IMG_3113It’s said that the French work to live, while Americans live to work. I would like to work forever, though with reasonable hours, French-style. It wouldn’t just be for the money, though that’s a necessary factor, but also for the intellectual stimulation and social contact with people.

A bunch of things collided to make me think lately about the nature of work. I was talking to someone who mentioned lousy jobs–the ones with repetitive tasks, possibly dangerous or at least likely to involve occasional injuries, with inflexible or odd or constantly changing hours, few or no benefits, no hope for advancement. One employee is nearly indistinguishable from the next and so they can be fired and a new one hired without angst.

Random pictures from here and there, just to break things up.

Many of these jobs are being automated. Maybe they should be–there’s nothing inherently satisfying about them other than the paychecks they bring, and why have people doing dangerous tasks instead of machines? But what about the people who do them now? Especially those who are doing fairly dangerous jobs and earning good salaries as a result? They are not going to shift to a lab to look for a cure for cancer. And it isn’t because they aren’t able to make this switch to the vaunted knowledge economy that they should be written off.

One of my early jobs, when I was in high school, was automated and I was laid off. I worked at a bank, doing data entry. Back then, when you made a charge with your credit card, the clerk would set it into a little cradle and, RRRPPPP RRRPPP, imprint the card number into the three carbon copies of the receipt (the legacy of which is the raised numbers on your cards still today). My colleagues and I had four-inch-thick stacks of the bank copy of these receipts. We would type in the card number and amount as fast as our left hands could flip to the next receipt. There were little red lights on the keyboard to alert us to errors (each pile was entered by two different people and they had to match perfectly). Our keystrokes were timed to monitor our efficiency.P1060663 2 Occasionally, the headsets we wore would beep and we would stop to authorize a charge. Back in the day, if a charge was rather large, the retailer would call a human at the bank for authorization. We had a little box of microfiches that were updated regularly, and would slip it into a projector to look up the card number to see whether the person was paying their credit card on time or whether they were over the limit (refused) or the card was stolen. I had one stolen card, and it was very exciting. I had to tell the clerk to keep the customer in the store while calling the police and to cut the card in half.P1060683I was the youngest person working there, and it was a great job for a 17-year-old. I worked four hours a night after school Monday to Thursday and eight hours on Sundays, where I got time and a half.  I made $4.75 an hour (when the minimum wage was $2.30) and more on Sunday. I had Friday night and Saturday night off. Incredible.

But I couldn’t figure out the life plan of the adults I worked with. On the one hand, it was a good job, but I didn’t see anybody promoted in the years I worked there. There was nothing about data entry that led to bigger and better skills. And I don’t think my co-workers were concerned about moving up. They had a nice, clean office job that they did well and they didn’t need to think about when they left for the day. They worked to live.IMG_5089 2Funny, but in high school my counselor thought I should stick with the bank job–steady, at ridiculously high pay. She said I could get hired on graduation as a secretary because I could type. I said I wanted to HAVE a secretary, not be one. (That got me in trouble with my mother.) I had good grades, great test scores, but we were in a tough neighborhood. People like me were supposed to become worker bees not bosses.

I went to college anyway, with a full scholarship, though it didn’t cover books and such. So I worked full-time and went to school more than full-time because I finished in three years. Of course now I regret it–I don’t have any friends from college–I ran out of my classes to catch the bus to work. I missed out on the college experience. Lesson: living to work can be empty.IMG_3111I see Felicity Huffman going to jail for all of two weeks for buying her kid into college and I wonder whose place her kid took. Do you remember/know of the invasion of Grenada? A supposedly communist coup led to the U.S. invasion, citing the need to protect the Americans going to medical school there. Turns out, Grenada had a booming diploma factory for Americans who didn’t qualify for med school in the U.S., but the family couldn’t bear the thought of Junior not being a doctor and shipped him off to Grenada. 

I don’t know anybody who would rather see a doctor whose family bought his degree rather than the poor but brilliant kid who worked his way through. While it’s clear that kids brought up in stable households with decent incomes have better outcomes in school, at least in France the schools are pretty consistent and university is open and without tuition to anybody who has the test scores (there are costs, like housing, but they’re a couple thousand a year).

In some ways, today’s economy is like the one of many decades ago. My grandma got milk delivered by the milkman in a little truck. Today, people get deliveries from Amazon or Deliveroo or one of the others. The big difference with the past is that milkman earned a middle-class living for his family and stay-at-home wife, as they almost all were then. Delivery drivers now have to work incredibly long hours, or supplement with other gigs, and they still only scrape by. The app business model depends on not paying living wages.

These details were created by human hands.

Check out the documentary “American Factory.” Fantastic. You see these people doing kind of routine jobs but proud to do them and do them right. They are working to live but while they’re on the clock, they are all-in. But when the factory, which had been closed, is bought by a Chinese company, the new management doesn’t see it that way; they see the American workers as slow and lazy and unwilling to put in hours the way their Chinese employees do. 

There’s a new podcast based on the tapes Studs Terkel made of the interviews he did for “Working,” his seminal look at people and their work in the 1970s. The podcast went to the interviewees to see where they are now. Fascinating. There was the telephone operator talking about how boring and machine-like her work was–work now long done by computers, just like my bank job. There were the generations of car mechanics and the great pride they had in diagnosing problems. Some people aren’t made for desk jobs.IMG_3104Then there’s teaching. It used to be a good, middle-class job. In France, it still is, thanks to the panoply of benefits the government provides to people at the bottom of the income scale. Income redistribution. Socialism. I don’t receive these benefits and I pay plenty in taxes to finance them. But I love it. I think it’s the right thing to do.

I hear a lot about how incredibly innovative the U.S. is, but what I see are a lot of little software programs–apps–that don’t advance much. Most of them make doing something or another a little bit easier. Is that innovation? They feel like the specialized kitchen gadgets that, yes, peel garlic faster, get the pit out of your avocado, slice and dice more surely than someone without knife skills, but I suspect 99% of such gadgets sit in drawers, untouched.IMG_3117Sure, Google changed search (but I use DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t track you), Amazon changed/demolished retail, Apple put computers in our pockets (Nokia was working on that, too, but too late). Even before AirBnB, I booked holiday homes, though the app is much easier. Is “easier” enough to qualify as innovation? Not sure. Uber made it easier to hail a ride, but by exploiting drivers, who brought their own cars–no capital expenditure on fleets necessary for Uber, no contributions for pensions or health care or all those other things that human workers have traditionally required. I’ve never used Uber and never will. Same with Facebook. I’m far from a Luddite, but I’m picky about what I put on my phone and which businesses get my custom. My kitchen drawers are almost devoid of gadgets. It’s a lifestyle.

This is a very grognon post, but I really care about people who work hard and don’t make ends meet, and it seems to be the case for more and more people. What about you? Do you live to work or work to live? What do you think about gig jobs? In light of your opinion, do you use apps? What should we do about jobs eliminated by automation?

Bonus: A little retro Huey Lewis and the News with Workin’ for a Livin’. Circa 1982.IMG_3108


36 thoughts on “Working for a Living

  1. Ok, this is a lot of information, but we agree – even we am working hard right now, way to hard, but we have a plan of the early retirement, so we can live even more – and we still travel … which is living for us. And (laura) know LOTS of people who would like their kids to be doctors even if they are not the best and the smartest at it. While David and I would prefer our kids just to be happy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s interesting to read this post after last night watching clips of film of workers on the production line, from the twenties through to the sixties, at the Huntley and Palmer biscuit factory in Reading. One woman’s job consisted of grabbing three packets of biscuits with right and left hands as they came down the line and then putting them in boxes either side of her. She probably did this all day and I couldn’t imagine what that must have been like. That job would now surely be mechanised. You touch on equality of opportunity in education. France seems to be much more socialist in this respect. The Felicity Huffman case is the ugliest example of wealth buying prestige education. Here in the UK we have a flourishing market in Public Schooling buying places to Oxbridge and top jobs.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I’m with you on the work to live ethic. And I don’t like the idea of the gig economy, where people get screwed by big business, just so that they can produce bigger profits for their shareholders. I’m certainly not going to take an uber and I avoid using on-line shopping where possible. A lot of people don’t realize how much power we as consumers have, or don’t care about making the right choices 😦

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Studs Terkel… now there’s a name I haven’t heard in eons. He always had interesting viewpoints. No, I don’t use Uber or Lyft and never will. They’ve generally cleaned up their Mickey Rooney “hey, let’s put on a show” amateurish ways of bringing their cat, their refrigerator in the front seat, smoking a joint and reeking from lack of a bath, but I’m not interested. I’ve stayed in two AirBnBs that had cameras in the bedroom!! No thank you! Automation and planned obsolescence has been going on since the wheel was first invented. Our new zoomy gadgets come with a price and it always involves the workers. A sad state of affairs on the modern world, but it’s not going to change.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m not against AirBnB–we have two apartments listed on it. No cameras! I just wish they would give cities a list of the properties and the owners, so the cities can collect taxes. We do it voluntarily, but have a neighbor with a couple of undeclared rentals. It seems only fair to pay taxes, because the hotel industry has to.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve definitely been living to work. Now I simply can’t – and while not completely enjoying the consequences of such an abrupt change to my work life I appreciate the opportunity to recalibrate. I’ve done the same thing for a long time so it was easiest to just keep on doing it – but I’m surprisingly okay with not doing it anymore- for lots of reasons, not the least of which is saying goodbye to the constant hustle. That sounds so utterly un-American – having no desire to endlessly strive – but there are other ways I want to use my emotional bandwidth. I was talking with a friend who made a significant mid-life career change – from the same work I’m leaving to legal secretary – and she loves it. She works part time, it requires she stay sharp and engaged, but when the work day ends, it ends.

    I like AirBnB- I’ve signed off/sworn off of Facebook- though I’m still on IG so I guess I really haven’t. I like my local grocers app. Most everything else came with my devices and are unused. I feel for people who are trapped in the gig economy. It won’t surprise me when Uber etc start recommending their “freelancers” consult with the local public assistance offices to fill the gaps, much like the fast food industry does, while the companies push toward making workers obsolete altogether. Maybe it’s a matter of what gig you’re doing though as to whether or not it’s profitable and/or fulfilling.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Unfortunately, aside from Silicon Valley coders, even highly educated gig workers lack financial security. Think of university adjunct professors, all kinds of freelancers and consultants. A new person shows up at your biggest client and gives all the work to one of their own contacts. Bam!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Except for adolescent stints in a bookshop and as a waitress, I taught for my entire working life, which to me was working to live but also living to work. It was beyond gratifying. I had summers off and extended vacations during the academic year. Yes, I applied myself to course preparation in down times, but for me this was no grievance. It seemed to me a balanced and stimulating life. Is it a sign that I’m an inveterate American if I liked my work?

    I understand the arguments against Uber, but I think the “sharing economy” has provided necessary sustenance for people who need a ready means to make a living.

    I think, for instance, of the Uber and Lyft drivers I’ve had in Paris, Chicago, or New York. They are often new and friendly immigrants, drive for both companies, attend school part time, and have families to support. I’m not saying it’s a sustainable long term job, but it serves its purpose on both ends.

    Yes, cab drivers in these cities are unionized and enjoy better pay and perks, but one cannot always readily find a cab, for instance, in parts of Brooklyn and Chicago, and certainly not in Paris’s outlying areas. I need a ride and they make a living, albeit with difficulty. Does this seem reasonable?

    I suppose in the final analysis I’m all admiration for the dignity of human work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There should be a way to get more drivers during peak hours and to use tech to connect drivers and riders without putting all the risk on the drivers.
      Teaching is one of the best professions. I did it only for two years and loved it. Bravo to you and many thanks for your dedication.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Jobs eliminated by automation? I’ve read some states have passed laws where automation gets taxed. If robots, automated machinery replaces people then that robot/s pays the same income taxes the people it replaced. I see where robots are needed to do the heavy lifting. I watched the movie you recommended, American Factory and it was interesting. I liked it. Surprised to see that the Chinese workers talked about only getting off work 1 or 2 days in a month. Seeing their kids rarely and working 12 hours a day. The CEO of that company said people are here (on earth) to work. I disagree.
    The majority of teaching jobs are underpaid although they get off the summers and holidays. I’ve been out of work for 3+ years now and finding it very difficult to find a job. With Christmas coming I’m going to settle for retail. I have a degree in electronics but no one is hiring. Very difficult getting interviews as well.
    When my son graduates high school, I daydream about finding a profession that would allow me to live my winters in France. Although I have NO clue what the profession would be. Considering going back to college for auto-mechanics and working at a Mercedes dealership or whatever is popular in France. Audi? Fiat? Volvo? IDK.
    Definitely work to live mentality with me. Hoping my luck changes soon.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I suppose it’s a personal choice whether someone works to live or live to work. One’s sense of purpose evolves, changes and renews continually throughout one’s life. As someone else said it before, automation has started with the invention of the wheel and the discovery of fire and it ‘s going to be there regardless.
    I am all for whatever helps me save time, as time to me is the most precious commodity. Whether is a home delivery, app shopping or any other way that frees me time to do other things that are important to me. Do I think that using Uber is ethical? Not really. It’s just another service that I pay for, I use it when I need it exactly as I use a plumber. Do I think that is ethical for a plumber to charge me $300/hour? Even if I do, it’s completely irrelevant because I need his expertise so I am going to pay as much as he asks. I suppose plumbers are those people who earn a decent living wage, 10 times more than I was making as a school teacher. So if a robot which can fix pipes will ever be invented, I will be the first in line for that one.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. For most of my life, I lived to work. Loved every minute of it. Saturday mornings were sad because it was the weekend and I wasn’t working. So I see it both ways. But I detect a new attitude toward people with jobs that are not part of the knowledge economy. I’m in the knowledge economy and could easily dismiss these people, too. But I know so many of them, and they deserve respect. The people who cared for my parents in their last months–paid horribly. Not jobs that will be automated. They should be well-paid, not juggling two jobs.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. By “here,” I mean, in the United States. Depending on the state, we can have 30 students in a foreign language class, and only 11 states even require two years of foreign language at all! Plus the fact that in some neighborhoods known to have good schools, parents cannot afford the rent, so they have their children working nights after school….Their children are tired during class and have no time for homework, thus they do not benefit from their parents decision to live in a “good” zip code. Social mobility is stunted here in the U.S.A.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. No Facebook, Twitter or Uber for me, and the only apps on my phone are for checking the weather and seeing if my train will be on time. I do like Amazon when with a click I can have an item delivered to my door and save myself a two hour drive through Chicago traffic .
    I had a wonderful high school job at my local library. I shelved books and worked at the checkout desk, where I could discuss books with the patrons, and flirt with boys if there was no one else in line. It was nice job and paid very well. I hope those library jobs will never be automated.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I have never used Uber and don’t plan to do so. Also, never joined FB, insta, twit, etc, etc, etc. I don’t think this makes me better than anyone else, but it is simply a choice I make not to be ‘available’ for lack of a better word or in some cases, not to exploit others. I do use some apps when I travel (i.e. airline, train, weather, maps)–and delete them afterwards. If an app asks for too many permissions (e.g. contacts, phone, location, camera, etc, etc, etc), I generally avoid them.

    I try to avoid using big A, but so many stores are/have closed (or have such crappy inventories), for those not living in urban areas it is difficult to find some things without going online. If I must, I look for smaller online retailers that are not linked to A even if I must pay a bit more. Another trend that has been ruining a lot of retail has been private equity firms taking over–the trend is very noticeable because though the prices for goods remain the same (or higher), the quality of the products has dropped significantly while these folks skim off the top and leave the consumer with a lesser product.

    I (v. happily) retired last year after decades of working to support my family. I often liked/loved my work, had an excellent work ethic, but never made any bones about the fact that my family came first–not the job. Fortunately–mostly worked with folks who felt the same. Frankly, I don’t know anyone who’s dying words were, “I wish I had worked more.”

    There are no easy answers to any of this. But I total understand the sentiments of your grognon post.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Things I don’t do…Uber, Deliveroo, have many apps on my phone at all. Neither do I have a dishwasher, a microwave, a juicer. I like to do most things in real time, on real scale. My worst job as a teen was in a factory, catching spiky bits of wood as they were spat out at me from a terrifying machine. One day of that. Or as a dinner lady at a school. One day at that. I did, however, enjoy working as a cook on a building site. I was brought up to think about getting a proper job, but probably only till I got married. I tried that but found the proper job I thought would be my career wasn’t, at all. I did all kinds of jobs but without a great deal of interest, to be honest, though I gave teaching my all and a bit more (resulting in a great deal of stress-related problems). I am definitely work to live, always have been. It used to make me feel guilty but now I am pleased I didn’t give work top priority as I now meet people who cannot seem to detach, despite being very much of an age when they should move aside and can afford to. Re Felicity Huffman – how does her poor daughter feel about all this, I wonder? Like an imposter, I imagine, and humiliated. Helicopter parents, stand back and grow up.

    Liked by 1 person

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