General Articles

WHAT’S WRONG WITH WORK?

You’ve met many Alphonses. For them, work’s a curse. To get even, they botch it, make themselves unhappy — and everyone else, too

GWETHALYN GRAHAM May 1 1948
General Articles

WHAT’S WRONG WITH WORK?

You’ve met many Alphonses. For them, work’s a curse. To get even, they botch it, make themselves unhappy — and everyone else, too

GWETHALYN GRAHAM May 1 1948

WHAT’S WRONG WITH WORK?

You’ve met many Alphonses. For them, work’s a curse. To get even, they botch it, make themselves unhappy — and everyone else, too

GWETHALYN GRAHAM

LOOKING back on it now, the first thing that comes into my mind is not the house, nor the six months required for alterations and repairs which should have taken three months and would have taken nine if we had not had such an excellent architect and contractor. It's not even the fact that the cost came to three times the original estimate. What does come into my mind, to start with, is a discussion one evening last year in the apartment of a friend of ours, a woman psychiatrist. The discussion started when our hostess re marked that she had been dictating a clinical report to her secretary that afternoon and, at the stroke of five, her secretary had put down her note book, interrupting, "I'm sorry, doctor, it's five o'clock," got up and walked out-leaving the psychiatrist not in the middle of the report, nor even in the middle of the final paragraph, but actually in the middle of the final sentence.

One of the people there was a Communist, so the first comment came from him and was strictly according to the book. When he had finished, our hostess said mildly, “I get the usual ‘rotten hospital pay too, and for that matter I’m just as much an employee. As for the rest of your argument, nobody is making any money out of the place; it isn’t owned by someone and run for profit. Also, it

happens that that report represente an important research project on a disease which is so far incurable and concerned only public patients. Anyhow', I don’t stop in the middle of whatever I’m doing and go home, just because it’s five o’clock. What’s the difference?”

What is the difference? There were half a dozen of us there and the rest of the evening was spent in trying to find out. One of the conclusions most of us reached was that the great demarcation line of modern societies is not between the so-called “classes” but between those who are earning their living by doing a job which interests them and with which they identify themselves as individuals and those who are simply doing a job to earn a living. At bottom, pride in one’s work, a sense of responsibility, self-respect, even interest in one’s work are all strictly dependent on that identification. Without it, you are just putting in so many hours a day in order to draw a pay cheque.

Such a division cuts straight across former “class” distinctions based on income and “position” and puts the good carpenter, the good executive, the

good bricklayer and the good doctor all in the pa me category where hey belong. It also, unhappily, lays bare a dismaying weakness in our national psychology.

The idea that work is valuable in itself and that it is essential to human happiness has become hopelessly out of date, and in trying to revive it, the psychologists are up against the conventions of a whole continent. Our attitude toward work has been conditioned by an economic and social system which has inevitably produced an overemphasis on shorter hours and higher wages, with the unavoidable implication that work is a necessary evil and the ideal state one in which the individual does a minimum amount of work and enjoys a maximum amount of leisure. Man is therefore supposed to be happiest and most fully alive when he is doing nothing in particular. Further reinforcing this delusion is the continual stress of modern advertising on more and more in exchange for less and less effort, as though even effort were something to be avoided.

I often thought of

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our discussion during the next six months when our house was being torn apart and put together again. The innumerable men and women with whom we had to deal invariably fell into either the one category or the other. Essentially the same kind of human being as the psychiatrist was our contractor himself, his general foreman, the foreman of his crew of carpenters, our architect, our electrician, our second firm of plumbers and a few other odd people here and there. But the majority definitely belonged with the psychiatrist’s secretary.

The workman whom the secretary would have understood best was our painter, Alphonse, and the one she would not have understood at all was our carpenter, Pierre. Our painting and decorating was being done on a separate contract (the rest of the remodeling was on a cost-plus basis), the main part of the job was done, and Alphonse was left to finish up alone. His “finishing up” dragged on for weeks, during which he and the carpenter came to loathe each other. They always took their lunches to opposite ends of the cellar and never spoke to one another if they could avoid it.

Just when they had discovered that they had nothing in common, I don’t know. It became obvious to everyone when Carson, the contractor’s general foreman, had had to take Pierre off his carpentering down cellar to remove the hinges from all the kitchen cupboards. There was nothing wrong with the carpenter’s hinges; there was never anything wrong with any of his work. The hinges had been in perfect order until AJpho»se had started to paint th# cupboards white on the outside and red inside. Having painted the inside, however, Alphonse began on the outside and splashed white on the red; repainted the inside and splashed red on the white. This was the way he did everything and we had lost all track of the number of times he had painted the kitchen cupboards when Carson tried to open them one day and discovered that none of them would budge. Alphonse, it turned out, had painted the hinges alternately red and white, too, because it was easier, and his latest dose of paint had been administered when the doors were closed. There was nothing for it but to send for Pierre to take them off. Pierre took them off, with Alphonse standing a few feet away making jokes. The jokes met with a bleak silence and when all Ihe hinges had finally Iwren removed, Pierre threw them down on a counter, instead of handing them to Alphonse, and marched down cellar again.

Partly because he was working down cellar most of the time, 1 never really noticed Pierre until one Friday in November, the day after the plumbers’ union called a strike.

For Want of Linoleum . . .

The strike was due to start the following Monday. Although it was obviously going to mean a great deal more to a great many other people, including the plumbers themselves, than it did to us, still the spectacle of the back bedroom with a large oldfashioned tub and toilet carelessly arranged along one wall, waiting to be moved into the bathroom next door, was depressing. It was even more depressing when you realized that there was actually no good reason why the bathroom should not have been finished two months before and most depressing of all to realize that it was

going to take a miracle to get it finished now.

The miracle would have to start with the firm of Lefevre and Lefevre, who had been promising to deliver the linoleum for the bathroom floor every day for the past month and who would now have to be persuaded to deliver it within the next few hours. Having got that far, it would then be necessary to persuade Pinard and Monette, Inc., to come and lay the linoleum, also within the next few hours. Finally, it would be necessary to persuade the plumbers to start work at eight the following morning, Friday, in order to get the whole job done in one day, because they never worked on Saturdays and on Monday they were going on strike.

It was three on Thursday afternoon when the news of the strike reached us. Carson, the contractor, began to worry about the linoleum. I tried to get Lefevre and Lefevre, but their line was busy. Then our phone rang again. Mr. Pinard of Pinard and Monette to tell us about the strike and where was the linoleum? I said I didn’t know; could he telephone Lefevre and Lefevre himself? He might have more influence with them than I had.

Five minutes later Mr. Pinard called back. Everything was all right, he said triumphantly, the linoleum had left the warehouse and was on the truck. It seemed a pity to spoil his happiness, but I felt bound to point out that so far as Lefevre and Lefevre were concerned, the linoleum had left the warehouse and had been on the truck for the past four days. M. Pinard groaned and said, well, anyhow, he would send two of his men to lay it that evening, just in case it arrived.

I repeated this to Carson, who said he would send two of his men to lay the linoleum that evening, just in case the linoleum arrived but Pinard and Monette’s men didn’t. Carson had no faith in anyone. He said he would tell the plumbers to be there at eight in the morning just in case, etc., though there was no guarantee they would show up either.

The Piebald Bathroom

Carson left and half an hour later a ready-mix cement truck arrived, backed up to the front steps and with the assistance of the head carpenter, a middle-aged man to whom Carson always referred as “the old fellow,” they started pouring concrete out front. I went upstairs, partly to get away from the racket and also to see what Alphonse was doing. There he was, gloomily patching the bathroom walls, which he himself had painted blue-green a few days before, with a shade resembling chartreuse. The effect was indescribable, rather like a battleship camouflage job viewed at close quarters. Other workmen came and thousands of dollars later, they went, but not Alphonse. Alphonse went on forever.

I told Alphonse wearily that he would have to repaint the whole bathroom. He was a very vain man and easily annoyed. He said that there was nothing wrong with the bathroom. Anyhow, it was too late to start all over again today, he said, and left in a huff.

At six Carson was back again. The first thing he asked about was the linoleum, presumably still on the truck somewhere, and the second was about the head carpenter. Why had he gone away and left the concrete uncovered when he knew as well as anyone that if he did it would freeze and tomorrow the whole job would have to be done all over again?

“Cost plus,” I said, feeling more

depressed than ever. The readv-mix cement truck had had a crew of four men and looked expensive.

Carson was wearing a darle suit and was on his way to some official dinner. He said, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to let that concrete freeze if 1 have to do it myself— but if that carpenter doesn’t come back tonight, I’ll fire him.”

He must have cut his dinner short, because at eight there he was again. Still no linoleum, but two sets of men to lay it—one from Pinard and Monette, one from our contractor.

At nine thirty-five the linoleum arrived. Pinard and Monette’s men vanished upstairs and Carson’s men were sent out to rescue the concrete. It was one o’clock before they were all finished and we finally got to bed, hut Carson was back before eight. When “the old fellow” turned up for work, Carson fired him.

Then came the plumbers. Pierre emerged from the cellar and went to work in our bedroom where the old fellow had left off the day before, someone else taking Pierre’s place downstairs.

Gradually, during the next few weeks, all the regular men went away except for the electrician, Pierre and Alphonse, with his interminable puttering. His employer was losing money on our contract and we knew it and Alphonse knew it, but when we said something to him, he just laughed. He also thought it was funny when three of a crew of five of his fellow painters failed to appear for work one morning on another house which his employer was redecorating a few blocks away. He said the boss was upset, but they were smart, those guys; they knew that if you worked three days a week for one man, and two for another, it made a lot of difference in your taxes.

Waste, Waste, Waste

It was about that time that we began to look back on what we had already been through as a period of relative peace. We were dealing mostly with outside firms now—the floorcleaning firm, window cleaners, the department store who informed us blandly that, in taking the measurements for the living-room windows last August, they had “overlooked” the rear window and as they needed eight weeks to fill an order it would be sometime toward the end of January . . . We had learned a lot from Carson and we said that since we were not responsible for their errors we would have to insist on their fulfilling their contract. The curtains came.

Then there was the other department store, which, when the day arrived on which our living room rug, bought, paid for and stored with the firm six months before, was supposed to be delivered, regretted that they could not quite “locate” it. Three weeks tater they had still not quite located it and, in addition, they regretted that so far as the Ozite to go under the rug was concerned, also bought, paid for and stored in May, they were temporarily out of stock. We said we were sorry to hear that too, but we would give them just six hours in which to deliver both rug and Ozite and if they didn’t we would sue them. The conversation took place at noon; at four rug and Ozite arrived.

There was the window-cleaning firm who pestered us for weeks to get the contract for our house and, having got it, failed to turn up for a few more weeks. When they finally did, there were four men who arrived at twothirty in the afternoon and promptly retired to have lunch. At three-thirty they finished lunch and at four-fifteen

three of them left. When I asked the remaining window cleaner for an explanation, he said the boss always did that it meant he could take on more jobs at a time. He himself was sent somewhere else next day; it was another three weeks before I could persuade the firm to send someone back to finish the job hut not, however, before they sent in their bill.

Apparently we were running into postwar white-collar psychology and, so far as we could see, it was just Alphonse, or the psychiatrist’s secretary all over again. When the hills arrived from the department stores, we had been charged for goods which they had not sold us and for services which they had not rendered.

Yet the important point about all this is not the colossal waste of time and money, though that is bad enough, but the waste of human beings. Thus, the final comment on Alphonse—which suitably enough came from our carpenter, Pierre—was not that Alphonse was such a liability to everyone else, but that he was such a liability to himself.

I knew Pierre quite well by this time and I had never seen him lose his patience before. After the usual interminable delay, the two mirrors for the medicine cupboards in the bathroom were finally delivered. They were accompanied by only half the required number of screws—four, instead of eight. It was a small thing, but it was just one too many. He was so angry that his hand was shaking as he put in the fourth screw, with the other mirror leaning uselessly against the wall by the bathroom door. “It is such a waste of your money and my time, Madame, and it is hard on you and your family to go like this so long with

your house full of strangers. It is hard on Mr. Cummings and Mr. Carson and on me, too—it is hard on everyone but that imbecile in the warehouse who is too lazy to count to eight. So he sends four screws, to save himself the trouble. I suppose he says to himself that if the work is delayed some more, or if it is done badly, or even if it is not done at all, well, that’s our worry—it isn’t his firm, it isn’t his money that pays my wages and his—so why should he take the trouble to count to eight?”

A moment later Pierre said suddenly with an abrupt change of tone, “I don’t understand such people. I don’t understand how they live. After all, half of one’s life is spent working and if you don’t like your work enough to take some trouble over it your life is not worth living. That man—that painter, Alphonse—he was like that. 1 used to watch him sometimes; he was not stupid, but 1 have never seen anyone so bored.”

Why We Work

It was not only the final comment on Alphonse, but a comment on the 20th century. As a good many people have pointed out, we have seen the end of economic man, though it took Adolf Hitler to prove it. This is the era of psychological man, which is one of the reasons Marxism seems so oddlv out of dal e.

Psychological man has certain basic requirements for his happiness and well-being which have nothing to do with economics, except in a negative sense. Love is one of them; productiveness, or what used to be called simply “self-expression” is another. Self-expression is not a privilege granted only to the artist and a few

other chosen people, it is a universal

necessity.

The psychologist would say that one of the reasons why a feeling of productiveness has become critically necessary in the 20th century is because, in a civilization of steadily increasing standardization and a steadily increasing sense of impotence before the machine and the atom bomb, the individual has to rely on his own inner self in order to retain his sense of individuality. Otherwise he is submerged, like the Nazis. He cannot retain his sense of individuality, however, unless he is making use of those powers and capabilities which are uniquely his and which are, therefore, what chiefly distinguish him from any other man who eats the same kind of food, wears the same kind of clothes, reads the same kind of newspapers and magazines, sees the same movies, listens to the same radio programs at the same time and lives in the same kind of house with the same kind of furniture. The psychologist would say all this and he can prove it. He knows what he is talking about. So does Pierre, though all he says is “Half your life is spent working and if you don’t like your work your life isn’t worth living.”

The value which the individual puts upon himself and his abilities is likely to he influenced by the value put upon him by society. Alphonse and all the other bored people, of whatever trade, business or profession, may be the inevitable products of an economic system which only a few years ago put their value at next to nothing and, if they were unable to get any kind of job during the depression, then at nothing at all. In the democracy, as opposed to the totalitarian state, the individual is supposed to be an end in himself and not a means to an end. Yet, since the rise of the capitalist system, he has only been worth what he could fetch on the market at any given moment. It so happens that at the present moment these people fetch a high price, but who is to say what the price will be in five years?

It is all very well to say that what this country needs is 10% unemployed; this theory, apart from its utter lack of humanity, is also completely lacking in political common sense. Countries in which the threat of insecurity operates over any real length of time are ripe for totalitarianism.

liven if the economic threat were not still with us, however, the problem would remain unsolved. Both the Bight and the Left are wrong in their overemphasis on economics as the cure for our apathetic social attitudes. The Right is wrong in its belief that insecurity is the solution; the Left is wrong in its belief that security and economic participation are the solution.

The Goad of F ear

Whether the Left likes it or not, there is no evidence that psychological problems can be cured by economic means. In the most prosperous police states, where no one is afraid of unemployment and private ownership has gone, the fear of insecurity has apparently had to be replaced by the fear of something else to keep people at their jobs and to maintain some degree of efficiency. This was true of Nazi Germany and so far as one can gather from the prison camps, the réintroduction of the incentive system years ago, and the barrage of propaganda directed tov/ard making the individual feel that what he is doing is important, it is also true of Soviet Russia. Fear is no solution, even on the economic level, except as a temporary expedient. On the psychological level, it is worse than useless. You cannot frighten anyone

into idenl ifying himself wil It his joh and into hemming genuinely productive for his awn sake and this is an absolute condition in any system which maintains that man is an end in himself. You cannot bribe him into it either, except by paying such inordinately high wages that no conceivable economic system could stand the strain (and even if it could, all you would get would be a highly efficient robot).

It all comes back to the North American conception of work—or to be more accurate, the North American misconception of work. Nobody in his senses would try to argue an artist, a scholar or a scientist into believing that work is a necessary evil and that the ideal state is one in which he is doing the minimum amount of labor. This argument is reserved mainly for the so-called “laboring” and “white-collar”

classes, on the theory that artists, scientists and scholars arc “different.” The theory would be all right if there were any evidence to support it, but unfortunately, from the standpoint of modern psychology, there isn’t.

So far as the psychologist is concerned, about all that distinguishes a good novelist from a good bricklayer is the nature of their respective jobs, because their attitude toward their work and the satisfaction they get out of it is likely to be pretty much the same. If we could have learned this 10 years ago, it would have been better for us and for the rest of the postwar world and the future of democracy may well depend on our learning it now. The only other alternative to the present waste, inefficiency, boredom and frustration is fear—and no democracy can survive fear for long.