The Changing Face of Work

THE ANCIENT GREEKS knew all about work. Their word for it was ponos, which meant not just toil but suffering. And pain. Work was for slaves. The role of free men, according to the thinkers, was to avoid work as much as possible so they’d have time for war, philosophy, and art.

Them were the days.

Nowadays, everybody works, even Bill Gates, richest man in the world. We’re supposed to (Protestant Work Ethic), most of us have to (Money) and in theory, we want to (Personal Fulfillment, or Meaning).

But wait. Financial author Phil Laut has defined work as “doing what you don’t want to do.”

Certainly, I know the difference between hard work (industrial painting and scrubbing pots and pans, which I did during high school and college) and head work (writing stories like this one). My manic-depressive editor will proclaim she has the best job in the world one moment and kvetch about it the next, but we all know there’s a big difference between daily dreariness and occasional discontent, and between working poor and working rich.

Rich is better?

And anyone who has been unemployed knows the only thing worse than working is not working at all.

So does the word “work” adequately cover the gamut from ditch digging and hash slinging to theoretical physics and kayak instruction? Hasn’t it just become another word for life? In America, isn’t what you do who you are?

Moreover, does pay for ponos have any sensible correlation anymore when people with “play” in their job descriptions, like actors and athletes, sometimes earn way more than the every day “pluggers” who plug along actually making things?

And if we’re so democratic and ready to export our values to the Middle East, how come the disparity between rich and poor in America is widening as fast as our waistlines? How come the “working class” has fallen from 40 percent of the workforce in 1950 to 23 percent in Seattle today, and the “service class” has reached 44 percent, giving us a lopsided economy increasingly reminiscent of Upstairs-Downstairs Victorian Britain? And what do the 33 percent in Seattle’s “creative class” — those who earn their livings with their brains — really do?

Why do Americans, on average, work more than any nation in the world: 137 hours more than the Japanese — the equivalent of 3½ vacation weeks, or a staggering 12½ vacation weeks more than the Germans? Yet many don’t have savings for a decent retirement, and millions have no health insurance.

Why do the people with the “best” jobs often complain the most about stress? Why do the ones with the most job security, like civil servants and tenured college professors — folks you couldn’t dislodge with a stick of dynamite — verbally worry the most about being fired?

I’m not entirely sure. But in the months ahead, Pacific Northwest intends to explore the world of work. Meanwhile, impatient young people who don’t want to wait for these stories can instead take comfort in the words of humorist Dave Barry: “If you set your goals high, and you never, ever give up, I guarantee that one day, you will find yourself working for a huge, impersonal corporation run by morons. Everybody does!”

WHEN GOD KICKED Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, he told them, “By the sweat of your brow will you earn your food.”