Nice Work If You Can Get It

A new book is “in the works” with the title Not Working — due to be published later this year. The author, freelance writer D W Gibson, was asked by his editor to “collect the stories of the unemployed” in these times of economic recession (Brother, Can You Spare a Line? New York Times, Dec. 4, 2011). So Gibson spent the summer of 2011 traveling the countryside in the United States to meet and interview people about not working. He regards his upcoming book as a sort of mirror image of Studs Turkel’s Working, which was a collection of narratives of people’s work. Gibson has sought people’s narratives of not working.

On his travels, Gibson interviewed individuals who had lost their jobs sometime since 2007. His interviews in many ways resembled the classroom exercises we sometimes use with occupational therapy students — especially when we are trying to get to the heart of the meanings and the essences of occupational concepts. Gibson asked interviewees for the “particulars of the experience” of being laid off, e.g., the nature of the phone call when it came; the security escort; the padlock one morning on the door to the office building; the drive home. He also asked each interviewee for his or her definition of the word “work.” And, as one might expect, no two people’s definitions were the same — ranging from “it’s a paycheck” to “it’s to feel self-worth” to “producing something that’s of benefit to someone else.”

Another writer, Crawford, in his book about the value of work, writes about the distress he felt when job hunting in the months between obtaining his Master of Arts degree and finally finding a job. He described his experience of not working as imbued with a “rising sense of worthlessness” (Crawford, M.B., Shop Class as Soulcraft, London, Penguin Press, 2009) and an almost unreal feeling of “isolation” and “indeterminacy.” And then the relief of re-connection that followed: “When I got the phone call offering me the job, I felt I had grabbed hold of the passing world . . . and reeled myself into its current.” On his first day on the job, even the potential numbing effect of being shown to one of a long line of cubicles was viewed positively as compared to his period of not working. “They had made a place for me. It seemed more than spacious enough, It was my desk . . . The regularity of the cubicles made me feel I had found a place in the order of things.”

As Crawford says, our work thus situates us “in a particular community.” Work provides us with a place in the world (“They had made a place for me”) and a sense of being part of the current of life.

So what happens for the person who does not have work? How is joblessness experienced? In this time of economic distress in so many parts of the world, when so many countries are in recession, when unemployment rates are so high, perhaps it behooves us to attend more to the everyday occupation of not working. Perhaps we can come to understand better what work means if we look more closely at what not working means. I wish that Gibson, in his study of not working in the United States, had done just that. Instead of asking the people he interviewed to give him their definitions of work, I wish that he had asked them to define not working. In addition to his probing questions about the experience of being laid off, I wish he had gathered narratives about the daily experience of not working. Because, right now, not working is a life situation being experienced by some five and a half million people in the U.S. alone, and many millions more throughout the world.

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