Roland Paulsen has an interesting essay over at The Atlantic on not working while working. Shirking, slacking, ‘pretending to add value,’ not having enough to do, boring work, ‘meaningless’ work – whatever it is, whatever the reason – there’s a whole lot of not working while working going on. And yet, we continue to ‘work’ more and more, with increasingly reduced time for families and leisure. The cruelest of all ironies: we have to remove ourselves from scenes of leisure and familial ties, take ourselves elsewhere, and then, not work.
I often don’t work while working, mainly because I’m distracted by social media and email and just plain old Internet-centered procastination–as I have complained here. But there was a time once, when I wanted to work while working and couldn’t, because someone else wanted to do my work.
In 1998, in an effort to earn a little money that would allow me to work on my dissertation without having to spend a lot of time teaching for peanuts in CUNY’s adjunct-exploiting system, I decided to take six months off and work in New York City’s financial sector–doing UNIX system administration. Jobs were a dime-a-dozen, the Internet gold rush was on, and I found a gig at an online brokerage within three days of applying. (I stupidly asked for too little, of course.)
In any case, once I signed up, I found myself assigned as backup to an older system administrator. He would show me the ropes and I would assist him on all tasks. I quickly realized my colleague had been made extremely nervous by my hiring. He was convinced–thanks to his years in the aerospace industry–that his head was on the proverbial chopping block and that once he had finished ‘training’ me, he would be fired. (Asking around behind the scenes, I was told that no such plan was in the works, but all reassurance to this effect failed to comfort my co-worker.)
So, all too quickly, I realized that any work assigned us as a pair would be done by him alone. All too often, my co-worker would tell me to ‘relax’, saying he could take care of it himself. Once done with it, he would report to our supervisor, informing him in great detail just how efficiently he had accomplished his objectives. (He also insisted on keeping the emergency beeper with him at all times; I was only too happy to let him hold on to it.) I would sometimes accompany him as he went about these chores but soon enough I gave up even that pretense and retired to my desk to browse, drink coffee, and chat with my neighbors. I knew there was little danger of my being fired; my employers wanted a pair of system administrators on duty at all times, and there was little chance they would let me go in the job market that existed then, which featured a shortage of folks with my ‘skills.’ As before, this fact did not make a dent in my co-worker’s anxieties. Truth be told, there was something pitiful about it all.
And so it went. I would show up on time at work, convey a reasonable impression of being occupied, take long lunch and coffee breaks, attend meetings, and all of the rest. A few months later, when according to my calculations I had earned enough to take care of my living expenses for a few months of teaching-free dissertation writing, I handed in my resignation.
In six months, I had barely worked the equivalent of two weeks.