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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars You Figure it Out, 25 Mar. 2009
This review is from: Work (The Art of Living) (Paperback)
'Work' is an unusual book because Svendsen is not concerned with work as an economic process, but with its meaning. This unfamiliar approach ensures your engagement.

Work for Svendsen is broadly defined; it is activity that changes the external world, and can bring `about internal goods such as fun and personal development.' All physical activity is work, regardless of whether it is for employment or value creation. Svendsen's first order concerns are not economic or social they are existential.

Svendsen, as a philosopher, takes the ideas of the two towering figures of Western philosophy, Plato and Aristotle as his point of departure. Their writings are examined to reveal their views towards work. That living in a slave holding society they regarded work as a curse should come as no surprise. This view is then traced through to the Middle Ages when it gave way to the Protestant work ethic and individualism.

The Sisyphus myth allows Svendsen the opportunity to tackle alienation, the division of labour and modern workplace flexibility. He finds it difficult to understand Camus's closing statement that: `One must imagine Sisyphus happy.' Like Camus's work, the proposition is a tricky one, but Sisyphus still has time for an inner life. The work may be futile, but each time his rock rolls down the hill he is freed. His mind can take him wherever he wishes it to. For Svendsen however, one's imagination must connect with one's work.

Svendsen's description of his time as a cleaner learning the `craftsmanship' involved in cleaning kitchen equipment brings us closer to finding the meaning of work today. Svendsen describes his satisfaction with learning the elements over time and of doing a job right.

Svendsen next considers the distribution of work. That unpleasant, but necessary, tasks have to be undertaken was dealt with by slavery for the Greeks; socialists later looked to machinery. Slavery is abhorrent, but that machines should liberate us from unpleasant work is unthinkable. People must therefore undertake unpleasant work. Plato proposed a division of labour in which each did the job that most suited their talents: a meritocracy. This poses its own dilemma: how is merit to be assessed? Should talent be regarded above hard work? Svendsen decides we cannot tell and instead proposes that ends are more important, regarding them as safeguards of efficiency.

The right to work as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is also problematic, as it can interfere with economic efficiency. Svendsen tells the story of an economist who sees men in Mao's China building a dam using shovels and asks why they aren't using excavators. He is told they would lose their jobs if they used machines. His response is that if you want to create jobs "give them spoons."

In Chapter 6: `Getting Paid', it is argued that revolutionary antagonisms have given way to demands for higher wages and the rise of consumerism fuelled by the improved wages. To get to this point Svendsen must first destroy the myth of overwork by showing how working hours have reduced in the last 200 years. We are "part-timers" in comparison with our forebears. The fact that genuine part time work is not much taken up is proof that we do not really want less work. That work is good for us is reinforced by the increased rates of ill health found among the unemployed.

Leisure is admitted, but boredom is the enemy, quoting Bertrand Russell he tells us "the dullest work is... less painful than idleness." Respite is acceptable and doing absolutely nothing is recommended over filling our `vacations' with activities

Turning to management Svendsen's quick trip from F W Taylor to management `literature' provides one of the most enjoyable chapters of the book. The quasi-religious nature of the genre is exposed, as is its obsession with avoiding plain language. Managers are no longer managers they are `leaders': belief in the brand is given spiritual status, and the new holy trinity is: human resources, corporate culture and branding. Meaning is not to be found in the management experience. His advice is: pretend to listen, maybe get a sensible word in and wait for the next fad.

Returning to meaning he argues that consumerism, not work, is the essential ingredient for the formation of identity. In the age of affluence, prices have decreased and wages increased. Gratification can be immediate but it will never be lasting; you will always be spurred on to buy a better product. This is also the answer to poor low paid work, as the need to keep up motivates workers to find better jobs. There is however a downside to this, satisfaction is never found and this disappointment spills over into the work itself. The failure of our jobs to satisfy, it is argued, causes us to shop for new ones.

That work may disappear for some as a result of industrial restructuring is denied. Svendsen tells us about his hometown where factories and mills have given way to shopping malls. That capital displaces and replaces labour in the productive process is dismissed; Karl Marx and Jeremy Rifkin got it wrong

The relationship between life and work is the subject of the concluding chapter. Retirement is viewed as embodying a high risk of boredom. Commitment, but not total commitment, to work is the answer: `A job is not life.' We must see it as part of a multifaceted life and avoid being a zero drag employee, without external commitments, able to put the needs of the company before our own. Even the most attractive job can fail to satisfy totally, particularly if we, invest too much of ourself in it. This can in turn manifests itself in the axiomatic cycle of looking for new jobs, turning us into career nomads. Work then should be something we commit to, but without too much expectation. If we allow ourselves this space we can figure out the meaning of work. 'Work' will certainly get you thinking about it afresh.
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Initial post: 14 Oct 2009 00:55:30 BDT
Lark says:
This is reviewing par excellence, very appreciated, thanks very much.
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