video games for an online magazine, attended a film club, and volunteered for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), among other things, but he was also deeply worried about the couple’s financial security. By the time of our last meeting, the two were claiming housing benefit, and Matthew had also begun claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance.
Matthew was looking for work, but only occasionally, and largely without enthusiasm it seemed. Like all the people I met, he had a strong desire to perform work which he perceived to be meaningful. His voluntary work with the RSPB had come close to this ideal, as did a couple of one-off jobs hosting open days on behalf of his university. Matthew was happy to promote these organisations because he ‘believed in them’, but he generally had low hopes for finding meaningful employment. His job-seeking efforts were mostly performative. He filled out job applications – usually for high-street retailers – in order to satisfy the conditions of his benefit entitlement. He hoped that employers would not respond, especially after calculating that a minimum-wage job would leave the couple only marginally better off financially. Claiming benefits had come to represent something of a game, which Matthew was convinced they would eventually lose. The probability that he would be forced to take a menial or ethically dubious job was weighing heavily on his mind:
Selling products that I don’t care about, contributing to something that is either uninteresting or, at the very worst, contributing to something that is unethical – I don’t know how I’m going to be able to do that every day without getting depressed, anxious, or a mixture of the two … I’m very worried about what the wrong job could do to me.
Perhaps he was worried about suffering the same fate as his wife, Lucy, who had previously worked in a bargain shop. Lucy said:
I don’t know if I can ever buy cushions again, because that’s all my job was: shoving cushions into a place they didn’t fit. It was like [my managers’] lives. They were like, ‘oh the cushions have to go three that way, three that way, and three that way’ … It just drove me insane.
The strength of Matthew’s desire to perform work he saw as meaningful became most apparent when he admitted the full extent of the couple’s financial hardships. It was very telling that, even though the couple were barely managing to pay their rent, and had often been forced to subsist on a very simple diet, buying what food they could afford day by day, Matthew had still not been driven to actively search for work.
As we interrogated Matthew’s attitudes in the interview, he was drawn repeatedly back to his previous experiences as an administrative assistant for a local magazine – a job he had performed without pay, over a period of several months, in order to gain work experience. He hated the role. Over the times we met, I judged Matthew to be a very congenial person. He was welcoming, enthusiastic, and seemed attentive towards Lucy, but admitted that he had struggled to exhibit similar qualities at work, especially when he felt his assignments were meaningless:
It’s like your personality’s become a judgement for them, like they expect you to be bouncing off the walls. When I was at [the magazine], people on the whole were really nice, but there was a huge amount of pressure to be emotionally chirpy. A big part of my job was making phone calls, talking to people, flogging things to people, so there was an element of charm and charisma and stuff like that … There’s quite a big emotional investment required to work in an office environment.
Remember that by this point, Matthew was frightened of losing his Jobseeker’s Allowance. I asked him to tell me his worst-case scenario. He said it was being forced by the job centre to take a job in sales:
The idea of working in an office and saying hello to people, being asked ‘how are you?’ when you feel terrible, having to ring people up – if you work in sales you have to be jumping off the walls, ‘be yourself, be happy!’ You know, there’s a lot of times where I feel awful, and having to put on these acts really scares me.
Matthew’s complaints are strongly reminiscent of Hochschild’s theory of emotional labour, introduced in Chapter 2. Matthew explains his struggles to conjure up the emotional performances required by his work role. He is supposed to be ‘bouncing off the walls’ with optimism, but cannot summon the energy. He finds it draining to the extent that it ‘scares’ him, threatening his dignity and sense of authenticity. His experiences make for a very neat comparison with Larry’s. If we remember, Larry’s main complaint about work was that he was being forced to perform ethically sensitive tasks with the cold distance of a bureaucrat. Matthew’s concerns were the inverse: he was being cajoled into performing simple bureaucratic tasks with the warm spirit of a professional.
In our interviews, I noticed that Matthew had repeatedly made a point of stressing his sociable nature. He said that one of his favourite activities was ‘talking to people’. This statement reminded me of Jack, who said that one of his favourite activities was ‘shooting the breeze’, and it would also later be echoed in an interview with Bruce, who said that he loved ‘relating to people’. Given their sociability, it may seem puzzling that these same people also said that they had felt withdrawn and inhibited in the places they had worked. Work is, after all, often valorised as an important source of sociality (recall that social contact was one of the ‘key psychological functions’ of work identified by Jahoda and followers in the deprivation model). Yet we can note that the people I met did not generally value work as a source of social contact. What I believe they were professing to value in their love of talking was something like a heart-to-heart or catch-up between friends, in which fully consenting people share their views, make confessions about themselves, and are richer for the experience. (Either that or something like a playful banter, or talking ‘random crap’, as Matthew put it.) The interactions they valued were those in which one approaches another as a common soul ‘rather than as a mere useful instrument, or an obstacle to one’s own plans’. The love of conversation is a craving for the tenderness realised when people entertain the possibility of ‘relations without purpose’. Whilst some of the non-workers I met did admit to difficult feelings of social isolation, it is notable that nobody said they missed the social milieu of their previous jobs. Anne described ex-colleagues as ‘back-stabbing bastards’, and Rachel described a pattern of bullying at work. Lucy said she would much rather get home to her husband than drink with colleagues after five o’clock. Non-work might be isolating, but work does not necessarily represent a valued source of tender and authentic human interaction.
In the cases we have looked at (and there are many more examples I could have chosen), a purely instrumental relationship with work was forged. Following their negative experiences of work, Larry and Matthew decided that they would only tolerate paid employment in so far as it was economically necessary. This led Larry to reduce his working hours, whereas for Matthew the decision meant avoiding work as far as possible. For other people, the negative experiences of work had led to a snap career change. High-commitment careers were traded for low-commitment, part-time jobs, allowing people to pursue their thirst for productive activity in their free-time. We can consider the cases of Adam and Samantha. Adam was a lively young man in his mid twenties, who had quit a well-paid job as a computer programmer in London to work as a part-time English teacher in Tokyo, Japan. Since Adam’s undergraduate degree had been in programming, a career in programming had seemed like the ‘clear thing to do’, but things had not turned out as expected: ‘I slowly gained the feeling that, from maybe the first week, something was very wrong.’ Adam had enjoyed computer programming a great deal at university, and had even undertaken his own, self-initiated programming projects in his free-time. This enthusiasm, however, was crushed by his job. He was dismayed when his bosses pressurised him into using a software package he did not believe was fit for purpose. He was also crushed by the length of the working day, which could be as much as sixteen hours nearing a deadline, and was outraged to discover how few holidays he was entitled to. He was only permitted twelve days of annual leave. This was not the life he had imagined for himself. He saw himself as a skilled worker and did not feel that his efforts were being recognised. His bosses saw him as a number rather than a person:
There was no kind of ‘you’re a human being, thank you very much for keeping my company going’, but just ‘come in when you’re meant to, work on this big long list, and we’ll complain to you if it doesn’t work’. And – oh, this is another thing! They called everyone ‘resource’! I couldn’t believe it! ‘Yeah, we need more resource on this project’, and I’m thinking, What do you mean by resource? Oh, you mean people!
At university, it seemed that Adam had enjoyed a sense of continuity between his work and his leisure, choosing to do programming in his spare time, but his unhappiness at work had increasingly led him to view his life in terms of compartmentalised spheres of work and relaxation: ‘there was the work me and the home me’. Unsatisfied with this situation, Adam had made the drastic decision to quit the job and jet off to Japan to teach English. When we spoke, he seemed giddy:
My job is being the face of foreign and saying ‘English is very exciting!’ People come up to me and I can explain things to them, and they say ‘thank you, now I understand that’ … When I started doing the English job I was like ‘wow, you can enjoy yourself’, so I can’t go back to those earlier jobs now.
Adam’s part-time hours meant that he was free to pursue his computer programming on a freelance basis. He said he was happier because he was able to take on the projects that interested him, and also have greater control over the pace and methods of his work.
We can compare Adam with Samantha, a graduate in her early thirties, whose resistance had also taken the form of a sudden shift in trajectory. Samantha had gained a PhD in genetics before working as a patent attorney in London. Like Adam, she had tried her best to find a career that would utilise the skills and interests honed in her degree. She had chosen to work in the field of biotechnology patenting, believing that this would allow her to utilise her background in genetics. She quickly became disappointed, however, finding few opportunities to draw on her specialised knowledge. Samantha was dismayed with the limited scope the job gave her to ‘engage in the real world’. Compared with many of the people I met, who had performed fairly routine jobs in shops, offices and warehouses, Samantha’s job was of a much higher status and skill level. Yet she seemed to have felt comparably bored. Although the job was skilled, it still felt like a ‘big game’: ‘I felt like I was just doing hard Sudoku puzzles every day for a living … As with a Sudoku puzzle, it just felt like a mental exercise. The only end goal was money.’ Samantha’s example suggests that even if a job is technically demanding and requires skill, it will not necessarily be experienced as meaningful.
Samantha described her PhD as a kind of shackle, rather than a gateway to interesting work, because it had put pressure on her to honour the qualification with a high-flying career. She recalls feeling that she had reached a ‘dead end’ in her life, where she should realistically anticipate no major or exciting changes. The truth, which she was gradually forced to admit, was that she was not that interested in a high-commitment job. At first she reacted in an extreme way by dropping work altogether, but this turned out to be a mistake: ‘I’d always thought that what I wanted to do was nothing. I couldn’t imagine anything more incredible than being completely free, but what I actually found was that it was extremely difficult.’ Eventually, she took a part-time job as a waitress, working on the side as a freelance private tutor. Samantha described these jobs fondly, saying that she had ‘met nice people and had nice conversations’, but when we spoke she did not know what the future held. She was thinking about training to be a psychotherapist. The important thing for her was that she live with intention: ‘I’m crafting my own life.’
The key point we can take from these accounts of the breakpoint is that, whether people had reduced their hours or given up work altogether, they had not done so according to some kind of crude, anti-work morality, but according to a strongly felt desire to do more. The stories that people told about their jobs show how the desire for resistance can be fuelled by the lack of meaning and autonomy in employment. Functional social roles such as a paid job can never be identical with the complex, fully rounded people who are forced to inhabit them. There is always an excess of self that exceeds the social role and wants to burst free. When the people I met had worked in full-time jobs, the work role had always left certain desires unsatisfied, ambitions unmet, skills dormant. Important parts of the self were denied expression and recognition. I am reminded of Matthew’s statement that in his previous job roles, he had felt like ‘a firework going off under a bucket’. For the most part, I doubted that there was any job that these people would be happy to perform for eight hours a day, five days a week.