The Working Life, Warts and All

The coronavirus lockdown has now been in place for close to four weeks here in London, and brought with it a couple of ironic twists to my little world:

  1. The lockdown arrived just as London’s weather turned into something resembling a miracle. We’ve had nearly four straight weeks of sunny skies and moderate-to-warm temperatures, in a city that spits out cold, wet days with roughly the same frequency as a ticking clock. And now that it’s finally nice outside? We’re supposed to stay at home rather than go out and enjoy it.
  2. The lockdown came just as my personal workload increased by a factor of 4 or 5 from the previous few months.

You can read about No. 1 here.

As for No. 2….

Let me begin by saying this: If there is one thing the coronavirus has reinforced in me – and probably many others – it’s the fundamental value of work. Yes, that sounds trite and obvious. Of course work is valuable. It pays the bills. It gives you something to do. It keeps us all from cannibalizing each other.

Even so, it’s easy to take work for granted — and easier still to resent it. Who hasn’t spent a few hours (or days, weeks and years) resenting their working lives? Maybe you felt you were underpaid, or overworked, or both. Maybe you didn’t fit in with the corporate culture, or didn’t feel challenged, or didn’t find fulfillment. Maybe your job stressed you out — or bored you. There might have been jobs where you thought you weren’t given a fair shake, that others advanced while you kept running in place. Maybe you just got sick of doing the same bloody thing day after bloody day, in the same bloody place, with the same bloody people.

The bloody train is bloody late
You bloody wait and bloody wait
You’re bloody lost and bloody found
Stuck in f******g chicken town*

Maybe you just dreaded the thought of going in to work every day, because there were about 41,000 other things you’d rather be doing.

But when it’s taken away, suddenly and with no warning, and you have bills to pay and mouths to feed? If you’re like most people, you’re overcome with varying degrees of panic, fear, uncertainty, dread, loss and doom.

Too many people are going through that right now. A few weeks ago they were gainfully employed, earning money — perhaps not enough of it, but money nonetheless and maybe they loved it or hated it or merely tolerated it. Maybe they bitched about the pay and the benefits and the boss and the customers and their associates. Maybe they dreamed about walking away from it all, finding something else, chasing down a dream, opening their own business, retiring, or sailing around the world in a purple sailboat with paisley sails and a bright yellow cabin below decks.

Then the pandemic hit. And the restaurants closed, and the shops, hair salons, tourist spots and warehouses. Businesses shuttered by the thousands. Workers were furloughed by the millions. Customers were forced inside, not spending money, which led to more closures and more furloughs.

People are hurting in ways we’ve never seen before, unless you happen to be of a certain age or from a certain country. The misery spreads far and wide. Nearly 17 million American workers recently filed for temporary unemployment benefits. There are fears that unemployment in the U.S. and UK could be worse than during the Great Depression. In India, the unemployment rate hit nearly 24% in late March. An estimated 20 million jobs in Africa could be at risk due to coronavirus. Unemployment in Argentina recently reached 10% — and Argentina hasn’t even been hit that hard by Covid-19, at least compared with other countries.

The job cuts came suddenly and unexpectedly. Workers were caught off guard, with no time to form a backup plan. A lot of them can’t pay the rent or utilities right now. Some can barely afford food. Government relief checks will help soften the blow, but if you’ve ever stared into the financial abyss, you know that a thousand bucks or so can only do so much, and for so long.

I’ve stared into that abyss before, but it’s been a long time. I know what it’s like to spend 14 bucks on four cans of red beans and a bag of rice and a loaf of bread and some lettuce and sliced ham and juice and pasta and tomato sauce and feel like I’ll be able to eat pretty good for the next several days. I’ve been short on money before, plenty of times, but it’s only because I made wrong decisions at key times of my life. I was born into a comfortable existence and never wanted for anything as a child, teenager or young adult. The mistakes that came after are all my own. That makes me luckier than the majority of the world’s population. If you want to call it privilege, that’s fine. It is privilege.

Right now I’m a free-lance writer and editor, an independent contractor. I’m not on the payroll of any employer, and haven’t been since being downsized four years ago. I don’t get benefits like health insurance or a retirement plan. I pay estimated taxes because none are taken from a paycheck. The reason I can do this is because I’m lucky enough to have a wife who earns a very good living. I help out by handling the cooking, laundry, grocery shopping and other household chores. I don’t mind, because I like to cook and do chores, and I never was that crazy about going into the office, anyway.

Could we get by on less? Yes, we could. And if the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the global economy, we might have to. But we’ve been pretty wise with money, forgoing luxuries we can’t afford, scouting bargains, buying secondhand, living well below our means. But again, it’s a privilege to have the option of living below your means instead of being forced to spend every thin dime on essentials like food, rent and hot water.

Lately the work has been good, better than it’s ever been from a free-lance perspective. I write and edit for a couple of websites and a commercial real estate publication. Occasionally I make money off of fiction, but not much. The free-lance assignments have been pouring in, one after the other. I’m not sure why that is. Did some full-time employees get axed so my clients could spend less money on gig workers like me, with no benefits and less pay? Could be, could be. It’s possible that I am benefiting off the misfortune of others, but I have no way of knowing.

The work is not always easy or fun, and it’s not making me rich by a long stretch. I occasionally find myself cursing the assignments, or my computer, or the internet connection, or the English language, which I deal with daily, and which so many people can’t seem to master. But it’s work, and I’m thrilled to have it. I look forward to the privilege of working every day. And I want it to be there until my final day in this body, on this planet. I want to have work in front of me when I take my final breath. I’ll never retire.

Those who aren’t working right now probably can’t wait until the day they can wake up, pour some coffee and breakfast down their throats, throw on their work clothes, and head in to the office, shop or factory. If they’re lucky, they’ll grow to resent their jobs again.

But they’ll be lucky all the same.

Here’s hoping that time comes soon.

*”Evidently Chickentown”, John Cooper Clarke

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