Working to Live
“Cut short is the branch that might have grown full straight”
Just being alive has become a lot of work. Whether it is being able to afford the basic necessities of survival like food and shelter or avoiding the deadly virus that is still burning through the global population, the practical reality of staying alive has become the product of constant effort. It is only through alertness, demands of near constant productivity and the sheer will required to weather the constant onslaught of awful, world-ending news, that we survive day to day. It is little wonder then, that ‘Burnout’ has become a contemporary buzzword adopted by cultural commentators today to describe this bone-deep weariness that has come to plague the people of the wealthier nations of the world. And it is not only the raw materials required to survive that create such oppressive toil but our leisure has become much the same. Thanks to the always-online culture that surrounds us we must now all be seen to be enjoying this profoundly exhausting existence. The Fear Of Missing Out means we must constantly provide immaculate, enviable audio visual evidence of our enjoyment every day or we are forgotten about and dismissed amongst a peer group. We must be seen to enjoy the hottest sun, the whitest beaches, the most epic landscapes, the best relationships, the coolest music, all while having the Correct Opinion on everything and being well informed enough to be appropriately outraged or jubilant about the current social trends. It’s a lot of work just being alive today.
Male suicide is at its highest rate in two decades in England and Wales according to a recent study by the Office of National Statistics. The current rate of 16.9% deaths by suicide per 100,000 — the highest since 2000 — is a shocking statistic, but even prior to the pandemic suicide was the number one cause of death for men under the age of 45 in the UK. Despite many excellent campaigns by organisations like the Samaritans, Heads Together and C.A.L.M. in the last few years and an increasing awareness and acceptance for people suffering with mental health illnesses, suicide is still a heartbreaking reality for far too many. Possible explanations for this troubling fact have been offered by various people and organisations, suggesting that traditional gender roles discourage emotional expression in men resulting in them not reaching out for help. This can also equate to depression going undiagnosed in men or, worse, being self-medicated in a variety of unhealthy ways. Resolving these issues and trying to unpick the norms that foment and cement the factors that contribute to this is a long and laborious process that is often dumped onto the individual that, unhelpfully, creates more pressure. Now, to combat this, we must all talk more, offer help more, pay closer attention to the way people act, provide care more and, consequently, staying alive is a lot of work…
Wage repression (sometimes erroneously called ‘Wage Stagnation’ to imply less agency on the part of employers) has been a driving force of the contemporary economic system since the 80s. The average minimum wage has not tracked with rate inflation for decades and has accumulated to a point where most jobs are now not considered ‘well paid’. With lesser wages comes the problem that this is the money that is used to purchase goods and services, so, without an appropriate wage, how do you pay for them as prices continue to rise? The solution for the last few decades has been debt. Over the last forty years private debt has tripled. The benefit of this is that saddling people who ‘work for a living’ with debt means costs are still covered in life and the financial sector and it keeps people stuck in their low paying job instead of being able to pay off their mortgage and enjoy their lives. The gap between wage and cost of living continues to grow today, to the point where the minimum wage has not covered those costs in many years (see link above). As a result most people must get more than one job simply to survive. More than 8% of workers in the US reported having more than one job, according to the US Census Bureau, all so that they could just afford to live. That’s a lot of work just to stay alive.
Suicide prevention campaigns in the UK today, in an effort to combat this noticeable rise in suicides, specifically target traditionally male dominated arenas such as pubs and football. The ‘In your Corner’ campaign produced beer mats with information about suicide prevention, while Royalty affiliated charity Heads Together teamed up with the FA to interview celebrity footballers about their own mental health for their ‘Heads Up’ campaign. Publicity like this is useful and promotes healthy discussion on the topic but ultimately, due to the spaces they inhabit, can reinforce those traditional gender roles that are more than likely creating the conditions for mental health issues in the first place. These campaigns do need to start somewhere, of course, but they have the effect of maintaining the status quo that created the problem rather than combatting it at its source. Unpicking centuries of damaging male representation and the narratives that surround ‘traditional masculinity’ (whatever that is) is the work of generations. The silent suffering of both men and women as a result of this is happening now, festering at the heart of culture and society, displayed in a myriad of ways, on TV, in film, in sport, in art, in videogames, in music, politics, almost everywhere. Because of that the effort to counteract it is such a mammoth task it seems almost insurmountable. In short: it’s a lot of work. It must be done, however. And to do this, along with all the other work discussed above, it suggests a feeling of existing solely as toil. Needless to say this is a deeply unhealthy social condition for all of us to live under, both physically and mentally. What is the solution to then? How do we work to better improve our health so that the choice ‘Not To Be’ is not seen as the most viable solution to the sea of troubles that opposes us? Speaking personally, I stepped away from all but one of the social media networks and have felt a vast improvement in how I feel day-to-day but, as much as social media is vilified, a ‘Digital Detox’ is not a catch-all solution. So what can we do? We could start by alleviating the penurious work that has been arbitrarily foisted on us.
Too many are the stories of men who have died by suicide with crippling debt against their name or only a few pence in their bank account. Disassembling the culture that casts men as the sole provider, with that role becoming the singular defining aspect of their personality, is the work of ages, but removing the financial pressures that can often prompt the event would help reduce that harrowing figure of suicides we see today. Providing safety nets that don’t leave people facing the void rather than the very real possibility of destitution that sits upon all our shoulders in a post-pandemic world should be seen as the ethical duty of society. Given the slow explosion of delayed trauma that awaits society in the wake of quarantine, infrastructure must be put in place now to alleviate the effects of the current financial crisis that isn’t even being felt yet but is only going to get worse. Providing adequate housing, mental and physical healthcare, healthy and affordable sustenance and debt relief are the bare minimum to assuage the various pressures that plague the majority of people in society already let alone whatever awaits us in the decade of climate crisis ahead. Far from being an expense, these are the essential (and affordable) elements of living in a modern civilisation to ensure, not just that people are able to stay alive, but that the life we work for is worth living when we take our rest. This has always been the ultimate goal of life, not merely to survive but to truly live. Today, existence has been commodified to represent only the productivity we can provide in our all too short lives and, whatever moments of joy we can derive from this one wild and precious life must now be quantified for the online experience economy. It is living well, not merely living, that is now, truly, a matter of life and death and it can be achieved. With a little less work.