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UvA sociologist: everyone is exhausted and that is because of our work

Irene Schoenmacker,
7 oktober 2021 - 15:08

Everyone is tired, no one has time. And that's because of our work. At least, that's what UvA sociologist Marguerite van den Berg argues in her book ‘Work is Not a Solution’, published Friday. ‘Capitalism drains us.’

When did we all come to think that it was normal for us to work so much and so hard, Van den Berg wonders in her book, and that we have less and less free time? Her friends - our friends - seem to be exhausted en masse. Why do we put up with this, anyway? Why don't we all strike?


The immediate reason for writing the book was the pandemic, Van den Berg says on the phone. ‘During the lockdowns, an enormous amount was asked of working people, including myself. Teaching had to continue in the same way, was the university's instruction. But that's not possible at all, I thought. I also had to suddenly teach my children, which meant cutting my workdays in half. I felt like this was yet another time I was being asked to put my work central in my life.’


It wasn't just her own troubles that concerned Van den Berg. ‘I saw that in a broader context, too, the discussion about work was brought into focus by the pandemic. Of course, I was not the only one in a difficult situation. Others were hit harder, lost their jobs or were even at risk while doing their jobs.’


In her book, Van den Berg aims to dispel certain myths about how we think about work. We have all started working more and more, she says, but at the same time insecurity has increased. Permanent contracts are no longer given just like that. Moreover, we are always available, even when we are not at work. The line between work and private life has become increasingly blurred. And that work emancipates doesn't believe Van den Berg either: it only makes us dependent on the market and obliges us to compete until we are completely worn out.


We are being exploited, you state in your book. What do you mean by that?

‘I use Karl Marx's definition of the exploitation of the working class by the capitalist system. He argues that we only need to work a small part of the day to live, to buy food, clothing and shelter, for example. Yet we work longer than those few hours. Those are the hours the boss takes off you, because that's just how a company or an organization in a capitalist system makes profit. Amazon-boss Jeff Bezos said it out loud when he fired his rocket into space last summer and thanked his employees, ‘You guys paid for this.’’

‘There was once a calculation that in the future we would only have to work 15 hours a week. It's time to claim that, I'd say’

So what about self-development? Work has positive aspects too, it seems to me.

‘No, self-development should be seen more separately from paid work. After all, in the workplace there is a hierarchical power structure: the boss decides what tasks you will do. You are not free to choose. You only have that freedom outside of work. Several times throughout history there have been promises that technological innovations would cause working hours to decrease, and increase leisure time of people. For example, when the assembly line was invented, or with the rise of artificial intelligence. These predictions never came true. Capitalism draws us as empty as we allow it to. There was once a calculation that in the future we would only have to work 15 hours a week. It's time to claim that, I'd say. Then we can develop ourselves, take care of each other, and do the things we love to do in the hours the boss takes from us now.’


Aren't we better off nowadays than we used to be, during, say, the Industrial Revolution, where ten- to sixteen-hour workdays were quite normal?

‘Karl Marx wrote his book on exploitation around this time for a reason, when he saw the terrible conditions in the factories. We fought, successfully, for a lot of things. Mind you, we did not get this from the boss, but we genuinely fought for it. Through the unions and by striking, working hours were capped. But in the last thirty, forty years things have started to shift again. What is specific about this period is that you do have to work. It hasn't always been that way; two generations ago it was more common for people to have a vegetable garden or to do things for each other outside of the market. Therefore back then we weren't completely dependent on wage labor. Moreover, life nowadays has become much more expensive. Just look at the housing prices. It takes a hefty salary to make a living. We simply have to work, people say, but I wonder if there aren't alternatives that we can be less dependent on income and the market. Those ideas I explore in my book.’


Yet not every job is the same. Paving streets on your knees is a little different than doing research on a subject that interests you at the university.

‘No, and there is certainly that distinction. But there are more similarities than people think. Work where self-development is possible is often work that people are passionate about. They therefore justify a lot of injustice because they feel they are so privileged to be able to do the work. In my opinion, that’s also exploitation. Of course there are differences, but there is also a lot of shared experiences between workers. It is precisely this solidarity that I want to emphasize in my book.’


The Netherlands is known as being the champion in parttime work. Haven't we actually got it all sorted out here?

‘I don't agree with that. I note that here in the Netherlands too we are tired and have too little spare time. And it’s good to consider that most people who work part-time do not actually work part-time. They do all sorts of things besides their job: caring for a child or a loved one, voluntary work at the sports club. The only difference is that it isn’t paid. But why should we not count that as work? It's all about how you define work.’

‘It is important that we at the university take our students and their concerns seriously, and not dismiss them as the spoiled avocado generation’

How do you look at the future of students in terms of work?

‘I find that the students I teach have many concerns. Very valid concerns, because they have much more uncertainty than a few generations back. They probably have to change jobs often in the future, won’t get a permanent contract right away, and have to earn a hefty sum of money to pay for a house. Students who have to make do with their own income quickly find themselves in a tight spot. If you can fall back on assets in the family, it's a different story. Students have many uncertainties about the future. It is clear that in the current economic system and in how we treat the earth, there are great threats. It is important that we at the university take our students and their concerns seriously, and not dismiss them as the spoiled avocado generation.’


How can we prevent being worn out? Should we all start doing yoga and mindfulness even more massively?

‘I have nothing against that in principle, except that it is often prescribed for burnouts and it makes the individual responsible for its own success, while it is the employer who is ignoring boundaries. You could start by not giving so much free time to your boss, especially if you have a permanent contract. Talk to colleagues and be supportive, draw clear boundaries. Not only within your field, but also outside of it. Be firm and say, the exploitation has to stop here. Go strike, that’s the perfect example of showing boundaries. In our current economy, it has become difficult to clearly distinguish what is and is not work. Reading a book about your field on the weekend, for example, is that work? Striking draws a very clear line, it is the clearest form of non-work there is. Another think you can do is try and withdraw from the market. For example, arrange childcare with a larger group of people. That also has its own challenges, of course, but has the great advantage that there is no hierarchical relationship: you share the burden and responsibility in a much more equal way than the market would.’


Sociologist Marguerite van den Berg's book ‘Work is Not a Solution’ will be published Friday, October 8th by Amsterdam University Press