They May Take Our Hours, But They’ll Never Take Our Freedom

Better here than in a cubicle
Two oxen by Ana Cernivec

The prisoner wishes to say a word

Welcome to life in the twenty-first century, my fellow responsible adult, where you have to toil your way through hoping that, with the right mix of skills and fortune, you’ll earn enough pennies to afford the necessaries of life. Terrific, innit?

What’s that? You don’t like your job? Want some time for yourself? What for? Have you even considered that every second you waste on that life of yours is hurting the economy? Our economy! No, you wouldn’t dare. We’re all together on this so stop whining and get on with the plan.

That’s one of the favorite arguments of those utilizing you as a pawn to extract labor from. The rest—the sheep resigned to the grind—can’t even conceive what a good life is and will just abide. “That’s how it’s always been, what else can you do?”

What else? Well, you can start by facing reality and how you feel about it. I don’t pretend to announce my step-by-step escape plan in this short piece—I’m sure it wouldn’t apply to you anyway—but if it induces you to start sketching your own I shall be more than content.

And you, lucky bastard who already made a victorious exit, tag along and enjoy the well-deserved schadenfreude.

Bring me the numbers, Georgie

I recently read The Job, Ellen Ruppel Shell’s revealing, both depressing and inspiring, exploration of work. Ruppel Shell mentions that “fewer than half of all Americans claim to be satisfied with their jobs.” Shocking news these are not, but having seen similar figures in other places I looked for the source: Gallup, the analytics and advisory firm in Washington, D.C.

In 2000 Gallup started publishing an annual report on employee engagement. Focused on those with regular jobs, the wretches working for the Man, the reports provide extra ammo to the cause of quitting the never-ending rodent competition. I perused the data—fighting the angst and plowing through the light corporate jargon so that you don’t have to—and got some inspiration, all of it contrary to Gallup’s intentions, I suppose.

I began in 2011, a year when people in the U.S. and around the world were crawling back from the financial hole that a bunch of gray-haired, rich white men had created, as it’s usually the case in planetary-scale screwups. The report states that “seventy-one percent of American workers are not engaged (52%) or actively disengaged (19%) in their work” and “nearly one-third are engaged.”

That one-third, the engaged, is celebrated as a historical high matching 2001 and 2007. Should I pop the champagne now?

All right. Breathe, you can do this. Look, it’s sunny outside—no, it’s not.

But excuse me, we are not savages around here. Let’s start with the definitions the Gallup researchers were kind enough to provide. This is how they categorize the subjects of their studies, these human workers, according to how much they care about their jobs. All verbatim.

  • Engaged: Involved in and enthusiastic about their work and contributing to their organizations in a positive manner.
  • Not engaged: Generally satisfied but not cognitively and emotionally connected to their work and workplace.
  • Actively disengaged: Having miserable work experiences.

Actively disengaged, hmm… euphemism I detect. What they mean to say is that employees don’t give a flying rat’s ass about whatever they are working on.

That’s right after the 2008 debacle, Shirley, we know things were bad then.” Point taken, observant reader, let’s pick a better, more stable time in recent history. Let me check… sorry, couldn’t find any, let’s just do 2018.

This one starts with a bombastic title—”Employee Engagement on the Rise in the U.S.”—that will pump Greg in Human Resources up. “The percentage of engaged workers in the U.S. is now 34%.” Is that it? What’s the fuss about? What’s that, Greg? Yes, sure, that is… better?

Have some more, “the percentage who are actively disengaged is now at its lowest level, 13%.” Terrific. Just thirteen out of every one hundred individuals are miserable while chilling at the office.

These 2018 experts are on a roll and coronate their report proclaiming that “the remaining 53% of workers are in the not engaged category… they will usually show up to work and do the minimum required but will quickly leave their company for a slightly better offer.” Beautiful. May I get my ticket to Finland already?

And yes, 2018 in the pandemic era feels like thirty years ago so I’ll skip forward to 2020, the year when I started writing this article and everybody forgot Corona used to be a beer name. For 2020 the numbers-loving Gallup wonks took extra snapshots, the first report, in May, sounded hopeful stating that “the percentage of engaged workers in the U.S. reached 38%,” and adding that the actively disengaged—”those who have miserable work experiences and spread their unhappiness to their colleagues”—continued at a low of 13%, and the second report, in July, offered a more realistic picture of a convulsed America. “Following the killing of George Floyd in late May and subsequent protests and riots on top of a pandemic, unemployment, and attempts to re-open some businesses, 31% of the working population are engaged.”

The not engaged continue to be more than half of all workers. “These employees put time, but not energy or passion, into their work. Not engaged employees typically show up to work and contribute the minimum effort required.”

I’ve got to hand it to them, the Gallup gang know how to regurgitate but I’m only seeing multiple pictures of the same mill here and it’s evident that the numbers haven’t fluctuated wildly in the past two decades. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel, most dislike their jobs and we are all cannon fodder, so what’s new?

I’d like to distill the reports and try to salvage something, anything, from this mess, but first, a few words for the distinguished members of the ruling class.

And for my next act

And now, ladies and gentlemen, I’ll translate Gallupish to English for you.

Over the past several decades, business and psychological researchers—including Gallup—have identified a strong relationship between employees’ workplace engagement and their respective company’s overall performance.”

If the minions don’t care about what you make them do they won’t sweat and it will take you longer to pile up as much money.

The less engaged employees are with their work and their organization, the more likely they are to leave an organization.”

Buy them a ping pong table, invent something about culture, and make them think they can take all the vacation the want—they can’t, mwahahaha.

People new to an organization experience the highest engagement levels, on average—a ‘honeymoon effect’ of sorts.”

Exploit new employees as soon and as much as you can before they realize it’s a trap and quit, or until you break them and get them to do anything you command, and then, add pressure to taste.

Identifying and hiring top management talent can influence workers’ engagement and organizations’ business performance.”

Pay big bucks to one or more honchos with the words product or project in their titles, ideally experts in nothing, to breathe down everybody’s necks and squeeze more out of your workforce.

Highly educated and middle-aged employees are among the least likely to be engaged.”

Don’t hire anybody smart or with experience. They are difficult to tame and cost more.

Workers aged 30 to 64 are less likely to be engaged at work than are those who are younger or older. Workers aged 65 and older are the most likely to be engaged in their jobs.”

Find complacent servants among the young and naive as well as the old who have run out of options.

And that’s that. You’ve been doing this for centuries, so, enjoy it while it lasts.

Significant potential performance consequences

Back to you, disgusting human worker.

I believe Gallup’s reports are vacuous research not only because they recite what you already know—everybody hates their jobs—and concoct a reality that isn’t there–employers care about employees—but because they are just ads targeted to companies that need to make “engagement central to their business strategy.” It’s not about Milton and Nina being interested and fulfilled; the goal is to crush everybody under maximum control. Those suits and watches and cars are not going to pay for themselves so Gallup will help big cheese to wring profit out of low-cost, disposable, loyal grunts while keeping the illusion that they are part of a team.

Another report, this one covering the 2008-2010 period, goes on for forty-eight pages with just one mention of the word happy and fifteen of satisfied (“I got enough to procure food and secure shelter, thank you very much, sire”). Page after page the mantra is obvious: quell the proletariat spirit.

The self-employed are never mentioned in any of the reports I read, flying solo is tough and that’s a conversation for another day, but one worries, apparently in a bad year for capitalism, that the “unprecedented drop in the percentage of engaged workers has significant potential performance consequences.”

Allow me to repeat those words to you.




If they don’t send a shiver down your spine then you are reading the wrong author.

What gives?

Should be clear by now that I’m sure most reasonable individuals don’t like to labor for others. If you think I’m wrong about that then this is where we part ways; so long and enjoy your retro meeting at four.

Still here? Good. Let’s go on.

On top of the repetitive and senseless nature of the tasks that you are required to perform, you are forced to act in a certain way. No freedom to make decisions, just fit and pretend excitement about the present and future of the company. Every. Single. Day. And you better wear the swag, motherfucker, we’re watching.

It’s a system designed by and for those with money and power to diminish the use of intelligence and critical thinking, which is why the victims are the naive, the young, the uneducated, the older ones, the chronically poor; that is, anybody without an alternative. Quite a chunk of the planet’s population. And the status quo will remain while so many, from teachers and family members to pundits and babbling preachers, repeat the same old lies to the masses: that drudging is necessary and life is sacrifice.

Unless you are contributing to cure cancer, rescue polar bears, figure out cold fusion, or the like, I can’t believe you enjoy submission as an employee in return for financial compensation. You are just throwing away your precious buckets of life and confirming that something we all are good at is inventing excuses for our bad choices and unavoidable circumstances. Chances are that you are just pushing paper or crunching numbers for some vain purpose; even worse, you may be one of those in the middle—a manager.

What’s that, Georgie? What about the disengaged? Bravo for them, I say! Not giving a damn about stupid jobs should be expected conscious behavior, especially if you wish and are determined to have a better life.

The bright side

Our obsessive focus on wealth has stopped us from realizing what valuable work should be: a healthy way of learning, building character, helping others, feeling useful, and having a good time. Earning a decent living is simply a welcome consequence.

Work, real work, is freedom. The jobs Gallup, mom and the telly want to shove down your throat are not.

Ruppel Shell’s Job ends with a pinch of optimism that I’d like to replicate.

We all need to take whatever comes our way to survive and this nobody’s two thousand words aren’t going to change how the world operates overnight but I hope a spark is born. Rediscovering freedom in work is possible and starts with you. Yes, it takes wits, time and money, but possible it is.

Think, read, and educate yourself; reduce your dependency on a system that doesn’t care about you, avoid debt, and the trap of consumerism; get used to saying no to those who treat you as a tool, a resource to employ and discard. Be willing to liberate yourself from the yoke and wallow in freedom.

We all end up dead, it’s just a question of how and why.

I know. Movies. I’ll show myself out.

Published in life and work

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