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.

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