Signs of Life in Making a Living?
by Randall Amster
I’ve noticed a subtle shift in recent years that seems relatively minor but is perhaps quite revealing of larger trends. People rarely seem to ask the question anymore, “what do you do for a living?” Instead, it’s usually expressed in more transactional terms as, “where do you work?” or “what’s your job?” By itself this appears insignificant, except that when coupled with more macroscopic shifts in the nature of employment across a wide range of fields, it says something about the erstwhile notion of “making a living.” Indeed, with increasing routinization and the advent of 24/7 technology, work is becoming less about our living (as in, someone pursuing their “life’s work”) and more about trying not to let it kill us.
With all of the post-election analysis about the issues of the “working class” as a determinative factor, we now find ourselves in a liminal space between the reality of economic dislocation and the fantasy of redemption. How much disbelief needs to be suspended in order to buy the notion that (a) outmoded industrial jobs will literally be coming back, and that (b) a billionaire real estate magnate is the one to do it? The burgeoning Cabinet picks and associated rhetoric should be all working people need to read the tea leaves. As such, we are steadily traversing the fine line from fake populism to genuine dystopianism.
With all of this afoot, the gap between reality and fiction gets fuzzier by the day, making it easy to understand the appeal of post-apocalyptic narratives in literature, television, and film. Recent years have seen an upsurge in the genre, and likewise an escalation of real-time events that seemingly chart a parallel course. From perpetual war and climate destabilization to fears of viral outbreaks and all-too-frequent public shootings, we can readily discern an arc of demise culled from the daily news cycle.
In this light, stories that show people coping with the end of days are likely to resonate — all the more so when they depict humankind in its full range of complexity, from selfishness and brutality to selflessness and solidarity. On some level even relatively comfortable office workers and the like can relate to the dualistic sense of dog-eat-dog and shared struggle that typifies many workplace environments. After hours spent snarled in commuter gridlock or milling upon crowded yet lonely city streets, it’s not surprising that people can find a chord of familiarity with the ascending zeitgeist of the “zombie apocalypse.”
But the appeal of such narratives potentially goes even deeper than mere resonance as a function of identification. Despite the grim and gory nature of most post-apocalyptic tales, there’s another level on which they serve to cultivate a kind of fantastic projection to a life with actual meaning — even if that meaning is bound up with the specter of nonexistence. Juxtaposed with the drudgery and irrelevance of much that composes modern life, the very thought of a significant rupture/rapture might almost bring a sense of relief, both in terms of anticipation finally fulfilled and a long-awaited break from the slow disaster in which we find ourselves. The apocalypse isn’t just an off day; it’s also a much-needed day off.
No wonder workers in the U.S. in particular are palliated and titillated by such fantastic depictions. Recent decades, roughly coinciding with the advent of the digital age, have seen American workers putting in longer hours for diminishing wages and with less job security (if their jobs even still exist at all). Demands on peoples’ time have concomitantly increased, as one often comes home not to “down time” but to the pile-up of emails and other perpetual forms of workflow that require our constant attention. The “smart” devices that pervade the landscape today, bound up as they are with diversions and various forms of infotainment, also increasingly bind people across an array of professions to being “on call” whenever and wherever they are. The colonization of our lives is not merely due to technology, but more so a byproduct of our work. This is what it takes to stay current in a time of breakneck change.
Beyond the number-crunching realities of “too much to do and too little time” lay even deeper forms of insecurity. Many jobs are “at will” or contractually term-limited, with either truncated or nonexistent benefits and little or no retirement packages included. Experiences of burnout, stress, anxiety, depression, exhaustion, and a host of more tangible physical manifestations are common complaints. People are regularly asked to take up more tasks as workforces are downsized, lost positions are never backfilled, available resources in the workplace are retrenched, and perks are eliminated. And these are the relatively lucky workers, at least remaining employed in an uncertain time when many are not.
At the same time that wages are frozen and jobs are insecure, many people accrue massive debts in order to keep themselves and their families afloat. We already know about the foreclosure crisis of recent years, and more attention has been paid of late to mounting student loan debt and its impact on the capacity of present and future generations to ever attain even modest goals like solvency let alone security. It’s a hard bargain to accept when our assets are ephemeral but our debts can last forever. Even death doesn’t free us from the clutches of creditors — although presumably it relieves us of the obligation to answer emails, generate reports, update our statuses, and keep our résumés current. One can surmise that coping with nights of the living dead might seem preferable to endless deadening days.
Against such a backdrop it’s no wonder that people sometimes break, and almost surprising that more of us don’t. And it’s also no wonder that escapist tales of the “grid going down” and the “end of days” being ushered in can provide a release from the doldrums and vicissitudes of everyday work and life. One can also see in many of these end-time narratives a strand of egalitarianism creeping in, as the ostensible disasters strike elites and common-folk alike (often with the latter struggling against the remaining vestiges of the former) and as people are placed on a par without regard to their station or function in the days before the grand demise. The cataclysm can promote a sense of common humanity.
Interestingly, real-life experiences of natural and human-made disaster often elicit demonstrable forms of solidarity and cooperation. When the demands of a generally dehumanizing mode of daily life recede, people can at times reclaim a deeper sense of their humanity even under very challenging conditions. This empirical realization, coupled with its speculative fictional counterpart, suggests not that people want time off to do nothing or for mere diversions, but more so that people in fact want to be able to work toward something purposeful, exciting, and authentic in their lives. Indeed, the notion of waking up one day to find oneself surrounded by the “undead” may be just what people have been longing for.
In the meantime, we still need to meet each day prepared to engage the world as we find it, even as we might imagine what it could be like if a moment of deus ex machina were suddenly to intervene. On the other hand, if we could reorient our perspective just a bit, we might also awaken to discover that it need not take an acute disaster to rekindle our shared humanity and stoke the widespread desire to be part of something larger than ourselves. The slow and steady catastrophe, the one we’re continually being habituated to accept, is as outlandish as any contrived post-apocalyptic plot device. Perhaps if more people felt called upon as heroes and protectors in the spirit of mutual survival now rather than in some dramatized future, we just might find more of our best without experiencing so much of the worst.
As we navigate the season of outlandish consumption and sociopolitical hangovers, it behooves us to consider what exactly it means to do “work” in this world. If it’s simply a matter of giving our labor over to another in exchange for the means to acquire funds to be spent back to the bosses in the first place, then we haven’t really wandered too far outside of the “company town” after all. If it’s about holding onto some version of a “great” past that primarily pitted segments of workers against one another, then we’re only going to see more of those antipathies serve to divide and conquer us based on invidious distinctions. On the other hand, if it’s about being part of something beyond ourselves and working in concert with others to produce meaningful things in the process, then we have myriad constructive opportunities to accomplish this. As the genre counsels, we either struggle together and survive, or go in fear and finally perish one by one. Our work is to resist dead-end demagoguery and reclaim our living.
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is Director of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University, and is the author of books including Peace Ecology.