The Secret Life of Work

Here are some general observations of the work that goes on in a modern city. To begin, everyone is in a hurry. Most people I’m guessing are engaged in some sort of bureaucratic enterprise, and the rest are downtown to serve them coffee. In the morning a pack of buses hurries about, now and then disgorging itself of suits and umbrellas and PDAs. Regarding the work itself I have the following thoughts.

One used to think of major industries when it came to jobs. For example, in small towns work meant the steel or auto plant. Is this still the case? Ottawa was known as Silicon Valley north and Nortel was a major employer. However, Government was a larger employer, even during the boom. So there are still only a few truly dominant employers, with one being undeniably at the front. The one-industry town is not completely obsolete.

Most of the folks running about at 8 am in Ottawa are white-collar workers. If you ask them what they do you will likely get a vague answer. It seems to me to come down to this: they move around bits of information.

In a nasty mood, when I am most doubtful concerning the busy-ness, I may draw certain conclusions. The first is that most of the middle class-people who earn over $30,000 a year-are economically superfluous. They are necessary as consumers but survive only through a combination of inertia, tenacity, political clout, and good fortune. I sometimes think that everything done by the professional classes will become automated, sooner than we suspect. The question I am addressing is What do people do?

I am not trying to glorify the Working Man, but I consider it a fact that the most low-paid, dirty, and unpleasant work is the most necessary. You must have food, sewers, buses, roads, toilets, clothing, and heat. Someone must kill your dinner and clean up afterward, and that someone is generally a person of the lower classes. They are hidden away from professional view, high up in the air, or deep in the belly of the earth. They are getting filthy to keep things nice. Nor have the working classes disappeared as technology advances. There are more technocrats than ever in a place like Ottawa, and I’ve noticed they like to eat, which means also they shit. So there is a person, probably a woman, who cleans the toilets at minimum wage. If she does not show up for work, it means things get rather unpleasant. But what happens when the $60,000-a-year professional does not show up? Something does not get photocopied and filed. For much of a professional’s time at work consists of throwing words and numbers into the bureaucracy’s maw and afterward writing reports about it, that is, producing more words and numbers. All of this takes time and effort; it is work.

I am aware that this is a jaundiced, probably unfair view. We need information and clerical services. However, the recent love affair with information needs some critical examination. The 2000s encouraged us to believe that information would be the commodity of the future. I am not trying to work up pity for the poor working folk at the expense of professionals. I am merely suggesting this was a superstitious notion. For what it is worth, I have noticed that the higher up one goes in the pay scale, the more one encounters the intangible and mysterious. No one at $80,000-a-year, or even $40,000, can say ‘I make buns’ or ‘I scrub the shit off toilets.’ Rather, they are ‘supervisors’ of ‘processes.’ They direct implementation of long-term strategic co-ordination. This sort of language is a bit like being given a Hubble Space Telescope snapshot in response to the question Where do you live? Look at the professional job description and you will see hardly any concrete nouns. Just as paintings came to look less and less like worldly objects as painters consciously liberated themselves from the work of representation (better done with the newly-invented camera), so too résumés lose reference to the physical world as professionals liberate themselves from the vulgar matter of physical labour. Abstraction is a perk of the educated. Only at $20,000 must you toil in the concrete, and in the porcelain too. [- July 1999, updated February 2010]

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