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Work to Live or Live to Work?

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A Reflection by Victor Lana

Many years ago in my undergraduate sociology class the professor (his name now escapes me) asked the class, “Would you prefer to work to live or live to work?” As I recall now, this led to a vibrant discussion about priorities, what we saw ourselves doing in the future, and how well we wanted to live the life that we envisioned. “Live to work” obviously connotes that one goes happily off to the office each day, while “work to live” implies something more onerous.

I often think about that discussion as the years have passed, and I have even used that question rather frequently as a writing assignment in my freshman composition classes. During the prewriting phase, students usually spoke freely concerning their opinions in brainstorming sessions. Many argued vehemently with those on the opposite side, but by the time they got to the actual writing, most students seemed rather adamant that no job or boss was going to ruin their lives.

In the grand scheme of things for many Americans, “work” seems to take precedent over having a “life.” The two terms are largely diametric concepts these days, especially after 9/11 when many people lost jobs. Now it seems just having a job to go to is fortunate; thus, no matter what the conditions, the status of being employed is much more desirable than its alternative.

I believe that most Americans work harder than they might want or need to. If one uses public transport as a means of getting to work (as I have done here in New York City), it is an opportunity to observe people in what are perhaps some of the worst moments of their workday: the daily commute. Surely, after the terrorist attacks in London on July 7, 2005, travel on rail or bus has changed for New Yorkers. People have always had fears since 9/11, but now there is an added burden. The heft of this heightened concern etched on their faces, New Yorkers move along on their way to work with remarkable resiliency, but many are afflicted by something more than their mode of travel, indicating the mounting rigors and stress in the American workplace.

Since 9/11 many companies have been trying to cut corners in order to balance the budget. I know a number of cases where workers have been told that they need to do more to retain their jobs. Do more usually implies taking additional responsibilities. In one particular case, the person was told, “Ms. X is retiring and Mr. Y is leaving for another job, so we expect you to take on their work load.” This was done with no increase in status or salary, and the person kept quiet, took on the additional work, and had to stay later on many days to finish his tasks. Of course, he is miserable because of it.

In other countries the work day itself is less stringent. One of the things I learned after having spent a good deal of time abroad is that people in other countries break-up working hours to “live” better lives. In London, for example, I have enjoyed the concept of the extended lunch (something like 12-2pm). This was (at least when I was there during the 1980s) a time to go get some grub at the pub and wash it down with a pint or two and some socializing before going back to work. Unusual for Americans? Of course. In Spain the siesta is a rule of thumb. Shops and restaurants close during the height of the afternoon heat, only to reopen later in the evening. People get a chance to go home, to rest and recharge, and then go back to work. While I was in Madrid, it was not unusual to see people going into restaurants around nine or even ten o’clock at night for a leisurely supper. Indeed, this is a different lifestyle, a more relaxed one to be sure.

There are many similar customs to be found in the world’s industrialized countries that help make work more suitable for life. Yet, when I visited a friend in Japan in 1995, I found a different situation. He routinely worked twelve hour days or sometimes longer and thought nothing of working six days a week. His work ethic was based on a notion of personal productivity in order to do his duty for the company, and his attitude was positive and he professed to loving his life and the job he had to do. He also explained that his company generously rewarded him with extended vacations, so that seemed to be the key part of the equation: a way to improve the quality of his life while understanding that hard work provided its bonuses.

As far as I can tell from my travels and what I read, Americans take less vacation days than their European counterparts. They also are not afforded the luxury of short foreign trips like someone from Germany who is able to drive a few hours to Poland, or Austria, or Italy. Americans when they do travel to foreign destinations still go for shorter times. Most people I know usually take a few days to oneweek as a maximum for their vacations. For them the thought of getting back to the job seems to take precedent over getting away from it all.

So in the end, there is still the question of “work to live” or “live to work.” No doubt, it will always be an individual thing, but we can make an attempt to collectively evaluate our attitudes and feelings. Do our daily work schedules seem equitable? Is the workday (9-5) a thing strictly and unmercifully enforced? How important is overtime in the scheme of things? How supportive is management or administration to our personal needs? What kind of benefits are available, and do they outweigh the notion of having more time for our loved ones?

Perhaps the last question is the most pertinent. The concept of “time” is inherently linked to the notion of quality of life. About a quarter of all Americans now have flexible schedules (known as flex time), and this is especially attractive to new mothers, parents with small children, people caring for the elderly, or those dealing with a sick relative or spouse. Obviously, the more time we have to do the things we need and want to do outside of the workplace, the more satisfied we seem to be when we are working. I know people who have taken jobs to have more time even if it means with less pay. It is a difficult thing for some, and many can’t afford to do this, but those who take this option do so because their jobs do not take priority over their lives.

Can everyone go off to work whistling? I think not. In the reality of this modern world we live in, there will always be people who love their work and those who do not. The great 19th century writer John Ruskin said, “There is no wealth but Life.” This is something to ponder as we go about our daily machinations, for all the money in the world can’t buy us another breath. Herein lies hope even in desperate situations, for the concepts of “work to live” and “live to work” are subsumed by the reality of “live to live.” Ultimately, living our lives to the fullest despite the work we do is the only way to go.

Copyright Victor Lana 2005

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana's stories, articles, and poems have been published in literary magazines and online. His books 'A Death in Prague' (2002), 'Move' (2003), 'The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories' (2005), and 'Like a Passing Shadow' (2009) are available in print, online, and as e-books. His latest books 'If the Fates Allow: New York Christmas Stories,' 'Garden of Ghosts,' and 'Flashes in the Pan' are available exclusively on Amazon. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated on writing mostly fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as a faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with 'Blogcritics Magazine' since July 2005 and has written well over 500 articles; previously co-head sports editor, he now is a Culture and Society editor. Having traveled extensively, Victor has visited six continents and intends to get to Antarctica someday where he figures a few ideas for new stories await him.
  • Raymond Scott

    This a lovely article that you have written.

    Thank you for posting it.

    Raymond Scott
    Lansford, ND

  • Well, thanks, Raymond. Interesting to get my first comment four years later, but it is appreciated.

  • Well, perhaps you should update your article, Victor. Lots has changed in four years to make your thesis less appealing or convincing to most than when you first posted.

  • Raymond Scott

    You are welcome, Victor. I agree that the timing is strange. However, I was fortunate enough to find your article while researching sources. Your topic will provide an essential citation for my paper, Challenging the Career Progression Mindset in the United States. I need to support one of my arguments that business culture is different across the globe and show the impact upon employee health, well-being, stress levels, and job satisfaction compared across those cultures.

  • Again, thanks, Raymond.

    Roger, I believe that the “live to work or work to live” idea does not depend upon one thing, like the economic climate of the day. It’s an individual choice or need.
    Kind of like “To be or not to be” doesn’t need to change with the times. People will always have to face these choices no matter what is happening in the external world.

  • I’m aware of that, Victor. I have not been affected by these times as most because for as long as I remember, I’ve been subscribing to this philosophy. Perhaps because I wasn’t born and raised here, thank God.

    Still, this is the average American’s mindset. It’s all about money and success – whatever that means. You’ve got quite a job on your hands trying to convince our citizens that money ain’t everything.

  • Raymond,

    You might check some of the postings by our STM from Australia. It’s refreshing to hear some of his accounts of the business culture there. You might want to contact him on his own weblog, which he publishes independently of his BC postings.

  • Raymond Scott

    This has generated quite a flurry of activity after four years.

    I wouldn’t say that my paper’s intention is to downgrade anyone’s desire for money or for the comforts it can provide. My main argument is that it should be okay for people not to join in the constant battle for progression if they are happy where they are. It’s about reflecting on the mindset in which holding the same job for ten years is considered to be stagnation by some, so the assumption is that it must be a bad thing for all. Wanting to remain is almost like a deviance and those people are often overlooked by management because they don’t want to move on up in their jobs. Those people, who if treated with respect, can be more of an asset to a company than someone who leaves after a few years. It is hard to compare the contributions of both types, but I venture a guess that a happy employee who works hard at the same job for ten years has contributed much more than money to the organization.

  • Raymond Scott

    Thanks, Roger. I will have to check those postings when I get finished with this paper.

  • Guys, thanks for your insightful comments.

    I do know many people, believe it or not, who have chosen to take lower paying jobs with flexible schedules in order to be able to be with family more regularly. It’s the old quality over quantity situation, in this case quality time (which is priceless).

    Not everyone is in that position today. My grandfather had to work to live for most of his life, starting in third grade when he dropped out of school to help support 7 little brothers and sisters. Of course, that was in the 1890s, but it was his reality and for many others as well.