Modern Sisyphus: How COVID-19 and remote working, highlighted the emptiness of office life
Sisyphus, Antonio Zanchi (1631–1722)
So much of the meaning we get from work, comes from our interactions with each other in the office. The Coronavirus, whilst a boon for some, has brought into stark relief the meaninglessness of modern work for many. Triumphant forecasts of the demise of the office, may turn out to be true, which may only exacerbate the nihilism of white-collar professional life. Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway, recently wrote a nostalgic paean to the office, noting, “The most important thing — which should make the office less an employer’s white elephant than its biggest bargain — is that it gives work meaning.” What this period has really driven home, is how once the comforts of office life are removed, what many of us are left with is the maddeningly dull and Sisyphean nature of our work.
Part of this is due to the narrow and restricted nature of so much of the professional services economy, what sociologist Max Weber referred to as the “iron cage” of bureaucratisation. The sticky web of rules and administrative procedures that are required to manage the sheer complexity of the modern economy. A complexity that has spawned what David Graeber calls the bullshit jobs of ‘make-work’. Graeber defines this make-work as well-paying jobs that create a veneer of success, but if stopped tomorrow wouldn’t make a difference to the world.
We cloak ourselves in these peripheral pleasures of office life to drown out the tinnitus of existential dread that greets so many of us when we logon each morning.
This make-work is a result of the huge increase of professional services over the last century. With a significant amount of this increase being devoted to the administration of increasingly byzantine bureaucratic functions of corporations and governments. The inherent complexity of our global corporations and government functions, requires masses of people, with narrow skill sets to become well-paid cogs in the wheel, with little connection to the final output of their work. Often this lack of connection is due to there being no final output to be connected to, as strategies continually change, and projects are cancelled. This Hyperspecialisation of both industry, service and job, has become so narrow that many of us have lost any conception of how we actually make a difference in our work.
What made this dislocation bearable for much of the last century was the meaning that we got from one another when we were in the office. The ability to make friends (or lovers), share ideas, perform in front of our peers, develop the political rivalries and alliances that simultaneously infuriate and sustain us. We cloak ourselves in these peripheral pleasures of office life to drown out the tinnitus of existential dread that greets so many of us when we logon each morning. A dread that is likely to only increase as the professional emptiness of remote work becomes clearer.
The point of all this is that there is a greater evil underlying the banality of this professional nihilism. This is embodied by the cynicism of paying someone almost triple what a nurse gets paid, to stand around holding a traffic sign on government infrastructure projects, whilst these nurses risk their lives to fight the Covid-19 outbreak. A similar example in Australia of underfunded volunteer firefighting crews fighting apocalyptic bushfire conditions last summer is another testament to government fixation on the wrong things. This trend of rewarding bit players, in billion-dollar-white-elephant-projects, whilst undervaluing and ignoring, what is referred to now as “essential workers”, is generally appallingly. It is a function of the preference of governments to be seen to be ‘making progress’, ‘chasing growth’ or ‘balancing the budget’ at the expense of all else. Anything that is not within this framework of quantifiable progress, anything that involves community care or supporting actual people in the community, is equivalently priced as being worthless.
Post-Covid predictions like this one, have already become tiresome and will most likely be wrong. But what might stick is how many people may realise, after peering behind the curtain of their day-to-day professional existence, that there might be more to professional life. If this leads to a collective realisation, it might change our attitude toward how we reward our essential workers, softening the debate about deficit and surplus and move it forward to one of value and fairness. Perhaps we will wake up and realise that the nurse, school teacher and fireman deserve not just our applause and appreciation, but more of the spoils.