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Peeling off the work ethic

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Enjoying her holidays, Eva Wiseman wonders if it’s time for a new age of slackerdom.

Recently, I took some time off and was shocked at how much work I found workless life to be. I had to ease myself into the empty days as if a swimming pool. So morbidly institutionalised have I become that without a routine imposed upon a week, I realised I’d have to create my own.

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I started jogging in the morning, strapping my little body up in a variety of sweatshirts and hurling it through the woods to try to control my headaches, a little further every day, listening to dirty podcasts as a background to the green and perfect light. I learnt that, for all its many horrors, the secret to running is putting one foot in front of the other, even when it’s dull and painful, and simply carrying on.

Back at home I became ravenous in a new way, requiring a breakfast starter, breakfast main and breakfast pudding. I grew to know the gaping period between school and dinner time in a way I never had when working in the office, those hours from half-three to half-six, when, if one hasn’t planned carefully, a combination of exhaustion and homework digs a pit in the afternoon and invites children to sit inside it shouting. I witnessed it, daily.

I took up weekly pottery classes with my mum, merrily chucking together a variety of, let’s call them “objects”?

As the weeks passed I was able to lie in bed on a sunny afternoon and read a book about murder. In the evenings I watched a Netflix show with my daughter called Is It Cake? where bakers compete to trick a panel of judges by creating sculptural desserts that look uncannily like, perhaps, a shoe.

But a lot of the time, a lot of my time off, I was thinking about work. I did not miss the fluorescent lights, which goaded my migraines as if boys on a bus, but I did miss putting on a jazzy outfit and I did miss the feeling I was part of something. I thought about what work is, what it does, what it does for me, what it’s for, what it has become.

Millions across the world were wondering, too, either unemployed or adrift since the pandemic hit and seeing the new rawness of working life — the way our jobs have been classified as essential or non, the way homeworking transforms a home, the rising costs of living compared with static salaries, our contentment levels at 7pm. After a period of grinding ambition, where busyness was currency and a lack of secure jobs led to a generation of young people deciding their brand identity before they’d chosen their A Levels, is a change coming?

In my early teens it was cool to do nothing. Effort was embarrassing. Heroes lay smoking on beanbags, damning the man well into the evening. By the time I was of employable age, though, that malingering impulse had become vulgar. The biggest taboo was to admit you didn’t particularly want to work. By the time social media controlled the world, work was life, the clearest example being the influencer economy, illustrated by women who earned cash by broadcasting themselves, for example, opening presents while thin. And while it was a simpler job than say, being a teacher, at least in the evenings teachers got to go home.

Off work, I started to question the things I’d taken for granted throughout my adult life. Was it worth working every day, for money, for recognition, to shore up an identity? Or could I live on less, could I bear to live like this, to spend more time with only myself to talk to over tea? I love my work. But how much of my life should it control? Is all work all-important, or — is it cake? I pictured the Netflix host wielding his knife, holding it for a beat too long before bringing it down upon full-time work, and the studio’s gasps as it cut through icing, sponge, jam.

At the cinema one afternoon, I looked around to see not just the usual retired couples, but younger people, too, alone at a matinee. I was leaning into my holiday by then, rolling my freedom around my tongue like a mint, and I liked it. And I liked the thought that one impact of these fraught and wobbly years might be a return to slackerdom. To less trying hard, to more caring less. Even if it’s not entirely possible for those burdened by child care, rent or rising bills, an attitude shift alone could start chipping away at these laboured structures, built on blunt ambition and the self-righteous glamour of striving. As those ground down by their unappreciated efforts to “self-optimise” give up the fight, and those who saw the pandemic chew the meat of their jobs down to white bone decide to reshape their lives around something other than work, bring on the beanbags. Bring on the slow but daily plod. Instead of sprinting towards a goal, I am starting to understand the benefits of simply putting one foot in front of the other. Of gently carrying on.

 — Guardian News and Media



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