Posts Tagged ‘work’

The Hidden Work that Happens with Basic Universal Income

December 23rd, 2016 No comments

In the last few years many thousands of words have been written about Universal Basic Income: the proposal that a government gives every citizen a monthly income, no question asked, that covers their basic needs, which acts as a secure base for whatever else they might do with their lives. The aspect that interests me the most about Universal Basic Income is that which, I imagine, opponents of the idea think of as the biggest downside. That if a great many people choose to exist only on their basic income, and not to do any extra work to top it up, what will this do to the landscape of work? Will there be essential work that won’t be done? And will a majority of the population simply choose to sit around and do nothing, perhaps drinking their lives away on (very cheap, perhaps own-brewed) alcohol?

I don’t imagine that the majority of people will sit around doing nothing. And this was demonstrated for me in the last couple of weeks when I became involved in a scheme to help feed the homeless throughout December.

This scheme was started by a woman called Kelly who runs a cafe near where I live. Last year on Xmas Eve Kelly and her husband cooked a lot of extra hot food at the cafe, and when they closed up for the day drove around town handing it to all the homeless people they found. This year Kelly thought she might make the scheme a little bigger, and so put a message out on the cafe’s Facebook page asking if anyone would like to help, expecting maybe a dozen responses, so she might be able to reach and feed more people. And more than four hundred people responded with offers of help (one of which was me).

So many people responded that Kelly was not able to manage making enough food for, and organising that many helpers. So I ended up helping with the organisation of volunteers, and in the end we managed to make use of all just about all this free labour, to the point that we were able send out food and clothing parcels to homeless people all over the city not just on Xmas Eve but throughout December. And with the money raised through donations are planning to carry on with some kind of scheme throughout the winter.

What was interesting was that we had by far the most offers of help on Xmas Eve – because that was the time when people were on holiday from their jobs. Part of the impetus was that people wanted to do something to help others at Christmas time. But when we extended the scheme to more days earlier in December people still wanted to help but were now apologetic, sometimes annoyed, even angry, that they were no longer able to because they would be at work.

I was able to offer my help with organising the scheme because I happen to work freelance, in a job that I can do for only a day or two a week and have enough on which to live. And so I chose to not work as much in December, and focus on the feeding the homeless scheme instead. In fact if I had a full-time job I might not have even thought to offer help, I would probably have made excuses to myself: I already do enough, working full-time, I don’t have the time to help. But I am lucky to have the freedom, and so the energy to do so.

And imagine all the energy unleashed towards this and other such socially-beneficial schemes if more people could make that choice: between paid work, and work that they really valued.

This is one corner of the landscape of work in a society with Universal Basic Income. Other corners will see people going out to work just as they have always done, because they want to earn money to buy the things that they have always bought. But some sections of society will look at the choice between earning more money through paid work and organising their own schemes, or joining in with other people’s. And these schemes will have tangible social (even economic) benefits to society, such as helping feed the homeless, despite their being no economic activity taking place that pays the workers themselves. Better still, the nature of these schemes will be determined by the collective will of individuals, by one or more people saying, ‘this is what I want to see happen, I’m going to go do it’. The barriers to enacting such desires will be greatly lessened, and more work,will be able to take place: all manner of schemes, started simply because people want them to be, with no regard for profitability. That is a lot of schemes that currently do not exist.

Support the idea of Universal Basic Income. Read up on it – Scott Santens, one of the foremost writers on Universal Basic Income, has an FAQ which is a good place to start. The landscape of work in a world where Universal Basic Income is a basic human right is one where our imaginations have a much greater scope for how we spend our lives.

On the Supposed Pleasures of Work

January 16th, 2015 No comments
Business team

photo: Penn State

I’m a great admirer of Alain de Botton’s writing. His critics damn him with accusations that he has ‘forged a lucrative career stating the bleeding obvious’, when I view this as his virtue: he states the obvious, but in a way that brings more clarity to a formerly mundane aspect of life.

Hence I’m generally a fan of his School of Life, and more recently his Book of Life, his attempt to bring together many short essays on Home, Relationships, Culture, Work, etc.

But I have to take issue with the Book of Life’s latest essay, Pleasures of Work. The intention of the essay is fine: to suggest where satisfaction can be found in the minutae of jobs as different as a car designer, or waiter, or just general office team work.

On the pleasures of ordering de Botton writes:

Take the work of a car designer, who finds pleasure in setting every dial in harmony with every other, of creating a fit between the fuel gauge and the rev counter, the air conditioning and the heater buttons […] The architect, the car designer, the waiter, the train engineer, whatever their differences in status and salaries, draw on a common satisfaction in their ability to create or manage small utopias in an otherwise chaotic, irrational and compromised world.

Or on understanding:

Then there is the pleasure of understanding. It is present in the working life of a plumber who must pin down what precisely is ailing the heating system within a myriad of pipes behind the kitchen panels. […] It is the pleasure of the writer, trying to put words to emotions, pinning down rare elusive butterflies of feeling, defining in language what the reader may have felt but never grasped so precisely before.

There is further discussion of the work pleasures of money-making, or serving, or collaborating. And I am not denying that all these pleasures are possible in work. But in my experience, as someone who has had supposedly highly-prized, interesting jobs, any of the above pleasures are only conditional: and are always subservient to work culture. The pleasures may be possible – but their possibility is very largely dependent upon the pressure of deadlines, the stress of multitasking, the waste of time from meetings, the character of bosses, the idea that you are being taken advantage of. And most of all, upon the idea that the work you do is, in fact, perhaps pointless.

Even should you, as a car designer, consider the aesthetics of the car you build as one of your highest personal values in life, you will not feel this pleasure if you have to complete the setting of these dials in a rush, because your boss is an arse. As a writer you will find it hard to pin down feelings in words if your article has to be finished to a tight deadline.

We cannot talk about the pleasures of work without first acknowledging that they are completely subservient to the culture of work.

To be fair Alain de Botton has written a full-length book called The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. But I think it is remiss to include Pleasures of Work in the Book of Life without mentioning the steamroller effects of work culture. The evidence of my and others experiences is that actually managing to feel these pleasures is rare indeed, even amongst those with those highly-prized careers.

As I argue in the The Tyranny of Careers, it is possible to find these pleasures from work. But work for yourself, that is free from the effects of money or work culture. Work that needs to be supported with other work that does pay you money, for sure. But it is a thankless ta go seeking these pleasures in a full-time career for someone else – they are few and far between.

Career Realities podcast #1: the Painter/Teacher

January 4th, 2015 No comments

The first Career Realities interview is with painter Edwina Bracken. A former full-time (and then part-time) art teacher, Edwina has recently completed an MA at Glasgow’s School of Art. She talks about the difference between her expectations and the realities of a teaching career, and how she came to (just about) earn a living as a fine artist. (Apologies for a few glitches in the recording – a few Skype dropout beeps!)

The Career Realities podcast series attempts to uncover the hidden realities of day-to-day work culture in various careers – the hours, the workload, the shift patterns – and questions the often-repeated assumption that paid work is our primary source of life fulfillment.

(For a more extensive introduction to the Career Realities interviews see here.)

Podcast excerpts:

On combining a teaching career with your own painting work

I thought with the time off that you get with teaching I could fit my other art career in around the paid teaching work. That was my idea. […] So I went and did the course, and I was really overwhelmed at the scope of the job, it was a much heavier, labour intensive job than I had imagined from the outside. It was horrendously difficult to train.

I said to her [my mentor], ‘when does this become easy?’, and she said, ‘oh, after about three years’. […] But before that it was just full-on all the way, and every holiday we used to get sick.

[My own painting work] was non-existent. I didn’t do any painting or any of my own work for about five years. The teaching job was so intensive that the holiday time would come around and you would just fit in the other things that you would do in your life, […] the things that you didn’t have time when you were teaching.

I couldn’t move forward with my own art practice if I remained working within that stricture that the teaching job dictates. You know where you’re going to be on the 1st of September, you can’t really deviate from the plan, irrespective of being part-time.

On the psychological barriers to overcome when you quit a career

I felt I’d become slightly institutionalised because I’d worked in teaching for ten years, and on the one hand knowing where you’re going to be on the 1st of September can be quite frustrating, but on the other hand its really reassuring because you know you’re going to have a fixed income. So I had to come round to the idea that that was going to be a liberating experience. [Q: And was it?] Yes, it was great!

On deciding what paid work to take

I find that a lot of jobs that I would like to do are full-time jobs, and I can’t do them, because clearly I would have no time to make my work, research it and then put it out there. It can be a really tough call.

On advising my younger self

Look for a mentor. Because I think mentors are so valuable. Even if it’s not in art, just to look at how somebody can work for themselves, the way to manage your time and a work ethic. I don’t think it matters what it is you want to do, but you need to find some practical way into that.

Networking is crucial. I think sometimes it gets a really bad press. Sometimes people think it’s an ‘I’ll scratch your back you scratch mine.’ But your network is just who you can ask questions to, and then from there who do they know. Also speaking to people about what you are doing in any situation leads to networks, saying who you are and what you are doing and what you are interested in, and you never know where that leads.

More information about Edwina’s work can be found at, and you can contact her on Twitter @EdwinaBracken.

Published today: The Tyranny of Careers (and the Joy of Work)

January 1st, 2015 No comments

The Tyranny of CareersSo today, the first of 2015, is publication day for The Tyranny of Careers. It’s been a long time coming – the friends who have been early readers of the book have probably lost faith that the work they put in would ever amount to anything.

For anyone new to this blog: The Tyranny of Careers is the careers advice I wish I had received when younger – the advice that was not available then and seems very rarely given now. It is a product of the fact that, of the happiest adults I know, hardly any are those with full-time careers working for someone else – the stated goal of all the useless careers advice that I received.

The book will, hopefully, provide comfort to both students and those already in full-time work – comfort about that niggling sense that a full-time career might not be the primary source of self-esteem and innovation it is held up to be by school, government and society in general. The reason being that, in my experience, it is not.

At the moment The Tyranny of Careers is only published as an ebook (yes, the picture makes it look like a physical book – it just looks better that way). At some point I hope to publish it as a physical one. I love physical books. If, like me, you are somewhat averse to ebooks, email me and tell me that you would have bought the book had you been able to hold it in your hands. (If I receive enough emails I’ll get on to printing some copies.)

Here’s the blurb that would appear on the back cover, if ebooks had back covers. More details about the book and how to buy it here. Or to see what it’s like you can download the whole introduction as a PDF.



‘Work hard at school, get a degree at university, find yourself a good career, and you will be happy. Your career will be your source of self-esteem and give you control of your life.’

This is the subtext of every piece of careers advice I ever heard. It is advice I believed implicitly, that I believed for years as I bounced between highly-prized careers in television, film and publishing. Careers prevented me from wondering why the promised self-esteem was not forthcoming, burdened as I was by the stress and overwork that are common features of the work culture of almost every career.

All I wanted was to do work where I felt my brain was not being wasted. But this only happened when I began to pursue work of my own. Unpaid, uncelebrated work. But work that felt valuable to me, that felt like it might contribute something of value to the work, even if that was way off in the future.

My younger self needed don’t-chase-a-career advice. The Tyranny of Careers is this kind of book. Partly a memoir of my misplaced search for a career, and partly what I’ve learnt about work despite this: that it is possible to earn a living without a full-time career, whilst also pursuing work that is truly fulfilling.

The Career Realities podcast

December 23rd, 2014 No comments

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At school and through university, my knowledge of the working life of adults was pretty much limited to their job titles: doctor, banker, call-centre operator. (Sometimes a job title told me even less: management consultant, quantum physicist, futures trader.) I knew something of what these jobs entailed: doctors cured sick people, bankers managed (or mis-managed) money, call-centre operators answered phone queries. But I knew very little at all of the work culture of these professions: of how much autonomy you had in your work, of the hours and shift patterns, of the burden of the workload – of any of the details of these professions that would, should I choose to follow one of these careers, have the most impact on the way I lived as an adult.

I stumbled forward into the careers that I pursued almost blind to what they would mean to my life, to how they would make me feel at the end of each working day. And discovered that, even though I found careers in highly sought-after professions, in television, film and publishing, these careers did very little for the kind of life I had hoped to lead. That is, one where I had  work that I found genuinely fulfilling. And so I eventually abandoned the idea of a full-time profession for the self-made career I describe in The Tyranny of Careers.

Some insight into the reality of work culture might have propelled me towards a self-made career much more quickly. So I have begun a new podcast series called Career Realities: interviews about the day-to-day realities of being a teacher, or designer, or computer programmer, of working in the music industry and of many other types of career. Most of my interviewees are people who have made a self-made career for themselves: one that combines paid work with work of their own that they find truly fulfilling, in contrast to the traditional careers they used to pursue. They’re not necessarily all ‘successful’, or exactly where they want to be with their work – but hopefully their interviews will give you some idea of the unpredictable ways in which we end up finding the work we love, and shed some light for others on the realities of full-time careers. And how you might go about avoiding them.

The Career Realities podcasts began in January 2015 – if you would like to be updated when they are broadcast, subscribe to the newsletter on this website. (There will also be notifications on my tumblr, Facebook and Twitter pages. Thank you for (future) listening. Or you can subscribe to the podcast itself: (iTunes | RSS)