Work—the Tragedy of Our Age
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Work—the Tragedy of Our Age

Elena Shalneva
Elena Shalneva
8 min read

The only text I vividly remember from my university semester in Classics is a poem by Hesiod entitled Works and Days. I read Homer, of course, and Virgil, and Ovid, and the three tragedians, but their texts have long become a blur of strange names, strange desires, inventive use of parataxis and the word “destiny.” But I remember Hesiod. Memory is a peculiar thing.

Hesiod is the seventh century BC management book writer. He didn’t write about digital strategy, but his poems drone on in the earnest monotone of an old-school sociology lecturer who—after years of correcting student papers—decides to try his hand at fine letters. Hesiod is ace at conveying fact, but not at re-inventing it. This makes him a fine chronicler, but not a poet. I cannot imagine anyone reading Works and Days today for anything other than anthropological curiosity.

I don’t remember all 800 lines of Works and Days—just five stanzas: one for each of the Five Ages of Men. First came the Golden Age, in which the land was bounteous, the forests were rich with game, and men were decent, happy, and favoured by the gods. But this state of bliss didn’t last. Cracks began to appear during the next generation with the emergence of the Silver Race—small crooks and delinquents who “could not keep from sinning and from wrongdoing one another.” Zeus didn’t like them and eventually killed them off. The third generation, the Bronze Race, managed to be an even greater disgrace, a bunch of hoodlums of great physical strength with “unconquerable arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs.” (I find this image rather powerful. It reminds me of my gym on a Friday night.) Things looked up momentarily during the subsequent Heroic Age, as Zeus created a “god-like race of hero-men called demi-gods.” But everything went definitively, irrevocably tits-up in the fifth and final age: the Iron Age. Land became barren, crops wilted, stock died of disease; men were poor, men were bitter, son betrayed father, neighbour killed neighbour, chaos and treachery ruled.

As a story of decline and fall, it’s a nice one (although I’ve seen better). In terms of literary merit, it’s nowhere near Homer. So why am I harping on Hesiod? (Now do pay attention, as here comes the point of this essay.) The key variable between the time when men were happy and the time when they were not, according to Hesiod, is work. “In the Golden Age,” he writes, men “lived like gods… remote and free from… hard toil…” But in the Iron Age, “men never rest from labour…” Writing about the Iron Age—the age of hard work and misery—Hesiod wrote about his own time, but he also wrote about our time. We live in the Iron Age. It is a sad age. It is the age when people have to work. And work kills the spirit.

Few of us are talented enough to make a living from the exercise of our passion. So, driven by economic necessity, we fall into “jobs.” Most of these jobs are superfluous and invented—I’m sure of it!—to keep the talentless population employed. “Little girls don’t grow up wanting to become a prostitute,” or so the trope goes. And that is probably true. But it is also probably true that little girls don’t grow up wanting to become “vice-president for real-time card payments.” Or “senior manager for content licensing.” Or anything with “talent development” or “HR” in the title. Don’t get me wrong, these jobs have their uses. If you are a good vice-president for real-time card payments, someone, somewhere will be paid in real time. And that is a cause for joy. But how many of us are stoical enough to be motivated by the vague image of a nameless, faceless customer we will never meet, and about whom, let’s be honest, we don’t really care, when we push open the door of our open-plan at nine in the morning and brace ourselves for 10 hours of drudgery?

By a stroke of mad luck, I came across an essay on Robert Musil, the author of The Man Without Qualities, in Paris Review. It included a quote which perfectly articulates what I anticipate will be the main objection to this article: “The most important thing is not to produce spiritual values,” writes Musil, “but food, clothing, security, order.” Indeed, why do I concern myself with a subject so esoteric? A matter so niche? Spirit, passion… Who cares, when there are real problems in the world, such as war, hunger, poverty, and disease? People doing hard manual labour to scrape by? Try talking to them about Hesiod. And isn’t denigrating work both ridiculous and futile? We need work to ensure our physical survival. Without work, we will die. I agree unequivocally: these matters take priority. But they are also written about extensively, and by commentators who are far better qualified than I am. What I worry about is unrealised spirituality. This is my niche and the hill on which I will die. The dichotomy between what we originally want to be and what, due to the limitations of talent, circumstance, luck and, most of all, economics, we end up being, is as real as it is tragic. It is the curse of the Iron Age.

A Gallup poll found that 85 percent of people hate their jobs. Business schools would say that this is due to poor strategy, poor leadership, or poor innovation. Nothing that cannot be fixed with an MBA degree. The real explanation is much simpler, however: 85 percent of people hate their jobs because, given the choice, they would never do them in the first place. Twenty years ago, I applied to a business school. A good one. Actually, one of the best. When the acceptance letter arrived, I was convinced that I’d been admitted under some female quota, as my abilities are perfectly average. Then I started the course and realised that so were everyone else’s. No one in my class was especially bright. Or if they were, it was of the topical, tactical sort of intelligence—one that allows a person to see the different angles but somehow totally miss the point. The course itself was akin to vocational training: two months of accounting, two months of strategy, two months of marketing, and then off you go, ripe and ready for the office. Sorry, for leadership—which is telling other people in the office what to do.

We do, of course, have a choice. If you don’t like office work, you can become a PE teacher. If you are bad with authority, start your own business. The corporate sector is too greedy for you? Join an NGO. How glorious our lives would be if things were so simple. Regrettably, they are not. Nicolai Berdyaev, a Russian religious philosopher during the first half of the 20th century, argued—quite convincingly—that this choice to which we habitually refer is not really a choice at all. There is no freedom in it. It is a decision to adjust, adapt, and fit in. It is not a choice to create. At best, it is the choice of an animal looking for food and shelter, not of a human agent created in God’s image. He was right. As we leave childhood and the need to earn a living becomes increasingly urgent, our dreams start getting trimmed and trampled and squashed, until there comes a day when we no longer remember them. We begin by seeking the sublime. We end up resigned to the ordinary.

Very few books have been written on this subject, but George Perec’s 1965 novel Les Choses is one of them. It masterfully depicts our need for spiritual satisfaction and an equally powerful need for material comfort. And then there is Oblomov, a classic by the 19th century Russian novelist Nikolai Goncharov. It’s about an amiable loafer, profoundly indifferent to the fuss and fumble of reality, who spends his days in a world of dreams and make-believe. Oblomov is a sympathetic antihero, but the message of Goncharov’s novel is that we certainly should not emulate his lifestyle. Nevertheless, when Oblomov is visited by a friend who works in civil service, he reflects (in my liberal translation): “My Lord, what does Man waste his soul on? He’s nothing more than a minor executor of someone else’s minor thoughts. How little of Man is needed here, hardly any intellect, hardly any will, hardly any feeling. Does he deserve to be called a Man? He violates his nature, trades off his soul. The wretch!” That sounds about right. And very modern. Camus could’ve written those lines.

So why does a goofball character written in 1859 sound like a prophet today? Perhaps because when Goncharov wrote Oblomov, God was still alive. In that world, we were free to labour pragmatically, secure in the knowledge that there would be plenty of time to indulge the spirit later on. But since Nietzsche killed God, this life is all we have. So if your seven-odd decades on this planet are spent in digital marketing, this is all you will ever be. And don’t kid yourself that you are doing this for your kids, because chances are high they’ll end up in digital marketing as well.

The worst part of my 20-year office career was the meetings. Not because of difficult colleagues or clients. Because I couldn’t believe how anyone could take the stuff we discussed seriously. For an hour we would debate which adjective to assign to the term “financial performance” in the chairman’s statement of an annual report. Or, how to create the culture of “shared values.” Was everyone pretending? And if they were not, is this really how men and women—those enigmatic creatures at the centre of creation—are meant to spend their time? So I developed an effective coping technique. I recited this stanza to myself:

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!

The guy who wrote it—Edgar Allan Poe—lived in desperate poverty for most of his life. He died at 40, no one knows why, straggling the streets of Baltimore, haggard and delirious, with “lusterless eyes,” unkempt, in torn pantaloons and soiled frock, lost and alone. He had faced humiliation and despair and indignity, burning his clothes to keep warm, pleading with his family for money. He could have got a job, surely, in an ad agency (there was already a few of those around). Can you imagine the copy he might have knocked out? But instead, he wrote The Raven. And The Black Cat. And Eldorado. Just like Robert Musil, who didn’t heed his own advice and spent 20 years writing The Man Without Qualities, a novel which is up there with Mann and Proust and Joyce. Poe and Musil made the choice that most of us are too craven to make.

What went through Poe’s mind when he lay dying in a windowless hospital room reserved for drunks and vagabonds? Did he regret his poverty? Did he wish he had the comforts and joys that wealth could have afforded him? I’m sure he did. The appeal of the material is very strong. But so will the rest of us one day regret living a manky, derivative life of office jobs and ignoring the fact that maybe there is something of Poe in each of us. Or perhaps there’ll be the Sixth Age of Men—the Digital Age—in which AI will feed us as the land once did.

But enough of this esoterica. I have real work to do: an annual report to review and an important decision to take. Which adjective should I assign to “financial performance”? I am thinking “satisfactory,” “consistent” or maybe “in line with expectations.” Poe would be proud.

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Elena Shalneva

Elena Shalneva writes about books, film, and culture. Her work has appeared in Standpoint, City AM, and the Article.