There has been rather a torrid exchange of letters in the New Zealand Listener around the issue of NZ Super and eligibility. We have had self-employed letter writers moaning and being righteous and employed people kicking back against that high-mindedness.
Which got me thinking about work and its place in our Western, developed, industrialised societies.
I am currently a house parent (stay-at-home parent...fill in appropriate title here) with some self-employment as an actor and writer thrown in. When people ask me what I do and I tell them that I am, in the main, the parent with the main childcare responsibilities, they often look at me aghast. As you would probably expect, I usually have more understanding responses from women.
Work has come to define us. When did this happen? Are you any better a person if you are a lawyer as opposed to a road worker? Right now, I'm pretty enamoured of road-workers. They are putting our streets back the way they were and they are working long hours to do it. But that is by the by because you could be a wife-beating lawyer or you could be a Proust-reading plumber or anything in between.
I like what Martin Luther King said in his famous "I have a dream" speech. He wanted his children judged, not by the colour of their skin, but by the nature of their characters.
Many of us, less enlightened than Martin Luther King, do judge. We judge by race, we judge by cars and houses and we judge by occupation. If I drive a truck, I'm pretty stupid and I drink beer and watch crap TV. If I'm a lawyer or accountant, I drink fine wines, have a high IQ and watch arthouse movies. NOT!!!
I've met truck drivers who read poetry at truckstops and lawyers who like to unwind in front of Wipeout, either the US, UK or Australian versions. So don't buy into stereotypes, folks.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not down on work, per se. I'm not advocating some massive shift to a global slacker culture, but work has to be meaningful to people I think. People who are lucky enough to find that passion that drives their career path are lucky indeed. I think it was Confucius who said: "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life."
But how do we address a society shaped by the Industrial Revolution that demands consumerism, that demands goods and services to whiz around the globe? In turn, that demands that many people all around the world work in menial, low-paid jobs which offer only drudgery not personal satisfaction, tedium not advancement, inertia not aspiration. Think of the workers in foreign call centres, or all the Nike workers in Malaysia and Indonesia that made less money when all their incomes were combined than Michael Jordan got paid to advertise Nike Air Jordans. To me, this does not represent the dignity of labour.
So the next time you are at a party or some other social function, drinking your FairTrade espresso and nibbling on FairTrade chocolate (it gives you a warm glow, knowing your consumerism is not driving Third World workers into abject poverty), don't ask that man or woman that you are introduced to by the host or hostess: "So, what do you do?" Instead perhaps ask them: "Have you read any interesting books lately or seen any inspiring films?" or "What are your thoughts on Libya?" or even, "So, what is it that gets you out of bed in the morning?"