I’ll start by saying that I wasn’t sure I was ever going to post this blog post. I started working on it over six months ago, and debated posting because it deviated from my usual posts about homesteading, simple living, druidry, and so forth. But as I read and reread this post, I realized that what I had written had everything to do with those things, and are important issues to discuss in regards to sustainable living and spiritual practices–or rather, the things that prevent us from doing such. So, here it is, in its entirety–the post I almost didn’t publish.
The Idea of Meaningful Work
It used to be that for the bulk of humanity, “work” meant daily interaction with the land and the home cottage industry (that is, the work of producing goods for home use, such as clothing, medicine, etc). In agrarian societies, this work entailed being out every day in the fields and forests, tilling the soil, growing your crops, hunting wild game, harvesting wood for buildings and fencing, saving seeds, milking cows, brewing ale, tending your herds and livestock, cooking from your own pantries, stocking those pantries, rendering soap, doing laundry, and so forth. Most of human labor was, in fact, wrapped up in food production (with traditional societies engaging in anywhere from 70-90% of the workforce in the production of food) and in providing for one’s own continued survival. One’s work, then, was directly related to one’s relationship with the land. If the land was well-tended, those on the land prospered. Balance and long-term sustainability were the keys upon which survival rested.
With the rise of industrialization, people moved from the farms to the factories in the cities, which promised faster production and reduced the input of human labor (for example, the invention of the spinning machine in the UK). As Upton Sinclair describes in The Jungle, however,these positions weren’t always all that they were hoped to be or imagined. Regardless of the conditions in the factories, the idea if meaningful work drastically shifted, and now, we are at the extreme opposite end of that spectrum. What is meaningful work today? How do we engage in it?
In this post, I’d like to use the framework of “meaningful work” I want to investigate the issues surrounding work, spirituality, and sustainability in this post today by examining the working lives of two of my friends. Both of my friends walk a druidic path and both were working under conditions that challenge their relationship with the natural world, their sense of well-being, and their ability to maintain a meaningful spiritual life. Over a period of time, they have both shared their experiences and stories with me. Since writing, both have found different employment, so they are at no risk in my posting these stories. I don’t know how widespread or representative their experiences are on the broader scale, but I suspect that they are pretty widespread, and I want to highlight their experiences and talk about some of the potential consequences to spiritual life and sustainability.
Defining Meaningful Work
I’d like to posit a definition–meaningful work is work with meaning and substance, it allows one to be positively emotionally involved, feel fulfilled, and gain benefits beyond financial. Meaningful work also allows enough time that spiritual pursuits, quality of life, and overall happiness also are embraced. Meaningful work likely means different things to very different people–we all need to explore our own idea of what meaningful work is, and how we can best engage in it. What I will say, however, is that a good portion of our society is not, unfortunately, able to engage in meaningful work at this time.
The Story of Sage: Exploitation of Persons
One person, who we will call “Sage,” works at a major fabric and craft retailer, one that has a presence in most major cities and small towns around the country. Her retailer has close to 30 employees. Almost all of the employees work between 35-39 hours a week (39 hours a week to keep them from getting benefits, including access to healthcare). The human consequences of the 39 hour workweek are real and severe: rising healthcare costs, no financial security for their future, and not being paid a livable wage puts them in a situation where they are living from paycheck to paycheck with no end in sight (and this is certainly a broader trend within retail workers in the USA). In fact, despite working hard at her job, Sage is forced to get food stamps to help pay for her groceries. This 39-hour a week practice is very widespread and yet the human consequences of it are not discussed nor considered–rather, we have laws put in place to uphold these practices and maximize profits, rather than having paws put in place to protect workers. For Sage, who has a college education but cannot find work in her field, this means working multiple low-wage jobs in order to make ends meet.
The other thing about Sage’s job is her lack of autonomy or control over her schedule. Despite the fact that her retail business is open the same hours each week, have the same shipments and work to do each week, and know well the work that is to be done each week, nobody who works there–except for upper management–has a consistent schedule. A week before she is to work, Sage gets a schedule–it varies from day to day, number of hours worked, and so forth. If Sage wants to go out of town, she has to go beg to her manager for time off (months in advance) and be at the manager’s mercy as to whether or not she’ll get the time off (and won’t know till the week she is scheduled to work). This makes planning trips, family events, doctor’s appointments, even a simple evening at the theater, an impossibility. She will never know if the manager is in a good mood, and if the manager will grant her request. Likewise, on her days off she is frequently called into work and, if she says “no” too many times, she may not have a job at all. This means that at any given moment, Sage is at the beck and call of an employer who does not even respect her enough to offer her a livable wage nor healthcare or other benefits. Why does this employer act like it owns Sage? Does it, in fact, own her?
As a druid, Sage’s situation is further complicated because of her holidays. For example, last year when she asked for Samhuinn off, she was asked “is that real?” and “I don’t think you are telling me the truth.” After providing some documentation that Sage’s holiday was real, the manager said “well if you are getting this ‘new year’ off, you are working all of new years here.” I suspect that many druids in America who are open about our spiritual path have had such uncomfortable conversations, and often are unable to get our basic holidays off.
And thus, Sage works. Sage works for a pittance of wages, enough for her to rent and eat, but not enough for anything else. She dreams of opening her own business, an art studio or a farm, but with little savings because of her working conditions, this dream continues to be far off in the distance. She wishes for these things to be able to engage in meaningful work, work that is fulfilling and allows her to be prosperous.
The Story of Rue: Money as Entrapment
Now we’ll turn to Rue, who, despite having a full-time job with benefits and a much more comfortable salary, suffers at the hands of rather tyrannical employers. He works for a major financial firm who collects debt in the USA; the firm itself has a reputation well known for being unethical and have broken multiple laws (they pay their fines, continue to be in business, and continue to break the law). Rue also describes the mind games, berating, and other mental abuse that upper management inflicts upon the employees.
Rue, who works at a manager at this firm, is in the same entrapped state that Sage finds herself in. Rue works insane hours (often 80-100 per week, including being asked to work several 14-hour shift days in a row or being asked to come in at 7am after working 7am to 10pm the previous day). For this employer, the volume of calls, rather than the quality of work, is what matters, so bringing employees in for longer hours means more profits on their bottom line–again, not caring about the the quality of life for employees. The consequences of this on Rue’s spiritual and personal life are obvious–when he finally is able to drag himself home after a 14-hour work day, he has no energy left to do anything. He has very little time to spend with himself, his family, or his friends. He has no time to sit under a tree and commune. He becomes, in his words, like a zombie, a half-person, whose soul is ensnared by the corporation and who lacks the most important of human qualities–freedom.
There is also the matter of how much the employees make and the circumstances under which they make it–another form of entrapment. Unlike Sage, who makes a pittance and can’t afford much, Rue’s firm uses an opposite and equally entrapping approach–making lots and lots of money and bribing employees to higher performance quotas with lots of glittery consumerist goods, like plasma TVs (Rue tells me has has several of them, unopened, in boxes in his living room). The commission system ensures that workers will do everything in their power to collect the debt rather than seek solutions for those they are calling; with each account they close, they gain bonuses. Rue describes to me the call he made to a single mother who cannot pay her student loans and the ethical challenge is faced with–between giving her a year of deferment or demanding part of her wages she needs to make ends meet. Since “all calls are recorded for quality assurance purposes” if he gives out too many deferments, not only will he be called into an upper-manager’s office and given a talking to, he risks the financial implications of not meeting his monthly quota.
The amount that that these employees take home is in itself entrapping. Most of the people who work at Rue’s company make way more money than they would in other lines of work–money becomes the carrot at the end of the stick. This is a job that can be done with good training but does not require college degrees–so its better money than most people could get doing anything else. Despite the negative nature of the work environment, the mental abuse that they suffer and that they are required to inflict on others, people continue to work there because the money is just too good. Once you start making money at that standard of living, it becomes harder to get out of it, harder to see beyond the glittery objects, plasma televisions, and high class apartments in the big city lifestyle. Its a lifestyle that sucks you in–materialism, consumerism, and the promise of more and more “stuff” to fill the empty void. Is this work meaningful? Is it rewarding? According to Rue–not in the slightest.
In The Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges discusses how corporations and CEOs now exhibit psychopathic behaviors (a discussion alive and well on the web here and here). Psychopathic leadership in corporations is more common than ever. We see this at work in the stories of Rue and Sage–corporations who treat their employees more like automatons than people, don’t respect them enough to either pay them a living wage (in the case of Sage) or provide them with enough autonomy and consistency of schedule in order to do anything meaningful (in the case of both). The mental abuse that both describe in their work environments is appalling, and leaves them drained and exhausted when not working.
It makes me wonder–how many people out there are working in these kinds of situations, working multiple jobs to make ends meet, being unable to engage in any kind of meaningful work? How many of them do this and have no time for anything else? I look at my students, many of whom are in this same situation, trying to balance getting an education which is supposed to get them a better life (and lead to meaningful work), and working 2 or 3 different jobs to pay their tuition and living expenses. It is no wonder that television ends up being a big distraction–the mental energy required for TV (even when compared to reading) is much less. Its a distraction, a way to wind down at the end of the day, a way to get wrapped up in the illusion of something else. But when you are in this exhausted mindset, unable to make meaningful time for yourself, what else can you accomplish? You don’t have the time for deep spiritual insights, developing deep connections with each other or the land around you. You don’t have three hours to sit under an ancient maple and hear its stories. When we depend on the corporation for everything–livelihood, food, water, shelter, transportation, entertainment–we give up our power and autonomy. We give up our freedom and inspiration. It is, perhaps, the great tragedy of our age–what we exchange in order to live and survive in 21st century America. The work is not meaningful, its not fulfilling, and its not really doing anything to better our world or our communities.
I think its important to point out that this phenomenon is no different than what we see corporations doing to animals and our lands. Oil companies engage in unsafe practices that cause oil spills, chemical companies dump pollutants into our rivers and oceans, mountains are removed and ecosystems are destroyed for the sake of profits, natural gas companies inject the very land beneath our feet with toxic chemicals to extract fossil fuel, the list goes on and on. Livestock, from angora rabbits to chickens to cows, also suffer a similar fate. They are boxed in, fattened up, and treated as mere objects. From this perspective, things seem very dire indeed…but are they?
Meaningful Work and Viable Alternatives
If engaging in meaningful work is a goal that can help us be more mindful of our world around us, give us time for creative expression, and allows us once again a closer relationship with nature, how do we find such work? Of course, one has to figure out how to pay one’s bills, one’s taxes, and put food on the table. With land being so expensive, the old American dream of homesteading on the frontier really isn’t viable for many anymore. And yet, shifts back in the direction are certainly taking place. With the steady rise in farmer’s markets (even year round ones, like we have here in Michigan), people have more opportunity than 10 or 20 years ago to grow/produce products that they love and make a living doing it. Is local entrepreneurship the answer? Can entrepreneurial opportunities, farmer’s markets and the like allow people like Rue and Sage to reclaim the idea of meaningful work from yet another commodity that a corporation distributes to something that they organically create for themselves? I know lots of people who want to do this, and some that are taking that step and doing it–but its a scary place to step into. What if the business fails? How will you pay the bills and make ends meet?
I think about some of the farmers that I’ve met in the last few years at our local farmer’s markets. One couple who regularly come to our local market specialize in organic free range chickens and eggs. They told me their story about how they were both investment bankers, making six figure salaries. They decided they’d had enough, left their jobs, and became organic farmers. They are making maybe 20% of what they had made as bankers, but they were healthy, happy and living a life that they dreamed. Another close friend used to teach, got fed up with the school system and politics, and now is a full-time organic farmer selling some of the most beautiful veggies and herbs I have ever seen. I think about several others I know, people in their mid to late 20’s, who decided that college educations were too expensive, and became landscape designers, drink specialists, mushroom growers, and more. It seems that there ARE alternatives out there, but that they take the right kind of community and resources to begin. And they take a very long time to become profitable enough to not need to do other kinds of work.
Is the public ready to support these kinds of endeavors on a larger scale–that is, pay the organic chicken farmer 3.50/lb per bird rather than 1.00/lb per bird if that bird is raised ethically and humanely? I think the ultimate decision about whether these kinds of shifts that people are taking towards more meaningful work succeed is how willing the broader community is in supporting such work. With the rise in farmer’s markets and other alternatives, I think that people broadly are starting to “buy local” and recognize the importance of keeping their money in the local community. And with these shifts, we all gain more opportunities to engage in meaningful work.