So there’s this job, soon to be available. It’s in Sweden — in Korsvägen train station in Sweden, to be precise, currently under construction in Gothenburg. The starting salary is substantial, with guaranteed annual wage increases, vacation time and a pension. Anyone can apply.
The job is to turn the lights in the station on and off five days a week. That’s it. Beyond that, “the position holds no duties or responsibilities ... Whatever the employee chooses to do constitutes the work,” the job description reads. “The employee can also choose how publicly visible or anonymous they would like to be while on the clock,” according to Atlas Obscura, a website for desktop explorers that I visit often.
What is this, some kind of weird socialist scheme, where the government will actually pay a full-time salary to have someone flip a switch?
Au contraire, mon frere, it’s a long-term performance art project funded by private dollars from a Swedish artistic duo, Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby. This is their response to the way in which they see the city — an artistic and entertainment hub, the second-largest city in Sweden — changing. “As Gothenburg’s working class finds itself marginalized, Goldin and Senneby see a job that gives total control to the worker as an act of economic imagination,” Atlas Obscura says.
That’s some imagination.
This is the kind of job I dreamed about when I was 20 and didn’t really want to work. And it’s also the kind of job I dream about now — I could spend the whole day reading, researching and writing — which is just like my current job, except with no deadlines. (Oh, and no windows. And with strangers stomping through my office all day long.)
But though it seems like a fun fantasy, I can’t help wondering if it would get old after a while; if I’d begin to feel like a sloth for not contributing to a cause beyond my own esoteric interests.
We Americans — we have this strong work ethic, and it runs deep. For many of us, our work provides more than just a paycheck; it provides self-esteem and a sense of belonging. Much of our identities are invested in doing our jobs well. We want our work to be meaningful. We want to take pride from what we produce.
And when we’re overworked, we talk about it — “You wouldn’t believe what happened at work today” — as if we’re bragging, as if our ability to endure the work and its associated pressures shows how righteous and mighty we are.
So much so that, according to Jeffrey Pfeffer, the author of “Dying for a Paycheck,” we’re killing ourselves with work.
In his book, he notes that a high percentage of America’s health-care cost comes from chronic disease like diabetes and cardiovascular and circulatory disease; that these diseases are caused or exacerbated by stress; and that the biggest source of stress is the workplace.
“I look out at the workplace and I see stress, layoffs, longer hours, work-family conflict, enormous amounts of economic insecurity,” Pfeffer said in an interview with Stanford Business in 2018. “I see a workplace that has become shockingly inhumane.”
Of course, not everyone feels this way. But I think it’s fairly common. I suspect it got worse after the Great Recession made many Americans desperate enough to accept lower-paying jobs with fewer benefits — which became, for many, the new norm.
And now, here comes coronavirus, threatening not only our health, but our economy, which is a legitimate concern for people who work for a living. We have to worry what might happen if customers stop going to stores or buying our goods.
Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang had a lot of unusual ideas, aside from rejecting neckties. Among them, that every American should receive a paycheck just for existing — a Universal Basic Income. He originally adopted the idea as a way to provide security after the robots steal our jobs. But his idea has taken on a new shine as we stare down the pandemic.
“Too many people are heading to work sick because they can’t afford to miss a paycheck,” Yang told Inverse last week. “If we had Universal Basic Income, people would do what is best for them and their community and stay home until they recover.”
That makes a lot of sense at the moment, doesn’t it? It would help working people more than a payroll tax cut or bailing out shale oil companies.
Of course, someone would have to pay for it — someone who right now doesn’t want to pay for it — so it’s probably not going to happen anytime soon.
It’s much too soon to be looking for a silver lining in this uncertain situation. But if it reminds us that we’re all in this together, that your health affects my health, that what benefits some benefits everyone — if we can flip that switch, it won’t all be for nothing.