It’s Official: Work Sucks

The Yak‘s Gava Fox asks: why spend all day in a cubicle when you could do exactly the same task at the beach?

UNLESS you have the good fortune to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth, chances are you’ll spend most of your adult life working.

If you’re very lucky, you might end up profiting from something you have natural talent for – a professional athlete, an actor, musician or an artist, perhaps.

You could have an aptitude for teaching and gain great satisfaction from a lifetime of moulding young minds, the healing hands of a surgeon and save countless lives, or a brilliant scientific brain that unearths a technological breakthrough which benefits all mankind.

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Like millions around the world, you might have the misfortune be born into poverty and inherit the drudgery of toil, working endless hours for a pittance and living a hand-to-mouth existence with scant opportunity to improve your lot regardless of the effort you put into life.

But, if you’re reading this, you’re more likely to be an upwardly mobile professional, applying yourself diligently to whichever field rewards you with the means to enjoy the pleasure and leisure it brings.

Enjoy it while you can.

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We’ve all seen pictures from the Great Depression of the 1930s – grainy black-and-white images of dirt-poor farmers in America’s Midwest, despondent and destitute labourers lined up at soup kitchens, their eyes as downcast as their pride.

That was triggered by the infamous “Black Tuesday” of October 1929 when Wall Street stock prices plummeted, sending shockwaves around the world.

The ensuing financial meltdown saw global GDP fall by 20 percent in just two years, bankrupting tens of thousands of companies and sending unemployment in some countries to as high as 30 percent of the adult “working” population.

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By contrast, the Great Recession that followed the financial crisis of 2008 saw global GDP fall just two percent, and while unemployment was never as calamitous, our modern, technology-based economies have yet to recover fully.

According to McKinsey and Company, global debt has increased by $57 trillion since 2008 and now stands a shade north of $200 trillion. Average household debt (not including mortgages) in Britain is estimated at nearly $15,000, while in Australia, which uses a different yardstick, statistics show a normal person would have to give up 18 months of salary to pay off what they owe on credit cards, bank loans and car hire purchases — assuming they don’t accumulate any more.

In the novel David Copperfield, Mr Micawber famously laments: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound and six, result misery.”

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Author Charles Dickens, of course, gave us the word that has come to define poverty – “Dickensian” – and he modeled Micawber on his father, John, who like the fictional character also spent time in a debtors’ prison.  So most of us have to work in order to live, and we have to live within our means to avoid the fate that befell Micawber.

For many of us, the opportunity to play golf is a welcome break from work, but go to any professional golf tournament and you’ll see most of the field grinding away at the practice range or putting green when they aren’t in the middle of a competitive round.

That isn’t play; that is work.

The injured Tiger Woods may have earned “only” $600,000 from playing golf last year, but he remains the sport’s best-paid athlete with an additional $50 million in sponsorship endorsements.

Nice work when you can get it.

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Indeed, the world’s top golfers earn staggering amounts of money on the European and US PGA Tours, but spare a thought for the likes of Australian Marcus Both who made less that $10,000 on the Asian Tour last year despite taking part in 19 events.

Given each tournament is effectively six days of work – including a Pro-Am and practice day – and that he is responsible for all his own travel and accommodation expenses, it is likely the affable Both is shouldering more than the average of the previously mentioned Aussie household debt.

Britain’s National Health Service is in the middle of a crisis sparked by Health Minister Jeremy Hunt’s insistence that newly qualified doctors work more than the current scheduled 40 hours per week for which they are paid around $30,000 a year – an admittedly tidy sum for many around the world.

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But given most medical students graduate after six years of brutal study with debts totaling over $40,000 – and the fact that the minister popularly known as “rhymes with” makes $200,000 a year – it is no surprise Britain’s 30,000 junior doctors are threatening to go on strike.

Members of Indonesia’s parliament, the House of Representatives, earn a staggering $70,000 a year plus cars and allowances, and while that pales in comparison to MPs in Singapore, the highest paid in the world at $150,000, it dwarfs the national average annual wage of $2,000.

In fact, some Indonesians earn considerably less than that. A chat with a group of itinerant Javanese women planting rice in a Bali paddy recently revealed they earn 30,000 rupiah a day for doing literally back-breaking work.

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But even if you work hard and make lots of money, there is no guarantee it will be worth anything.

Take the case of Zimbabwe, which achieved majority rule independence in 1980, some 15 years after the white minority had broken away from British stewardship.

At independence the Zimbabwe dollar was worth US$1.20 and remained generally stable until the new millennium, but in the wake of the aforementioned Great Recession – not helped by a series of ludicrous and spiteful government policies – monthly inflation soared to an astonishing 79.6 billion percent.

Yes, that’s billion!

The government tried to keep up by printing money in bigger and bigger denominations – the largest note was Z$100 trillion, or to write it out, 100,000,000,000,000, but even that was worth less than $4.

A trip to the supermarket required suitcases full of cash, which was weighed rather than counted, and the nation produced a generation of math-wizard children who could rapidly calculate the cost of a soda and packet of crisps in hundreds of billions of dollars, and make change.

Unlike most vainglorious African leaders, President Robert Mugabe declined to have his image printed on the currency, probably aware that is was cheaper to wipe your bum with thousand dollar notes than it was to buy a roll of toilet paper, worth Z$10 million.

The game was up in 2009, and the Zim dollar was scrapped and replaced by the U.S. greenback, eliminating overnight the lifetime savings of an entire population and precipitating the exodus of a sizeable majority of the professional and skilled workforce to seek employment abroad.

Norman Tebbit would have been proud.

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As Secretary of State for Employment, the so-called “hatchet man” of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet famously told tens of thousands of unemployed miners to “get on your bike” after her union-busting policies of the 80s laid waste to entire communities across the country.

Baron Tebbit of Chingford, as he is known today, sits in the House of Lords – an admittedly salary free position that does have the advantage of offering over $250,000 a year in allowances and other perks, as well as an annual pension from his time as a government minister worth over $150,000 per annum.

Britain wasn’t alone in crushing unions at that time, and the demise of organized labour heralded an era of global prosperity highlighted by the creation of so-called new technology jobs.

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The world got wired, and everyone who was anyone got involved in finance, or the media, or the Internet as global communications meant world trade opened up more rapidly than at any time in history.

Idyllic Bali changed significantly in this time as so-called “Cubbies” – cashed-up Bogans – descended on the island from Australia to snap up property with their earnings from a boom fuelled by China’s ravenous appetite for the country’s mineral resources.  Stories abound of people making A$100,000 a year merely for emptying bins at mine offices in remote parts of Australia – the miners themselves were making vastly more – and the “two weeks on, one week off” shift pattern meant they could indulge themselves in their favourite activities of inflating a seemingly un-poppable property bubble and surfing Bali’s famed breaks.

Those days are over.

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With China’s economy sliding and the demand for resources on the wane, mining watchdogs in Australia estimated last August that up to 100,000 jobs will be lost in the coming 12 months, a figure borne out by latest statistics revealing tourist arrivals to Bali from Down Under last year declined for the first time in a decade.

Russia’s decline has been even more stark. Arrivals from Moscow last year were nearly 30 percent down on 2014, and shops and restaurants across the island are slowly taking down their Cyrillic alphabet signage.

Only China is showing significant increases in tourism to Bali, but they spend less per capita while here than any other nationality and tend not to splurge on activities, saving their money to eat in Chinese restaurants, generally owned by Chinese nationals with local partners.

But back to work.

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The Baby Boomer generation, those born in the 50s, 60s, is credited with working hard to accumulate enough wealth to enable life to be enjoyed.

Compared to the hardships endured by those who lived through World War II, the boomers had it easy.

Global productivity soared and the new generation found time to create new forms of art and music, drugs and attire.

They allowed independence for scores of developing countries, became liberal, gave equal rights to women and gay people tentatively opened the closet door to peek outside.

More mobile than their parents, Baby Boomers nevertheless could count on a lifelong career in whatever field they chose, with the promise of a livable pension once they retired.

Until the Great Recession. Sure, greed played a role, but hundreds of thousands of people saw their investments go down the toilet in the aftermath of the financial crisis and the 40-60 year olds in the workforce were usually the first to be shown the door as companies downsized – they simply cost too much and were possibly behind the times when it came to the new reality.

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The Baby Boomers showered their offspring — Generation Y, or the so-called Millenials born between in the late 70s to late 90s – with privilege and the world witnessed an unprecedented boom in education.

In Britain, for example, less than one person in a hundred attained a tertiary education in the 1950s. The figure today is closer to 47 percent.

That has brought a raft of problems.

Generation Y is often disparaged as having a disproportionate sense of entitlement, lack loyalty, and focus too much on having fun instead of working. But the reality is that their parents were the ones who told them they could do anything, their lack of loyalty stems from watching their elders unceremoniously sacked during hard times, and they’re so plugged in to modern technology that they are generally baffled as to the idea of working 9-5 in an office.

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Why do you need to spend all day in a cubicle when you could do exactly the same task at a Starbucks, or at the beach, or at home – often with more creative results? “I like work: it fascinates me, I can sit and look at it for hours,” wrote Jerome K. Jerome, the English humorist, but he could afford to after the success of “Three men in a Boat” which earned him the equivalent of millions in 1900.

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But whatever you’re doing or planning on doing, the words dubiously attributed to Confucius probably sum it up best: “Choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”

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