Live to work/work to live – part two

Went to the library and did actual research for this post. Never let it be said I don’t spoil my readers.

To my immense surprise, Part One of this rather rambling rant went down well, so thank you so much to everyone who liked it, commented, sent me messages and suggested further reading – I really appreciate it, and I can’t tell you how utterly lovely it is when people seem to get properly involved with what I’ve written.

So now we get even more airy-fairy. (Well I do, anyway; you might be well-balanced enough not to.) Like: who says we all deserve to pursue the career of our dreams? Realistically, not everybody can. You end up having to choose: a career you love and a life you can tolerate, or a job you can tolerate for a life you love. Or simply a job you can tolerate for a life you can tolerate. But – and sorry to keep banging that same old drum – we were told repeatedly, for years, that we would be able to choose what we do – and we didn’t create the circumstances that now prevent us from doing so. We didn’t spend our secondary school years bringing about a banking crisis; we were just trying to get through our GCSEs.

So, upon graduation, it was all very confusing. Useless creative types like myself realised that without working for free for months on end, we wouldn’t be getting anywhere – but we still wanted all the independence and freedom and  basic pillars of adulthood that we’d been assured would be ours, once we had degrees under our belts. Some of us took good jobs that paid well but demanded 14-hour days and total dedication and pieces of our very souls, and we thought we’d put a few years in, get the house deposit sorted, and then figure out what we actually wanted to do.

Some of us took good jobs that paid slightly less well but were ostensibly quite nice jobs to have – you know, not down a mine or up a chimney – and that was fine for a while, but we then started feeling a bit “is this… it? For the next forty-odd years? I do… this?”

And some of us were totally single-minded, had the balls to realise that nothing in the world was going to make us happier than at least having a bash at pursuing our passion, and went off and bloody did it. (Hey Drummer Boy, I’m looking at you.) And now it’s paying off. Two or three years ago, it seemed like the worst decision in the world: “you’re going to be a musician? How are we ever going to afford a mortgage?” Now, it’s totally fine: “Hahaha, we’re never going to be able to afford a mortgage without a sodding Lottery win, you carry on, Boy”.

laugh bitterly

And who’s happier with their career choice, me or him? No prizes for calling that one.

We need to sort out our attitudes to creative careers – somewhere along our merry way, we’ve lost the ability to recognise that making art (or music/theatre/film/unnecessarily long, whiny blog posts) is work. It takes time, and practice, physical energy, and huge amounts of mental energy – and funnily enough, creative types are no more capable of existing on thin air than people working more regular jobs. The fact that we don’t like paying for any kind of creative output has been brought about by the internet – after all, if you can access films, TV shows, music and millions of articles for free, why would you choose to pay? But we desperately need to get over this, to un-make this problem, because it closes the doors to those industries in the faces of the people who’ve got the ideas, the talent, the willingness, the itch in their fingers, the brain circuitry glittering like fireworks.

And that’s not to say that people who want to have creative careers aren’t realistic about their options – as you know, I live with a musician; I know that actually performing is perhaps only 20-35% of the job. Most of it is made up of teaching music, learning songs for gigs, hours and hours of practise, admin, and on top of all that, a part-time retail job to make damn sure there’s enough money coming in. He takes it seriously enough to be practical about it – and crucially, he’s making it work.

An interesting point is raised by Stephen Fineman, in Work: A Very Short Introduction, “underemployment can be worse than unemployment… it has been shown that new graduates’ hopes and aspirations about their chosen career remain reasonably intact (if unrealistic) if they have managed to survive an initial year without taking the only jobs on offer – typically low-skilled or menial”. Those who haven’t been in a position to be picky, and have taken lower-skilled jobs, are more likely to report feeling depressed than the first group – “they are confused about their identities having lost much of their ambition and optimism”.

Optimism is the clue, there, I think. Once you’re in an “average” job, with reasonably regular hours and pay, it’s very hard to see a life outside it. The blinkers go on, and when people tell you that if it bothers you that much, you should quit and crack on with chasing the thing that really makes you fizz like just-opened Champagne, you find yourself saying “but I can’t. I just can’t”.

Obviously, this has a lot to do with the recession, and the experience of coming out of university to find there were simply not enough graduate jobs to go around, and not enough jobs Full Stop. Once you have a job, you’re scared to move. Before you get that first stable job, you think “I’ll work for a few years, save a bit, and then I’ll figure it out. When things are more settled”. In her excellent book All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work (I’d highly recommend it; it’s enlightening, readable and easy to dip in and out of), Joanna Biggs remarks: “[seven years into a financial crisis] it felt as if work was becoming more insecure on one hand, and the work ethic increasingly revered on the other” (italics mine). I think this is true – it’s basic economics; when there are fewer jobs to be had, the ones there are go up in ‘value’. We attach more importance to regular, stable employment when we know there’s not enough of it.

And employers know that, and exploit it, and tap into whatever over-achieving tendencies we may already be harbouring, and run with them, turning us into workaholics. On the 7:12 Gatwick Express out of Brighton, it’s MacBook Airs as far as the eye can see, the soft percussion of fingers tapping keys – people drafting emails, annotating reports, finishing presentations. (And there’s me, feeling momentarily out of place because I’m not bashing away at a matte silver laptop, but am instead hastily brushing on blusher and trying not to get mascara anywhere except on my eyelashes.)

It’s too easy to get stuck doing the same thing every day because most of the world is telling you, directly or otherwise, that’s how life is. And the people that tell you to chase your passion or travel the world because they did and it changed their whole mindset – well, it usually turns out they had a trust fund. I still don’t have any answers, only more questions – when it comes to work, does it have to be a choice between a reliable income and a role you love? Is it too much to want both?


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