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There's more to work than De Botton suggests

By Malcolm King - posted Friday, 17 April 2009


One of the problems with reading The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain De Botton is that like Chinese food, it’s fun to eat but you’re hungry half an hour later.

De Botton can be engaging and he writes with humour, but there’s little about the lived experience of work: the drama, passion, hates, successes, failures, rivalries, boredom, fears or insecurities - for this is the stuff of work.

Story one: At 22 I was on an English seismic crew and was responsible for setting and firing the explosive charges in southwest Queensland and in Broome in West Australia. It was hot, dusty work, living in tents. I loved every minute of it.

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But this doesn’t tell you much about the nature of work. That’s because I have placed myself, like De Botton, in the centre of the story. It’s a tactical mistake when you claim to be writing an exposé because the narrative calls for objective criticism. Yet so often De Botton’s narrative reflections appear just that: reflections and opinions.

Story two: At 26 I worked for James Hardie in Sydney. I made underground cement telecom junction boxes. They were a mixture of cement and mica. The guy I replaced was dying in hospital with asbestosis. They had used asbestos in the machine I was operating before they switched to mica.

When I started I was called “poof-ta” by the predominantly Maori workers on the night shift. I had an arts degree and came from Adelaide. It was a reasonable assumption. The only way to win them over was to get as pissed as them at the end of the Friday night shift and show them my interpretation of the Haka.

They were in awe. They didn’t know whether to laugh or punch my face in. Mercifully they had a sense of humour and I was adopted as a “non-poof-ta”. That too was work.

The mica mixer was a non-demanding machine. It left me plenty of time to read books. I remember one summer crawling up through a manhole in the roof, up to one of the light towers, 100 feet above the factory. It had a spectacular view of the Parramatta River and Sydney.

Over the next three months I read the collected works of David Ireland up there amongst the moths and it changed my life.

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I’ve placed myself in the middle of the story again and this time I’ve given it some working class élan. Yet nowhere does De Botton talk about ethnicity, class, camaraderie, unions, strikes, work safety or ridiculous management decisions.

Story three: 20 years later I was the program director at RMIT for the creative writing courses. I had come from journalism and communications. I built and staffed a new Masters of Creative Writing program and 20 new short courses. Over a seven-year period we tripled our income and hired new staff. But I was a manager too and I made plenty of mistakes.

Although we were a humanities school, a mathematician was appointed as the head of school. It was like appointing an accountant to do brain surgery but it was hardly his fault. He came with plus, minus, subtract and divide when the school needed vision. Twenty per cent of the staff were sacked or left.

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About the Author

Malcolm King works in generational workforce change. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University. He also runs a professional writing business called Republic.

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