Friday 15 February 2013

Madeleine Bunting, Willing Slaves

Madeleine Bunting, Willing Slaves

For most of us, life consists of long hours of work, tired moments at home and sleep, with too short weekends for anything else.  Sometimes we have no choice - a family to feed is a powerful motivator.  Others agree to this madness to be able to afford the latest gadgets and coolest brands.  Whatever the reason, working life eats up more are more of our time and energy, leaving next to nothing for leisure, relationships, hobbies etc.  Madeleine Bunting beautifully charts the development of the 'culture of overwork' in her provocatively called book Willing Slaves

Once upon a time it was enough to show up at work and do your job.  Today you need to give the company your heart and soul, adopt corporate values, express spirit of the brand, go the extra mile, blah blah blah.  People saddled with mortgages become easy victims of corporate bullying.  Managers squeeze extra effort, extra working time and extra commitment from their employees, paying little or nothing in return. 

In consequence, social life of a nation (in this particular case UK) falls apart.  Children suffer neglect by their overworked parents.  Rates of heart attacks and other stress-related conditions soar.  People try to patch up their lives for as long as they can and then they break down. 

According to Bunting, the culture of overwork is taking its toll across all the social strata.  Public or private sector, minimum wage or executive rate, workers are pressed too hard.  Bunting is particularly perceptive when she acknowledges emotional energy drain inherent to modern work structures.  Yes, Willing Slaves is a very apt title to describe the current situation. 

What is to be done? 

To tell you the truth, Bunting's proposed solutions didn't exactly convince me.  She has high hopes for resurrecting trade unions (which can only do so much).  She wants part-time or flexi-time for all workers.  She anticipates goodwill of employers (hm...) and assertiveness of employees.  Sure, all of the above would be very nice, but would such gentle coaxing succeed in changing the work-until-you-drop culture into something livable?  I'm not sure. 

I believe downshifting and self-employment are the only solutions, and those can be implemented only on personal level.  Still, once enough people take the necessary steps to get off the treadmill, they will become a social movement.  Will the greedy businessmen be so eager to exploit workforce if there's no one willing to work for them?  I could probably write an essay here:  today's horrible work ethic is another obsession of mine.  That's not the point of today's post so let's get back to our book.

Willing Slaves is a soberly written account of what does it mean to work these days, as opposed to how things were in the past.  If anything, it is only too mild in its criticism of the prevalent working conditions.  Full of testimonials from ordinary people, it paints a worrying picture of our society.  Bunting does not go for fiery speeches.  She coldly quotes statistics, presents fresh (as fresh as it can be in a book from 2005) research and draws obvious conclusions.  The rat race is killing us. 

Perhaps it is time to reconsider our willingness.

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