Money and Martyrs

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In the more menial work I’ve been doing over the past few years of my career, I’ve seen just how much some people are willing to work in overtime. Not only do they work this overtime, but they don’t not work it later – or, in less unnecessarily confusing terms, they get it paid out instead of banking it to take off another day.

The Monday to Friday 8:30 to 4:30, or whatever your local economy’s culture deems standard business hours, is a very artificial, and modern, construct, but it’s been fought for. It’s been fought for by the proletariat through unions and legislation, to ensure that they can not only afford to feed their families but spend time with them as well.

You should never have to choose one or the other – “full time” work of 35-40 hours per week (well, I think that should roll back even farther to be maybe 28-35) should cover basic needs and some wiggle room for personal or family priorities. Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness” portrayed his ideal of 20-25 hour “work” weeks with “leisure” time spent on deeper things, however naive it was in assuming some of the luxuries of upper class white lifestyles could/should still be kept in place.

A lot of people still have to work more than full time, either overtime in their jobs or additional jobs juggling shift schedules every week, to keep their heads above water, and that is not okay. The labour movement for living wages in today’s jobs of the working poor is causing enough of a ruckus to gain momentum, as it should. But what I’ve seen in both private and public sectors is cultures that glorify excess working hours. It isn’t just corporate cultures enforced upon employees by intimidation to keep working harder and harder and longer and longer. People choose to go into fields, sometimes literally, where the work schedule is taxing but the wages are high. Some people go in with a plan: put in a few years in able-bodied youth, make six figures, save up as much as possible, and coast through the rest of life with slacker jobs but slick luxuries. I don’t know of many success stories, but that may be more my fault than the fault of the logic these people use. I tend to tune out from hearing about the lives of people who have very little in common with me, to the extent that their choices conflict with my values. Call me out for keeping myself sheltered from other people’s truths.

Oil sands, mining, trucking, prisons – people can earn a lot of cash in these fields if they overexert themselves. And it may be out of fear that there might not always be work for them. I can only guess that the mentality is quite different for physically tolling blue collar jobs than it is for people who are educated into cultures of high-prestige work – lawyers, doctors – that demand higher billing hours out of not just money but competition for status. I find neither of these cultures healthy.

I’m not in a particular position to judge, as I’m also not in a position to understand. I can, however, analyze and speculate from my fake ivory tower that the culture of the Protestant ethic, and competition, and a woe-is-me race to the bottom, and conflictingly just flat out capitalist/consumer greed all interweave to make people feel bad for working less. It makes me hate talking about this, because so many will play the martyr, and so many will pitch the hard-work-pays-off shpiel, all to shame the person who sticks to working hours 40 or less as having such luxury and privilege. Well, I do have privilege that has enabled me to sustain this on a living wage. I also think everyone else should be entitled to it as well. Nobody should be looked down upon for being lazy for wanting to own more of their time, and glorifying the overworked is encouraging unhealthy – as in, medically studied and confirmed over and over again to be detrimental to well-being – behaviour.

If we pick apart the culture of money and competition, and jealousy and righteousness, perhaps we can all come to an understanding that an individual’s assigned meaning to what and how much they do in their work is their choice to be respected. The ultimate value of work can’t be measured in time and the ultimate value of leisure or rest can’t be measured in money. It is the myth of capitalist patriarchy that overworking is macho success and it’s doing none of us favours.

So yes, I am taking my lunch break today and going home on time.

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