Must Work Always Be a Misery?
By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”
— Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Twain’s words pretty much sum up the way most of us feel about our jobs. You can see why Monday has such a bad reputation and why we often feel we have to drag ourselves to work no matter what day or hour it happens to be.
Bad bosses. Obnoxious co-workers. Nasty clients and customers. Tedious work. Long hours. High stress. Low pay. No wonder, as the old saying goes, no one ever said on their deathbed that they wish they’d spent more time at the office.
But as a newer saying goes, no one wants to work anymore, and it’s said more as a complaint than an observation.
Labor shortages caused by the pandemic are still disrupting the economy and inconveniencing us. We’re frustrated that people won’t fill the many low or minimum-wage jobs that are available. Some of us are carping that relief funds from the government only amount to paying people not to work.
That isn’t true, of course. Many people needed help to pay rent or buy food. But when Covid shut down businesses, a lot of people got a chance to re-evaluate their lives and options.
As much as rising wages and other perks are now being used to attract workers, money is proving not to be the key factor in their return to the workplace. During a recent NPR report on labor shortages, Emily Abrams, a former special-education teacher, talked about how she’d happily switched to answering email for a medical company, even though she’s now paid less.
"I have zero stress in this new position," she said. "I can turn my computer off after eight hours a day and live my life." Abrams also told NPR that no matter how much dough she is given, she will not return to special education and all the stress and danger she faced from kids with behavioral problems.
I pilot a school bus, which makes me a rare breed. The national shortage of drivers reached a notorious level during the pandemic, with some states pressing the National Guard into service in order to get kids to school. It’s a demanding job that requires licensing, testing, training, physical exams and safety refresher courses. The demands and liabilities are high and the pay is in the neighborhood of $20 an hour with some benefits like a health plan, but the premiums can gobble up big chunks of your paycheck.
My job is hardly a way to make a living. It’s good for supplementary income if you have the stomach and temperament for it. But I work with people who have been doing it most of their lives and many are eager to retire. It's not unusual for drivers to quit on the spot because they can’t stand the abuse from parents and students or the lack of support from their bosses and school officials. Others are keeping their eyes on more attractive job opportunities elsewhere or in other fields.
There’s also a pushback to the “Why should I put up with this?” mentality that has blossomed as the job market has become very favorable to seekers: the belief that jobs are not meant to be enjoyed and we should just suck it up and go to work. It is true that nothing is perfect and if you’re expecting to be appreciated in your place of employment, you will likely wait until there’s an NHL franchise in Hades.
Our society usually treats workers with a certain contempt and suspicion. They are seen as lazy and greedy, unions as inherently corrupt. Wage and benefit increases are blamed for price hikes. And though it is the engine of the vast wealth America produces, labor rarely shares fairly in it. Employees are expected to be on call 24/7, take on added responsibilities without commensurate compensation, accept the short end of the stick, and tolerate their unhappiness.
My wife likes to cite her father, who spent his working life as a humble postal clerk. His job was hardly a field day and the U.S. Postal Service is synonymous with stress. One of my friends is a former postal worker who is now happily retired but still dealing with the physical toll the gig took on his body. Yet, these men did those jobs every day for years, supporting families. They may not have been overjoyed but they weren’t bitter.
I’ve always felt that if I had to haul my carcass out the door each day, I wanted to have fun and do something exciting. I love sports and working with words and was fortunate to enjoy a 33-year-career as a writer and editor with Sport, Sports Illustrated for Kids, and SI.com.
Of course, there were things about those jobs that I disliked, mainly high pressure deadlines and dealing with arrogant, sometimes nasty athletes. But on balance, it was very rewarding — I loved the travel, attending major events, and having a major platform for my work — though by the time I left the field in 2016, I was burned-out and in dire need of a change.
Driving a bus and working part-time at a farm stand now help keep beans on my table while giving me time to do freelance writing and editing. I’m happy with my patchwork gig-economy life and actually appreciate the cantankerous kids I deal with because they give me plenty to write about. The emotional stakes for me are low because I can easily quit at any time. But I have a natural empathy with those who are seeking meaning and happiness in what they do for a living.
My youngest son studied filmmaking in college and discovered during the course of several movie production and site scouting gigs that he didn’t like the field. So he’s seeking a new direction that will have a positive impact on the world. But it’s tough to find your way in life when you don’t know what you want to do. I’m lucky in that I’ve been certain since high school that I wanted to be a writer.
Pursuing your dreams is the ideal path, and our best efforts come from passion, enthusiasm and engagement, not obligation and drudgery. But even if you must take a job just to pay the bills, I don’t see why work needs to be an exercise in misery. We spend most of our time and energy on the job and wrap much of our identity and happiness in it.
It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you find something positive in it. Settling for work that makes you miserable and even harms you makes little sense. For sure, there’s a vast middle ground between wanting everything your own way, and the way things usually are in a job where highs and lows, good times and bad, come with the turf as they do elsewhere in life. But the pursuit of happiness is an American ideal, right up there with life and liberty.
Why not go for it if you can?
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.