The Crisis of Having a Job, or Wanting One

It’s strange to watch the news coverage of the unemployment crisis in South Africa, Zimbabwe or anywhere else right now. The word “jobs” has become a simplistic mantra. We need to create jobs! Where are the jobs? We have a crisis, the crisis of having a job and wanting one. Yet, as everyone who has a job knows, there’s nothing simple about modern employment.

A good job is a wondrous thing and can form the foundation of a meaningful and satisfying life. But many jobs turn out to be irrational at their core, and even the best jobs are riven with conflict. There’s no doubt that our current unemployment rate is a severe economic crisis.

But for some people, the first day of a new job is the beginning of a different kind of crisis, and you won’t find coverage of this crisis on any blog or cable news show. As a freelance writer and journalist with marketable skills, I’m fortunate to have plenty of job options. 

I know that some people who struggle for employment think I have it easy. But I also strive hard to balance my personal life with the requirements of my work. A typical PR writing job means a commitment of 3 long days a week, with constant demands for overtime work.

Amazingly, most freelance writers blindly acquiesce to this unreasonable level of commitment, often for little satisfaction or appreciation in return. They take out their anger and resentment by goofing off on the job, developing negative attitudes (“this job sucks”), doing shoddy work…

However, they will still set their alarm clocks and trudge off to their cubicles every day. Some of them even feel guilty if they ever arrive ten minutes late, or if they only work straight hours and don’t put in the overtime that is invariably expected. This is what we can agree is the crisis of having a job and, or wanting one.

Amazingly, they’ll sacrifice deeply significant family or personal events to keep their mundane commitments. I have seen freelancers missing their own kids’ performances in school plays, or momentous family gatherings so that they can meet a client’s deadline.

I know, for instance, software developers, who get absolutely no exercise, who never go to a play or a concert, who never climb a mountain or swim in an ocean or walk through a park. Myself, I’ll work long hard hours, long days and long months – but I’ll only do it for a goal I believe in, for a project that’s worthy of my sacrifice. 

I will not give up my time for appearance’s sake, and I will not keep a job because I’m afraid of not having one. What most often motivates this modern form of slavery is not want of money but pride, or fear or embarrassment. I work most often as an independent consultant, though I’ll sometime take a full-time job if a particular opportunity excites me.

These exciting jobs do come my way, but when they don’t, I’m happy to work less and enjoy the time off. I’d rather earn R150, 000 a year and have some freedom than earn R300, 000 a year and be miserable. It astounds me how many of my colleagues are unable to make the same kind of decision, though they sometimes tell me they envy me for the decisions I’ve made.

I once had a revealing conversation with a fellow journalist about a consulting opportunity I had been negotiating. I told my friend: “they offered me R20, 000, but I bargained them down to R15, 000”. My friend gave me a strange look. “I think you’re bargaining in the wrong direction.”

No, in fact, I knew what I was doing, though my friend was unable to understand. What I meant was, this employer wanted R20, 000 of commitment from me in a short period, and it would have made my life unbearable to have accepted this offer on this employer’s terms. 

I had to chisel down the requirements so that I could work less, earn less and enjoy my life during the period that I would be doing this work. I wasn’t ever able to explain this to my friend, and I guess he still thinks I am the confused one. The once caught up in the crisis of having a job or wanting one?

I know many software developers who sacrifice everything for their mundane jobs even though they don’t need all the money they earn, simply because they are too timid to seek arrangements that break familiar conventional patterns of employment. 

I feel like, for many of these people, the magnetic ID badges that open their glass workplace doors are the only keys to identity in the world. Despite my dislike of mundane workplace conformity, I am sympathetic above all to the unemployed people right now who want a job -any job – and can’t find one. 

Is it possible that we as a society can rethink jobs in a way that helps both those who have work and those who don’t? For instance, why can’t it become an accepted option to work three days a week, with eight or twelve weeks of vacation a year, so that each job currently held by one person can be shared by two? 

Each of the two would earn less, but this might not be much of a crisis after all. If many people worked fewer days each week, and fewer weeks each year, they would also have more time for leisure activities, which would help to create jobs. 

More flexible and enlightened workplace arrangements designed to allow Africans to earn less and enjoy life more could help all of us – those who currently have jobs and those who currently don’t. It is worth thinking about, wouldn’t you agree?

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