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Friday Afternoon Confessional: Hard at work or hardly working?

I confess something about American culture vexes me. Well, a lot of things do but I’ve been thinking a lot about one thing in particular. We seem to have absolutely no tolerance for somebody not working hard at their job. I expect a lot of people’s reaction to this is, “What’s wrong with that?” To an extent, I would say nothing. But I think it has a pretty severe impact on our day-to-day lives.

I speak with people all the time who clearly hate their jobs. They might realize their job’s virtual pointlessness. They might be upset that they continue to take on more responsibility without corresponding raises in pay. If they receive benefits, they’re becoming more and more expensive. The expectation is that they work well beyond a forty hour work week and when compensation is brought up, they’re often told “You’re salary.” For their trouble, people are often treated by their employer like an inconvenience. If only they could be replaced with a fresh face who doesn’t cost as much to employ.

A lot of workers sense one or more of these things about their workplace and will voice some or all of these objections in detailing why they can’t stand their employer. But very few people I come across will admit that they give less than “100%” at that same job. I used to work at a market research company where for the vast majority of workers, there was one opportunity for promotion (from Project Director to Senior Project Director) and even this promotion afforded you only a $1/hour raise. At lunch, my co-workers (the ones who would take a lunch) would complain about what was expected of them and how many hours they were putting in.

“Why do you do it?” I would ask.
“Well, it’s gotten to where it’s what’s expected of us.”
“I work 40 hours a week every week, take all my lunches, all my breaks and do enough work to make sure I’m not causing problems from anybody else. If they don’t want to make me a Senior Project Director, they can have their dollar an hour.”

Safe to say I wasn’t a model employee at that job but even at 25 and fairly new to “real jobs” I had realized it was often the case that the only reward for hard work is the request to work even harder. But still, we seem to recoil at the idea we’re not giving our all at work all the time. How many times do we hear something like, “I read on the internet…during my lunch, of course…”?

Need more evidence? Look at television and the movies. We love goofballs and slackers in our shows and movies, but it seems only to an extent. Jim on Office Space The Office seemed to spend almost all his time pulling pranks and flirting with Pam, and it seemed like an appropriate way to handle his situation because he worked in an absurd office for a company that was moving toward obsolescence. But the writers weren’t comfortable having him be a slacker through and through. Apparently, when the Office Space The Office cameras weren’t on him, we was quite diligent about his job because it turns out he was one of the best salesman and an employee valued by a corporate office that was otherwise incompetent.

Another instance of this that comes to mind is the movie Old School, with Luke Wilson (and Vince Vaughn and Will Farrell). Wilson’s friends convince him to lead a frat boy’s life in his thirties and while we’re expected to enjoy the ride along with him, it must have been deemed unacceptable for his choices to affect his performance at work. One of the only times we see him in his office setting, he’s having pledges make copies for him. When his boss sees this and leans on him to get to work on some account, we find he’s somehow found the time to go way above and beyond to stay on top of everything at work. I’d like to get the recipe for his hangover cure.

So even in our entertainment, we tolerate fun and games but only if you’re also doing your job well? Where does this devotion come from? It’s certainly not a two way street, but we seem okay with that. Is it just too depressing to realize we’re spending a third of our lives at a job that’s not important enough to take seriously? Isn’t it more depressing to allow that same job to spill over past the one-third mark and even affect our lives outside of work? Do the “be happy you have a job” admonishments cause THAT much guilt that we’re expected and willing to eat our shit sandwiches with genuine smiles on our faces?

I confess I don’t understand it and I suspect the reasons are ugly indicators of an ugly culture.


October 12, 2012 - Posted by | Friday Afternoon Confessional


  1. Jim on Office Space

    You mean “The Office.” The movie “Office Space” is actually an exception to this trend in pop culture. That film fully acknowledges the existential boredom of cubicle life and resolves its plot by having one of its characters burn the office building to the ground.

    Comment by Tom Elrod | October 12, 2012

  2. Fixed. Thanks, Tom.

    Comment by mattintoledo | October 12, 2012

  3. good, there are other readers here
    i confess i am sorry for my yesterday’s outburst it’s very cute, helped me through the day, but i read a cnn report on twitter about a 15 yo girl bullied to death in canada, so cruel people, especially the young people that it spoilt back my day to its usual state
    about hard working and hardly working, so many people claim to know the nobel awardees, very tangentially, all my japanese colleagues were glad and some were even like envying that one of them won it, oh i too work on iPSCs something, that’s so a matter of luck for one to get a breakthrough etc
    otoh i am glad that a phd student i worked on whose project last yr won a cs award at aha, so have to do more westerns for it in an urgent manner, it’s her PI’s project and ideas, my participation is like purely technical therefore minimal, to each their own, an invisible fairy behind like feeling feels still nice and the feeling that your work is needed for anyone is maybe a reward in itself, and i should be grateful that i have my job yet, when so many recent graduates don’t, in their own country

    Comment by read | October 12, 2012

  4. I confess I have tangential connections to a couple of McArthur awardees, but not to any new Nobelists. (My friend the astrophysicist has direct connections to a few, but long awarded.)

    Comment by Josh K-sky | October 14, 2012

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