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Hate Your Job But Love Your Leisure?

Man surfing, woman hiking by lake, old man playing violin
Photos by Kanenori, Olichel, and Zhivko on Pixabay

If you do, it's what philosophers call the compensation argument.

It's the argument that putting up with bad working conditions—where your job is unfulfilling or possibly even degrading—is ok, if it enables you to do the things you want to do in your free time.

I think that many of us would count ourselves lucky to be in such a situation. If you truly enjoy doing something in your off-time, then arguably that kind of fulfillment is what really counts . . . it's what makes for a mostly flourishing life.

Or does it?

There are some good reasons why we should, at the very least, be wary of a compensatory relationship with our work. Let's look at two of them.

Bad Working Conditions = Exploitation

There is a fine line between doing good, and doing good for others at one's own expense. Thinking about virtues helps to see why.

Imagine practicing the virtues of courage, tolerance, and single-mindedness when identifying obstacles along one's journey and then striving to overcome them. Nothing more heroic for the average Joe or Jane, right?

The problem is that virtues and virtuous people can be easily taken advantage of. Typically, virtues allow one to focus on oneself and one's capabilities. But they don't necessarily involve a wider, critical view of one's surroundings and institutions. And so, you can get a virtuous person who is essentially demonstrating admirable qualities, yet in an entirely questionable if not unscrupulous setting.

Think of the gladiator from ancient times.

Gladiator helmet in sand
Photo by Aeduard on Pixabay

Brave, adept, cunning, and resilient . . . yet all within the institutions of organized violence and chattel slavery. Hmm . . . not so great after all.

Is the modern worker who maintains a "stiff upper lip" and goes about their business for the betterment of the company a modern gladiator? Perhaps.

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) would most likely characterize a worker in this situation as a victim. This is because we tend to have corporate aims and values forced upon us in order to maintain employment. Where things get a bit unscrupulous is when those with power over our jobs convince us that exercising our virtuous capacities is good for us as well.

If my working conditions are contributing or even causing me poor physical and mental health, it hardly seems reasonable to say that being courageous and carrying on with my work is good for me. Bourdieu used the term habitus to describe this situation. It's where (I paraphrase):

Those in power tell us or coerce us in some way to believe that the actions and behaviors we take for the good of an organization, an institution, or even a society actually harm or disadvantage us.

It's important to note there are different forms of coercion.

  • There is ideological coercion, where we buy into the system and adopt the practices and beliefs which keep that system running.

  • There is economic coercion, where we buy into the system because we need a wage to support ourselves and our family.

  • Finally, there is physical or existential coercion, where our biological survival depends on buying into the system—as is the case with the slave/gladiator.

Of course, there can be a mixture of the three in any given situation, at any given time. Ideological coercion is the subtlest since, as one famous German philosopher noted, we are led to believe that if we endure the worst of things now, we'll somehow be rewarded in some future state that, by the way, has no guarantee of occurring.

Sound familiar? It was Karl Marx's (1818-1883) criticism of the religious belief in the afterlife.

The upshot: If we are putting up with bad work just to enjoy the reward of being able to do what we want in our free time, we may be harming ourselves more than helping. What's more, per Marx's diagnosis, if we're enduring work to reach that ripe old age at which retirement starts . . . there is no guarantee that you'll get there, or that you'll be healthy enough to really enjoy life.

There is one last point. You may be able to put up with bad working conditions, but your co-workers may not. And there is a worry that one's willingness to endure bad conditions in some way perpetuates the problems endemic to those conditions for others.

Retail Therapy

There's an anecdote I remember as an undergraduate in my one of my philosophy of religion modules that was used to demonstrate the difference between psychological therapy and Zen Buddhism. (Some psychologists were often trying to equate their methods with Zen Buddhism, which had become popularized in self-help circles with the emergence of Alan Watt's books during the mid-Twentieth century.)

Butterfly perched on stone in a Zen sand garden
Photo by 18121281 on Pixabay

The discussion in question allegedly occurred between the famous Swiss psychologist Carl Jung and a Zen monk. Jung had tried to demonstrate how his brand of psychological therapy was just like Zen in trying to restore balance in the person. The monk replied something to the likes of,

"Zen Buddhism is not therapy. We do not want the person to come back to us repeatedly. We want their ignorance to be cured. There is a difference between providing therapy for an illness and finding its cure."

Notwithstanding the question of whether psychological therapy can or cannot cure someone, I hope this provides an apt segue . . .

How many bullshit jobs have you had in your life? How often did you find yourself spending a large portion of your wages on the latest technology, a massive flat screen TV, lots of wine, lots of nice meals, a new car, a dream vacation . . . only to have to return to the grind once again?

Using the purchase of unnecessary, and often extravagant, goods and services in order to make yourself feel better about the work you do is retail therapy. No matter how much you engage in it, the problem of the bad job will not go away.

I had my own experience of this once, when I worked as a claims adjuster for a high-risk auto insurance company. The worked sucked. Huge case files, a full voice mailbox filled with claimants wanting money for their injuries, days filled with arguing and negotiating on the phone, and a digital radio station that hardly shuffled its song selection. When I decided to quit, I was called into the claims manager's office. He told me that I was an exemplary adjuster and that he wanted to do whatever he could in his power to keep me. Believe it or not, he offered me a full-time salary with part-time hours.

And yes, I thought, "Oh, that will leave me more time to rock climb. I can do other things for money and use the salary as an adjuster to buy more things!"

Luckily, a voice in my head said, "Hey, Todd. That's the devil talking. You'll destroy you're soul grinding out a career in high-risk auto claims."

I like to think that I made the right decision (I actually became the manager of a climbing gym and proceeded to reach the peak of my climbing abilities.)

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) captured the demise entailed in retail therapy well when he referred to the idea of "the worker". The term represents a large number of people whose life is one of living to work (instead of working to live). He noted that the worker's life is one where the moments of leisure become fleeting and transform into mere moments of rest, just before renewing the effort to work again. And worst yet, add Boudieu's point about celebrating this life as something good and noble, and you get what Nietzsche described as an attitude where the idea of rejuvenation itself is disparaged and ridiculed.


The compensation argument about bad working conditions is a complex one. There may be situations where compensation by higher pecuniary reward might be warranted. The point, nonetheless, is that compensation by any means should not let us forget, ignore, or condone significant forms of exploitation that might reach further than we at first notice on the surface.

While I wouldn't presume to have the wisdom to offer a solution to bad working conditions, let me just note that productive resolutions can occur at two levels.

Individually, we can be watchful over ourselves and others. Caring for the self is perhaps one virtue that might balance the misuse of other virtues which might get co-opted by unscrupulous systems and working conditions. If you think that you need help stepping away, there's nothing like a good career coach who can help you plot an exit strategy!

Institutionally, we can make the idea of meaningful work more prevalent in the social imagination. Once it becomes a familiar idea, and once businesses realize that meaningful work helps their employees while helping with the profit-loss margins, then it just becomes a matter of finding the right structural and ideological fit.

As a consultant, I love to speak about corporate virtues as a way to bring the company aims and the business of living well into harmony. I say more about how to bring about meaningful work in a previous blog, but it all begins with introducing the mere idea of meaningfulness in the workplace.

As I often ask, "Does your work make you a better person?"

Shouldn't it, if we spend the majority of our lives laboring away?

About the Author

I'm a former academic philosopher currently researching and writing on a freelance basis. Much of my work features for The Art of the Bubble and 1.2 Labs. You can follow me on Quora and/or Medium. Or, you can read more of my public philosophy blogs on Philosophy2u! When not writing and researching, it's all about wind and water for me (windsurfing and surfing).

This blog and its content are protected under the Creative Commons license and may be used, adapted, or copied without permission of its creator so long as appropriate credit to the creator is given and an indication of any changes made is stated. The blog and its content cannot be used for commercial purposes.


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