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The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Mises Daily: Thursday, August 27, 2009 by

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[The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work • By Alain de Botton • Pantheon • 336 pages]

Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Most people have a love-hate relationship with their work. Not only do we trade our time and talent to put food on the table, but for many of us, our work defines us as people. After all, it's one of the first things we ask when we meet someone: "What do you do for a living?"

During the boom, with full employment, we all feel invincible on the job. Our employers are lucky to have us. We tell people what we do with gusto. The confidence to spend our paychecks is constant; we obligate ourselves for years of high interest payments without a thought and even with some pride. The disutility of labor comes quickly with our self-confidence. Leisure becomes more important. "Having satisfied his most urgent needs," Ludwig von Mises wrote in Human Action, he considers the satisfaction of the still unsatisfied needs less desirable than the satisfaction of his striving after leisure."

Now that the bust end of the boom-bust cycle has arrived, leisure is not as important. Those who still have jobs hold them with the fear that employment could evaporate any day. And beyond the frightening prospect of being unable to face the bills, for many employed in boom-time industries, such as banking and real estate, the loss of a career that you spent years nurturing (and the loss of your identity) stares you right in the face. The idea of starting over at the bottom is daunting — extinguishing your self-respect along with the value of your home and 401K.

Thus the ironic timing of Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work: at least one out ten of us here in America (and maybe as many as one in five, depending upon which government numbers you believe) is without employment. Many of us are without a place to go five days a week, with nothing to produce, no service to provide — identity temporarily vanished.

What de Botton captures so artfully is how important work is to our lives. The paychecks pass through our fingers; where the money goes we can't remember. But we remember all of our jobs. Maybe the dates get a little fuzzy when a sprucing of the resume is required, but customers, bosses, and coworkers are all unforgettable.

In interviews the author admits he's never held a "proper job." He makes a living writing books — interesting and profound books in fact: How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Consolations of Philosophy, and Status Anxiety, to name a few. But de Botton doesn't have to worry about selling books. His father, Gilbert de Botton, was the head of Rothschild Bank before founding Global Asset Management, a company he sold in 1999 for £420 million, leaving Alain a trust fund containing £200 million.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work came from the lack of work being portrayed in fiction, de Botton told Katy Guest, a writer for The Independent. "I think we're still labouring under the Romantic idea of work being evil and there being no real passion in work," de Botton told Guest. "And that real life is love and war and murder." No, real life is the logistics the author describes in chapter one: goods being manufactured somewhere, shipped somewhere else, warehoused, and shipped finally to where the consumer has the opportunity to buy them.

"Alain de Botton is not an economist by training, but he clearly understands the division of labor (he even uses the term!) and is a keen observer of human action and the human condition."

In almost I, Pencil fashion the author traces the journeys of tuna and electricity. He understands the sense of urgency that the eventual customer demands — the round-the-world, clockwork precession that's required.

"Time is of the essence," writes de Botton. "At any given moment, half the contents of the warehouse are seventy-two hours away from being inedible, a prospect which prompts continuous struggles against the challenges of mould and geography."

The author spends time at United Biscuits to chronicle the trip from idea stage to the grocery shelf of the "glutinous, chocolate-coated Moments." While exploring career counseling, de Botton notes that our society "is the first to suggest that [work] could be something much more than a punishment or a penance." And he takes a trip to far-off and exotic French Guiana to view the launching of a satellite and examination of rocket science. But the comely and utterly self-absorbed Hong Kong television reporter that proved "it might be possible to feel jealous of a rocket" was much more interesting than the science.

De Botton observes an obsessive painter, and notes, "There is an impractical side of human nature particularly open to making sacrifices for the sake of creating objects that are more graceful and intelligent than we normally manage to be."

And for those who believe accountants are just boring fuddy-duddies, the author sees them differently:

In the wider view of the public, accountancy may be synonymous with bureaucratic tedium, but from close up, this particular conglomeration of numerical talents presents the observer with a case-study of the discrete charms of offices, with their intriguing blend of camaraderie, intelligence and futility.

De Botton can make any occupation and those who toil at it sound breath taking.

Once I had The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work in my hands, I immediately skipped to read de Botton's chapter entitled "Entrepreneurship," which centered around a convention where small business people meet potential investors:

The range of offerings suggested that capitalism as currently developed remains in its infancy. "We may think of ourselves as living late in the history of consumer society, but the most sophisticated contemporary economy stands to be perceived by subsequent generations as no less primitive than we judge Europe to have been in the Dark Ages.

Alain de Botton is not an economist by training, but he clearly understands the division of labor (he even uses the term!) and is a keen observer of human action and the human condition. Every paragraph he writes is memorable. But not everyone loves de Botton's latest work. The spokesperson for third-wave feminism, Naomi Wolf, who reviewed The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work for the New York Times wrote,

But 40 pages into his newest offering I was ready to hurl it across the room. By page 95 I was holding my head miserably in my hands. Halfway through the text I was reading the most infuriating bits out loud, as one does, to a friend, when one can't bear to hold the turmoil decently within.

Any book that can send Ms. Wolf over the edge like that must be good.