get to work: to love and work and oh yeah, to be quiet

That’s not the way we measure adulthood nowadays. The idea of fashionable idleness is completely discredited — everyone works at something, even if it’s just finding work. The out-of-work probably work harder than anyone…”


by kristina eldredge


Freud famously declared the measurement of an emotionally healthy person is the ability to love and to work, which leaves the single unemployed person in a bit of a psychic car wreck. Isn’t it time to change the definition of adulthood, to possibly lower the standard a bit? How about just being someone who has never scrawled the name of a state senator in capital letters on an Anthrax-laced envelope, carefully implicating, in the return address, some innocent Midwestern 4th grade class? Surely the quiet non-offender, unemployed and childless though s/he may be, is more valuable now than the upstanding citizen Freud had in mind. Smaller acts indicating maturity should suffice. It is a simple matter to refrain from planting bombs in your sneakers – just say “No” to the impulse as it dances in front of you while you’re packing for your overseas trip. Poof – you’re an adult!

But that’s not the way we measure adulthood nowadays. The idea of fashionable idleness is completely discredited — everyone works at something, even if it’s just finding work. The out-of-work probably work harder than anyone. We tirelessly rack up versions of ourselves in multiple resumes on our computers. We frantically scroll through job listing sites on the Internet, mentally flinging ourselves at every job with a key word matching our inner sense of ourselves. We hardly notice the names of the companies who are advertising before we’re writing our smoothly self-promoting cover letters and shoving appropriately doctored resumes into matching manila envelopes. There’s not a second to spare in the non-stop industry of self-promotion.

Unfortunately, there’s not an ounce of self-esteem or individuality in it, either. It’s like trying to conform to about thirty different anonymous crowds before the sun goes down. How did life get like this? Why are we all so driven, so humorless? When did we become the desperate, grasping idiots Mad magazine used to make fun of in the 1960s, the ones clutching their goofy hats while their belts circled undernourished waistlines as they ran for their commuter trains? When did that frenzy for paid occupation subtly become our life instead of the source of a good laugh? To quote Henry David Thoreau: “It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.”

Such nonchalance just doesn’t play nowadays. Look at Aaron Sorkin – smoking crack, yes, but doing it to keep his writing buzz going while he produced episode after episode of his hit show West Wing. Such workaholism raised eyebrows but shocked no one. Gone is the drawling aesthete on the couch, mocking the straphanging hordes. It’s not working, these days, that has no style. A recent representative of the layabout in pop culture is Tony Soprano’s sister Janice, who appeared in the second season, on disability relief for carpal tunnel syndrome. But Tony’s grimace told us it was always something, and his wife Carmela said of Janice to her Draconian mother: “She has no work ethic. Whose fault is that?” Janice was pleasantly spacey, with a chubby flower-child glow and a self-accepting way of smoking a cigarette, when she arrived from the West coast. But she was no one’s idea of a style-setter. It’s Meadow Soprano, the sulky, relentlessly goal-oriented oldest Soprano child, who actually strikes the hipper chord. She represents the gracefully driven ego-ideal of young people everywhere now.

Not working didn’t always have the chill aura it has today. Thoreau, who enjoyed a renaissance in the 1960s, ridiculed the idea of hardworking grinds, right back to ancient times: “As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to drown in the Nile….” But Thoreau isn’t mentioned much these day, and the slogan he could have invented – “Tune in, turn on, and drop out” – has no cachet. No one wants to drop out. Everyone wants a way in, a foot in the door, a call from the big guys.

In the current Puritanical atmosphere, it is very hard to be out of work. As difficult as the loss of income is the loss of contact, and the feeling that you have nothing of value to offer. Erik Erikson, the great psychologist and observer of the life cycle, remarked that “adult man is so constituted as to need to be needed lest he suffer the mental deformation of self-absorption, in which he becomes his own infant and pet.” This is an apt description of the cycle downward that occurs when you aren’t working: the accumulating feelings of worthlessness lead to the reading of trite self-help books, with chapter headings advocating tactics like: “Change your personality style!” While you ponder your defects, the world rumbles away outside your window.

While Thoreau might have disagreed with him, Erikson is roundly supported by the self-help rhetoric of today. “If you don’t get a regular job and pay your bills, you are stopping yourself from achieving your dreamed-of greatness,” Barbara Sher writes in a book about how to get the job you really want called I Could Be Anything If I Just Knew What It Was. She’s right! Erikson’s right! What if the economy is such, though, that you can’t get that ‘ordinary’ job? Then your ‘dreamed-of greatness’ is just a sick memory as you struggle to be accepted as someone who can understand HTML.

Whether unemployment is the result of a bold, anachronistic refusal to participate or something more insidious that constitutes an inability to participate, non-working people have been insufficiently rewarded for their acts of omission, rather than commission. Guaranteed, they have been too anxious or apathetic to plan elaborate terror schemes. Search among them – I promise you you won’t find one who decided to infect Tom Brokaw’s personal assistant with a chemical weapon. None of them have “stormed the cockpit” with axes either – I bet they don’t even own axes. The point is they are “committing” the grand act of not hurting other people, and if that includes an overall idleness, does it make it any less valuable? Who, lately, has looked focused and driven? Mohammed Atta and his crew. Who, perhaps, should be compensated for being unfocused and confused? Yes. The idle. The unemployed. The quietly adult.


Originally published:
Issue Twenty
June 2002



Comments are closed.