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Clocking In: The Ordinary Work Symposium Introduction

Here in America, we have much to say on the subject of work.

For example, we like to say that work is not as important as others think it is. We declare it a means to an end, a mere distraction from what is truly important to us.  We bemoan it as a hassle, a pain, and an interference with our lives.  Work is that thing which, we insist, comes well after family, friends, and ‘personal fulfillment.’

In short, we lie.

Regardless of the stories we like to tell one another, for better or worse we Americans live for work. The amount we spend working dwarfs any other activity we choose to engage in, save sleeping.  In modern times, our circle of friends is more likely to be determined by our workplace than any other single factor. We live not where our loved ones are, but where our work demands. What type of work we choose is the foundation for our own self-identities; what work others choose is the foundation of our determination of their worth as people.

Our greatest political battles continue to revolve around work.  In Culture-War skirmishes, half of us judge the moral fiber of others almost entirely on their personal relationship with work; the other half judge the same almost entirely on where they fall within the hierarchy of the workplace.  Entire political campaigns are based on nothing but jobs and the wages those jobs may (or may not) provide.  Collectively, we declare work itself to be the panacea for poverty, crime, inequality, violence, poor education, lack of security, and all other social ills.

When we are acknowledged to be especially good parents, spouses, friends or neighbors by the same, we might quietly nod and briefly smile, and then move on.  But when we are acknowledged to be especially good workers by our employers, we treat ourselves to special dinners, get-away vacations, and maybe even that new car we’ve secretly been eyeing.  We line up to buy lottery tickets in the implausible hope that we will never have to work again, only to be secretly warmed by the inevitable stories of how being separated from work drove those who won to financial ruin, depression, and (perhaps) suicide.  We take those things we love most in life — art, music, games, story telling, food, spirits, sex, childrearing, companionship — and we turn them all into work to be done for wages.

In 21st century America, we ask nothing of our work but that it be rewarding, enriching, fulfilling, challenging, and meaningful — that it might feed our souls and be the solid foundation that makes everything else in our lives possible.  Or to be more concise, all that we ask of work is that which we ask of God.


Today marks the beginning of the Ordinary Times Work Symposium.

As with all of our symposiums, we have asked that writers write whatever they wish so long as it directly or indirectly connects to the symposium topic.  Submissions continue to arrive, but so far we have a most promising table set for readers and commenters alike.

We are currently cuing up discussions on the myth (or truth) of sustainable work economies, what pets can teach us about a post-work society, an argument that the employer-employee relationship not be considered contractual, the devaluation of skilled workers in our winner-take-all economy, an attempt to solve demand-side information imperfections in the workplace, a work diary from the Internet’s favorite attorney, the (definitely non-financial) rewards of a career dedicated to serving others in need, a look at the surprising work-life of America’s founding women, a retrospective of work-themed music, one worker’s detailed confession and cataloguing of his aggressions in the workplace, and an exclusive insider look at the secret work-life of Oompa Loompas.

As always, the symposium will continue until it doesn’t.  At any time, you can find all published posts for the Work Symposium here.


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30 thoughts on “Clocking In: The Ordinary Work Symposium Introduction

  1. You know, that’s funny, because I’ve never thought this way at all.
    As I’ve said before, not here though: I work doing what I do because I like it, I’m good at it, and it provides me with an income and lifestyle that allows time to do what I really like: travel and exploration.
    Yes, I’ve worked more than 40 hours, sometimes often, sometimes for a number of years. Other times, I’ve simply clocked in and did my time. I’ve been more or less engaged with the success of an organization and other times I’ve not given a damn if the company crashed and burned, because my personal life was more important. It always has and always will be, but neither do I, nor did I ever have, the desire or drive to be CEO or something else. The sacrifice to the personal is too great.

    I’m looking forward to the symposium.

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  2. Work, ugh, it’s that nasty stuff you have to do to fund the things you like to do. I am envious of people who can find enjoyment in something others will pay them to do. For the masses of us, though, I suspect that work is something to be endured not relished. As for it being necessary? There’re plenty of things I don’t want to do that peopel won’t pay me to do that I should do that I could spend more time doing if I suddenly was relieved of the need to work. I don’t play the lottery personally (that great tax on the poor, desperate and economically illiterate) but if somehow I found myself a great financial windfall I assure you I could live productively, happily and with nary a hint of depression or suicide without work.

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  3. Hi Tod, can you explain this line to me:

    “We take those things we love most in life — art, music, games, story telling, food, spirits, sex, childrearing, companionship — and we turn them all into work to be done for wages.”

    I imagine you’re talking about (in part) the stuff that many of us here do for fun, writing. I know a lot of the contributors here have gone on to write things for pay (whether full-time, part-time, freelance or just a bit of coin on the side). So, individuals take their loves and turn them into jobs. Am I understanding you properly? If I am, I think it might be illuminating to separate “vocations” from “work”. If I win the lottery; I might quit my job. I will not stop writing, though (in fact, I’ll probably write even more), and I probably won’t turn down payment.

    (I imagine that you could also be talking on a more macro level, in which society has turned those things into paying gigs. The work/vocation distinction won’t be as applicable, then.)

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    • Your take is correct. My only point being that even when we have some activity that we love, that gives our lives meaning or pleasure in our non-work lives, we find ways to convert those activities into jobs — or if we don’t we at least daydream about doing so.

      We tend to frame these thoughts around our love or passions for this thing we do in our spare time, and that framing is indeed accurate. But a marriage of work and that which we prize most, either realized or in fantasy, is by its very definition as much about our relationship with work as it is that beloved activity.

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    • My take on the writing thing is that the folks who write here display a high level of talent doing so and I certainly believe that they should be encouraged financially. Honestly, if I was a literary agent, I’d scan this site for writers to develop. So I see it more from the perspective of what I want society to finance. I’d much rather pay people to do what they have a vocation for than… well, most of what we pay people to do. Somewhere there’s a Frank Zappa quote to the effect that no musician should be working in a gas station to play at night.

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      • +1.

        I’m not going to be able to cobble together a post for the symposium, but clearly to me a post addressing the status of work not for pay or work that doesn’t pay a livable wage would be a welcome addition. What are ways we can encourage labor done for the purpose of the creation of work with potential human value but with little immediate exchangeable value? Is that kind of work something we want to encourage using monetary resources in ways beyond simply saying that if there really is value, eventually it will be recognized through exchange? My way would be an unconditional livable basic income, but there are surely others that are viable and equally or more broadly palatable.

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