What is your working life?
Are you living to work or working to live?
WE HAD A FELLOW ASK US the other day whether I was taking early retirement. How was it that he ‘had’ to go to work on Monday and I didn’t?
It flashed me back to similar conversations, the first up to half a lifetime ago in a Queensland pub, and to countless more with wwooffers, itinerants, backpackers, housetruckers and cruising yachties we’ve met.
At the base of it all is the choice every one of us makes, whether we do so consciously or not: do we live to work, or do we work to live?
My favourite jobs, which are mostly done in China now, were night-shift factory ones. Woollens, knitwear and paper sacks were the kind of products I helped turn out, and coincidentally also ones that still mostly tick my ‘is it sustainable?’ box today. The lifestyle gave me the daytime to do whatever I wanted: bodysurfing at Bondi, soaring at Stanwell Park, boatbuilding in the backyard.
I was working to live as my life goals needed funding, and shift work – particularly in a sweltering Australian summer – fitted perfectly.
I left those jobs to go on my next adventure, but almost always with enough goodwill that I could return. The paper sack factory even kept my locker, clock-card number, boots and overalls ready and waiting. One day I rang the boss from New Zealand, arranged to start on Monday and returned for a year. Jennie waitressed during the evenings and the funds paid off our first house and additions. We had a chart on our bedroom wall showing how much we’d put away and how close we were to our target; when we hit it, we quite literally hit the road.
Was that work intellectually challenging? Not at all, but it was socially interesting for all that, especially when everyone else is Aussie-born and you’re the only Kiwi. We’d go down to the pub at our 9pm ‘lunch time’ on paynight and sometimes stay too long. But it didn’t matter, as back at work the leading hand would clock our cards out at the prescribed time, and we’d rumble on into the wee small hours until we’d produced a reasonable output, remembering to remove all the beer cans before leaving.
Our workplace was jammed between Kelloggs, Johnson and Johnson and an oil refinery so you could tell the wind direction by aroma. A westerly brought cornflakes cooking; the nor’easter had the whiff of burnt sump-oil; talcumpowder suggested a south-easter.
There’s a song by folk band Regum which goes surprisingly close to describing both the work style and the era. That job funded my canoe voyage project, the building of my first live-aboard catamaran and later on our house.
When you ‘cut loose’ it goes with the territory that you are counting down, income-wise. One cruising book insightfully describes dollars as freedom chips, each one representing a bit more time you can spend away. For folk who live like that, frugality is not just a way of life, it becomes an art form where op shopping and opting not to shop are all part of it.
A long-ago conversation in the Queensland pub is one I’ll never forget. I can pinpoint the date, conveniently the day after Charles and Di tied the knot. A middle-aged fellow was perched on a stool at the next table asking the usual ‘where are you from, what are you doing’ questions, the usual opening stuff.
Then he asked what we were doing for money. We explained that we’d saved up $2400 and were expecting to last a year on it, but he clearly couldn’t get his head around the fact that we could survive on such a small nest-egg.
He then put forward the argument that we owed it to society to stay tapped-in, given that we were using stuff like plastic, stainless steel and the like, that society had produced. His logic was that if we chose to ‘take off’, we should do so without the benefits of technology and only use dugout canoes and flax sails.
We’d never been confronted with such an argument (although I’ve read similar anecdotes since) but we quickly replied that we were just buying what we needed. It just so happened what we needed was a lot less than other folk.
He wasn’t buying it, because he didn’t want to buy
it, because buying it would have meant that he could have cut loose too, something he told us he envied us doing but didn’t have whatever it took to do himself. He rapidly upped the grumpiness ratio and finally stormed out, slamming the door.
One of my favourite books is Half-safe by Ben Carlin (1955) where the writer touches on this phenomenon. He narrates the sojourn he and his wife made around the world in an amphibious vehicle during the 1950s, including the inevitable interactions with locals they passed. He divided them up into people who grasped the idea and those who didn’t.
The Carlins’ whole operation was done on a shoestring and it was a frayed one at that, hocking cameras for the next tank of petrol, borrowing spare wheels, sleeping in their vehicle, dining on bread and olive oil. It was as close to the bone as you could go.
Ben Carlin chose not to answer to those people and he was probably right. We all make our choices with the one life we have and we owe an explanation to exactly nobody. A bigger and harder-toanswer question comes when what we do (and what we consume) impacts others negatively. Carlin inspired many on his way and many assisted him, but it was a willing transaction. Perhaps they felt
that they were contributing to something special, or perhaps they felt they were buying a part of the dream without having to do the whole thing themselves.
In terms of actual work – long energysapping hours in cramped conditions performing unbelievable feats of engineering, improvisation, navigation and survival – Carlin did more than just about anyone I’ve ever heard of. Willingly. It just happened to be unpaid. I’ve read a lot of other endurance, adventure and survival-type books and they’re all chockfull of folk who aren’t being paid very much or who aren’t being paid at all.
These people have values which are different. The mainstream conversation in conventional society is all about money: how much you earn, how much your place is worth, what great deal or bargain you just got. Life becomes a game where money records your score, yet who do we revere most? A man who was first to conquer Everest or one who successfully played the stockmarket?
But my suspicion is the other reason people don’t cut loose (or dare to dare, in any form) is down to fear. Fear of losing income, fear of losing ‘security’, fear of the unknown. I’m not sure that’s valid because you can lose your income and your savings tomorrow, even if you stay clocked into the system. A bank going down the gurgler would treat you as an unsecured creditor. A company will jettison you like a shot rather than see red on their balance sheet. AIG may not be bailed out, next time. Your doctor may have bad news for you tomorrow. There is no guarantee.
Jennie and I could choose to sit in front of a computer for the next 10 years, earning money and betting that there will be a pension available at the end of it and that we’ll still be alive to spend it. Or we can spend some of those years – the healthiest we can possibly have left ahead of us – doing what we enjoy. Living.
It would seem to be a growing trend too. Last night we were invited to tea in a bus, the only abode of friends who have sold their block and hit the road while they still can. These are the Grey Nomads as they are called in Australia or Snowbirds (USA) and there are a lot of them about.
The instinctive desire for security seems to be bound up with ‘insurance’, trying to isolate ourselves from hardships up to – and maybe subconsciously including – death. I wonder too whether the drive to make profits in a consumer society has resulted in the general acceptance that you pay (work) now on the promise that if you live long enough, you can enjoy your retirement.
I can guess a few things about a fellow who has to go to work on Monday. I’m guessing he’s got a flat-screen TV, probably a big one. There’s likely to a big, late model SUV in the driveway, he’s just put in a new kitchen, and his house has more than one bathroom. There’s probably items on hire purchase, and of course a mortgage. Individually I may be wrong, but generally I think my assumptions will be correct.
“And the permanent chorus was: ‘W’at’s ‘e doin’ it for? Where’s ‘e get ‘is money from?”
Ben Carlin, Half-safe The mainstream conversation is all about money: how much you earn, how much your place is worth
Why it is that everyone accepts banks (and their charges) – it beats me. It may be better now, but there was a time when you could say that the average mortgageholder spent about half their working life paying off that mortgage. Now it works in reverse; without one, you should only have to work 50% of the time! Yet a mortgage is only a banker writing out some digits and anyone could do that. Better still, we could all agree to streamline the process, agree to a no-interest system, and get half our lives back in one move.
It may be that there is only a small percentage of us who feel the need to become nomads and maybe it has to be that way.
Working to live is still a valid way to go, even if you stay in one place. Avoid overconsumption, avoid debt and gain up to half a life, which doesn’t seem a bad deal to me. Careers? I’ve met two people who shared a highly-specialised job, six months on, six off: both felt that they were on holiday most of the time. Of course, they were likely busy on those off months too, just unpaid, but people like that are in the minority.
When the old factory decided to go to four 10-hour days (it’s a more efficient way of running machinery as there’s less starting and stopping) I was looking forward to three-day weekends forever. However, most of the workers voted to work Fridays as overtime.
On the warm evening breeze I detected a hint of burnt sump-oil; it was time to head off. ■
grey nomads or snowbirds live in their vehicles and there are a lot of them about
Ben Carlin with Half-safe.
MURRAY GRIMWOOD and partner Jennie Upton have a 24ha forest block north of Dunedin, but plan to sail the seas on their yacht Sagamo. Murray spends his time writing, lobbying, sailing and creating.