Real Work and Pseudo-Work

I asked Google how many hours a typical Congressman works and couldn’t get a straight answer. Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tn) said on CNN last night that it was about four hours a day. In the face of his disintegrating speakership and a looming government shutdown, Speaker McCarthy sent his members home for the weekend.

It’s common knowledge that Representatives spend much of their time fundraising and electioneering. What kind of work is that? There are no work requirements for Congress, just as there are no term limits. Senators and Representatives make $174,000 per year for working four hours a day with lots of time off.

This is but one of many kinds of pseudo-work. Another kind is what David Graeber has called Bullshit Jobs. Millions of people work in pointless jobs like “corporate lawyers, public relations consultants, telemarketers, brand managers, and countless administrative specialists who are paid to sit around, answer phones, and pretend to be useful.” Such people “are being handed a lot of money to do nothing,” and most of them know it’s a canard.

Let me talk for a moment about how I experience another kind of pseudo-work. I came to Mexico fifteen years ago with the intent to finish my book on Mingus, which I did. I followed up with a memoir, a kind of weird journal, and the present blog. Solid enough work for a writer, but I find I need more of it.

So I put in a lot of time at the computer in pseudo-work—hunting up new blog ideas, reading the political news, doing emails, trying to generate another book, wondering if I have shot my wad as a writer. Some hours each day are devoted to this sort of random online probing, looking for a new project. This feels like work, but of course it isn’t.

So I wonder what my “retirement” is about. I read that many current retirees want to return to work, either for financial or social/emotional reasons. I’m a little too old for that but the idea of “work,” which I used to belittle when younger, has come to mean a real involvement in something meaningful. As someone once said, “when you work from home, you’re never off the clock.” And certainly your concept of work changes as you age.

I think about my father who made the grave error of retiring from work at age fifty-five. He and my mother moved to Florida, and he thought he could live a life of leisure. After he spent most of his money buying a yacht, they led a reduced existence and he turned sour on life. He filled up time by going to the Publix market and bugging my mother to turn down the air conditioning.

Now, with an outbreak of strikes, the work from home movement, and pressure on Biden to retire, the old concepts of work are clearly threatened. Today the New York Times published an interesting exchange of views titled “When It Comes to Work, ‘the Current Situation Is Unsustainable.’” The profusion of strikes has gotten people thinking about the nature of work. Lydia Polgreen, one of the Times participants, finally had this to say:

I think that people need to spend their time doing things that are meaningful. Sometimes those things are paid work, sometimes it’s caring for the people that you love, but I think that we’re also seeing that people do want to work. What they don’t want is for such a huge swath of the fruits of their labor to be accruing to the very top 10 percent. And that seems to me to be like a reasonable thing to be really, really mad about.

4 Replies to “Real Work and Pseudo-Work”

  1. YES! My thoughts exactly. I am now doing a search for volunteer opportunities working with Spanish speaking immigrants in Boston.
    Real work is fulfilling however old we are…. Your writing life will always be meaningfill. FAY

  2. Some work to live. Some live to work. I was lucky enough to be employed in a place where I could say, “I can’t believe they pay me for doing this.’ My wife responds to complaints by saying, “Why do you think they call it work?” That’s a good point. People should have a satisfying life. Some find that satisfaction in work. others work to finance things they enjoy. Different strokes… In the fact check department, if you truly believe a Member of Congress works only four hours daily, I’ve got a good deal on a bridge for you. As a group they, including some I strongly disagree with on everything, work incredibly hard.

  3. Still another good and thought provking column, John. I did a lot of interesting work during my 30’s, which included covering all of the big fights on the West Coast as the correspondent for Boxing News, seeing and writing about great fights and getting to meet and know future Hall of Fame fighters. I did a lot of radio, television and even an acting gig that got me in the Screen Actors of America. However, there was always something missing. God knows I did enough work, sometimes difficult and dangerous work for a paycheck, but it wasn’t until I got into investigative reporting, leading to a long and storied career as a private investigator who specialized in criminal and indigent defense that I finally found what I was looking for, which was “meaningful work.” I never looked at m investigative work as a “job,” it was definitely more like a calling where I could meld all of my formal education with my street skills and become one of the best investigators in San Francisco for a long period of time. And, from this job, I have material for any number of books, one of which I’ve completed. Therefore, I will never “retire” in the normal sense of the word. Sorry you’re spending time looking for your next project. My problem is that I have an overwhelming amount of material that any aspiring writer would envy. Keep these columns coming, John. You’re a good writer who knows how to connect with your readers.

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