Books: Why Work Sucks

If you're lucky enough to have a job—especially a cushy, high-status job—you might feel guilty about how much you hate it. Prosperity perpetuated a little white lie: that work is supposed to make us happy. But the office is a fickle friend, according to British author Alain de Botton, who in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work spotlights life in 10 alternately routine and rarefied industries, including accounting, rocket science and cookie marketing. His implicit question, "When does a job feel good?" is answered with brutal calm: "Rarely." The tragedy is that we expect anything more.

For most of human history, work was seen as penance, punishment or a necessary evil. But with the creation of meritocratic America—an "aristocracy of talent and virtue," as Thomas Jefferson described it—toil was transformed into an expression of identity, a way for people to measure themselves and others. "What do you do?" entered the social lexicon as an unavoidable acid test of relevance, while the emerging discipline of management science promoted cozy happy-talk about work being "fun" and the office being "family." We started to expect our jobs to feed both our savings accounts and our souls. "The belief that life—work included—is essentially miserable was for centuries one of mankind's primary bulwarks against bitterness, a way to avoid dashed hopes," de Botton says.

Sometimes, it seems, a job really should be just a job. Matthew B. Crawford, an academic turned mechanic, echoes de Botton's pessimism about the search for satisfaction in the daily grind, but goes further. Don't just change your attitude, he argues in Shop Class as Soulcraft. Change your line of work—by swapping your Microsoft toolbox for the real thing. For a certain kind of Baby Einstein, college has become the unquestioned next step after high school, a compulsory pit stop on the way to "knowledge work."

Instead, says Crawford, more people should consider manual labor, which offers the comfort of objective results (does the car start or doesn't it?) and a fusion of thought and action that makes a man "quiet and easy"—not to mention employed. The "post-industrial" society that we've been hearing about for 50 years hasn't materialized, according to Princeton economist Alan Blinder, one of Crawford's many footnoted heavyweights. In the future, the difference between the haves and the have-nots won't be who wheedled their way to an A-minus in art history so much as whose work cannot be outsourced overseas. As Blinder puts it: "You can't hammer a nail through a wire." A year ago, when 401(k)s still soared, such arguments would have bounced off the armor of good times. But with so many boom-time values dying along with millions of jobs, these books may have arrived at just the right moment. And they make great reading when you're standing in the unemployment line.