Tuesday, August 5, 2008
Work is a four letter word
In the 60s when I started work, there was a kind of hemp-stained anarchic change in the air. Having been in both Paris and London in 1968 and witnessed and to some extent been part of the ‘student revolution’; on the run from French and Belgian police in the former and participating in sit-ins in the latter, I have a curious set of definitions for the word ‘work’. Whilst I DID work in the 60s and 70s, when many friends and acquaintances chose to drop out, trial the new drugs from dope to acid and set up squats or smallholdings or hitch to Afghanistan, I can’t say that I saw a great purpose in it. Work, that is. The cliche then was the phrase used in the title for this blog. I enjoyed the teaching and I liked the tough adolescents, making their own way, far removed from middle class hippy indulgences but work was something imposed and a restraint on what seemed to be the inalienable right to grow how you might.
Then I cared for disturbed adolescents in a therapeutic centre and work became idealistic and altruistic. Even political. Every child that came, abused, neglected and fragmented by family and/or social services was the focus of unconditional love and support. A high proportion made their way out of the cycle of generations of degradation and into something more socially comparable with their average peer. They didn’t want to drop out. They wanted to belong. Later still I took up research and found it was something I could do. I didn’t have to be a dry, middle of the road, small c conservative academic, playing the game to get a professorship, either. There was enough room to be marginal and creative. Work had suddenly become intellectual play. But it was/is a privileged kind of play which depends upon a brain and the capacity to have an impact on individuals and organisations. As a management consultant (a little distant from the howling laughter provoking depictions in The Office, I hope) I can mix play with challenge, insight, analysis and development and produce a notion of work which is, personally, highly fulfilling.
Now I am in Ghana and these latter definitions of work seem even more the toying of a man in the developed world where there is little sense of the real value of basic human requirements such as food, sanitation, water, safety and electricity and they are squandered until they are at a premium and market forces prevent more and more citizens from using them. Driving in to work among the somewhat undisciplined cars and lorries here, the lines of traffic somehow stop at red lights. From the sides of the roads swing into view the young men and women, literally, earning a crust. They carry water sachets, loaves and fruits of all kinds in head-baskets, arms festooned with cheap Chinese imports of toys, sweets, fabrics and so on. The heat is oppressive, even now in the temperate months of a daily 30 degrees and high humidity and they toil for hours in the exhaust fumes. They are admirable in their proud stoicism in the face of drivers’ lack of consideration for their safety, the continual spewing of exhaust fumes and their low ‘hit rate’ of sales. They are also, often, astonishingly graceful and beautiful in a way that damns the pretensions of the average European or American walking a high street. You have to be very fit to carry so much weight, perpetually balanced on your crown in such conditions.
Work for these people is also a four letter word. Food.