“How to Kill the Job Culture Before It Kills You”

I’ve lately been reading Claire Wolfe’s How to Kill the Job Culture Before It Kills You: Living a Life of Autonomy in a Wage-Slave Society.

Wolfe describes how the “Job Culture” makes making a living miserable. Far from just being the common sorrow of mortal man since we were banished from the Garden, Wolfe believes that the Job Culture is an artificial creation, the product of accumulated bad choices and unintended consequences, and that we can make new and different choices to find our way back out of the labyrinth.

The Job Culture is one in which work is not something we do for the innate satisfaction of the work, or for the accomplishment of doing a job that needs doing, or to sustain the life we live. Instead, we squeeze meager lives into the narrow cracks between our shallow and unsatisfying working days.

We eat crappy fast food, vending-machine sandwiches, and bags of crunchy carbohydrates because we don’t have time in our schedules to prepare and enjoy good food. We waste hours of our lives in traffic because we’re all pointlessly on the same five-day / nine-hour schedules. Faceless megacorporations decide our destinies and contribute to the depersonalization of culture and the fragmentation of our communities, while paying the piper and calling the tune in the halls of government.

We feel the horrid effects of this, but rather than striking at the root, we try to treat the symptoms through consumerism, which just exacerbates the problem.

We have become cog-like: mechanisms, “human resources.” We fulfill job requirements and follow scripts to specification, and so our labor is not a reflection of our personalities and our products are not examples of our creativity. This diminishes us. And it doesn’t have to be this way.

Wolfe is a right-leaning libertarian — an ideological space more prone to sing the praises of big business than to write Walden-like critiques of acquisitiveness or to take jabs at the legal fiction of corporate personhood. She complains of her comrades:

Libertarians and conservatives (who ought to be shouting against knee-jerk job-holding and the Job Culture as vigorously as anyone) are often either silent on this subject or so busy writing paeans to free market that they forget to notice that the system they’re promoting is no longer truly free, freedom-enhancing, or truly market-driven.

The real case against the Job Culture and the mass practice of highly structured job holding in the twenty-first century ought to be made by and for free-market individualists.

Wolfe is sympathetic to the idea that big business, with its centralized control and authority, bears more resemblance to a gray Soviet bureaucracy than to a jewel in the free market crown:

Institutional systems, whether government or nominally private, demand a similar mindset and behavior from those who live under them: obedience to authority, surrender to arbitrary rules and regulations, acceptance of the idea that the individual is just one small (and usually interchangeable) cog in a larger system. Both government and private institutions use top-down, command-and-control structures, and actively diminish individual responsibility and innovation (even as they hope to benefit from outstanding individual talents).

And increasingly, today, these two supposedly different (and supposedly adversarial) forms of institution are merging into one freedom-stealing force.

Why do we put up with this? In part, Wolfe says, it is because compulsory public schooling trains us to put up with it (and this is part of why it was instituted in the first place). School is a long process of conditioning people to accept workplace-like conditions that otherwise would be repellent to their natures.

How can you begin to repair this damage? You can start by spending some time envisioning what a better, healthier life might look like. Keep that vision in your sights and steer your ship in its direction. Wolfe offers some exercises you can do to help you articulate this vision, and prioritize and resolve conflicts among its aspects.

She reviews a variety of strategies of escape, including home-based business, the life of an independent contractor, living off of investments, low-income simple living, shifting from dual-income to single-income, telecommuting, job sharing, temp work, and part-time work.

And finally, she spends several pages imagining a future in which we have thrown off the chains of the Job Culture and liberated ourselves to live a more diverse and rewarding set of livelihoods — giving us more time, more control over our lives, and more well-rounded lives.

And maybe this isn’t just a fantasy. It’s not just the usual cranks like Wolfe and Thoreau and myself who are turning our backs on the rat race. Statistics show that labor force participation is dropping, and economists gather that “a decline in desire to work” is behind it. More people seem to be taking a look at the carrot at the end of the stick and deciding it doesn’t look so tasty.