Philosophy’s most popular modern exponent, Alain de Botton, offers solace to a troubled workforce, finds Belinda Aucott.
If you’ve ever sat at your desk and wondered what you were doing with your life, you’re not alone. Alain de Botton is one author who has devoted at least two books to understanding the meaning of work. Between the pages of The Pleasures And Sorrows of Work and Status Anxiety, he delves deep into our quest for fulfilment from work.
The picture he paints of human striving is fairly bleak. Most of us want to succeed just well enough to be doing better than our friends, and if we fail, we simply surround ourselves with less-successful people in order to protect against feelings of inadequacy. He blames pop psychology, the cult of self-help books and the rise of meritocracies for our growing neuroses.
“Most people are tormented by a residual notion of having, through some error or stupidity on their part, missed out on their true calling,” he says. “It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.”
In his new book, Religion For Atheists, de Botton addresses those contemplating a post-GFC ‘sea change’. Recent evidence suggests Generation X employees are fidgety. With a large churn of employees expected in the next 12 months, a combination of over-work, low morale and job insecurity, has rattled the cage of even the most settled employees. As Gen Y battle to join the workforce, on their terms, and Baby Boomers hold on until grim death and hope the Super lasts, people in the middle years are swapping a mid-life crisis for a new life. A return to study or decision to change to careers they were once talked out of, is part of a broad search for greater meaning.
Since 2001 there has been a steady increase in those people already possessing degrees heading back to study, with mature age enrolments at Australian universities on the rise.
“There is always the fear one will look ridiculous—but of course one must do it anyway,” de Botton urges. “It genuinely is never too late to correct mistakes and although it can take until 60 before one has the right confidence, why not go for it even then? It’s so much more important to do a job that you love, not least, because you’ll end up doing it better.”
De Botton’s two books on work and status took him across the world interviewing all sorts of people—from factory workers to careers advisers—about what motivates them to go to work.
His studies revealed a common thread of grievances that explain the tension motivating Gen Xer’s to change.
“The tension between working for love and for money will always continue, it’s just un-budgeable,” de Botton says. “My research showed me how much every job has features in common. It’s amazing how much what people love and hate in jobs is universal and tends to be the same. There’s always a hatred of being bossed around and not given control. Almost no-one minds working hard, but everyone loathes the feeling of not being trusted.
“Nevertheless, being aware of how quickly so-called ‘solid’ careers can implode should teach everyone to go a little more with their hearts,” says de Botton. “Whenever I see someone who does a job they love, whatever their salary, I know that this is someone who is truly blessed. This is the rarest of gifts. I also envy people whose first love is absolutely in line with the demands of modern capitalism; for example, someone who adores accountancy. More tragic is when someone adores poetry but they have five mouths to feed —this is, of course, far more common.”
Following the GFC de Botton has battened down the hatches to write a new book about religion for non-believers. In it he confines his findings that work and money simply aren’t enough to bring us fulfilment.
“It attempts to burn off religions’ more dogmatic aspects in order to distill a few sides of them that could prove timely and consoling to sceptical contemporary minds facing the crises and griefs of finite existence on a troubled planet.
“I hope it helps people with the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from professional failure, troubled relationships, the death of loved ones and our ultimate decay and demise. “If we are going to be happy and find work bearable what we need above all is parents who assure us we are loveable, even if we don’t succeed In the status race. It’s wonderful if we do, but to know that we are acceptable people if we don’t — that’s a privileged childhood!”