McJobs: the mind forg’d manacle

“When work is a pleasure, life is a joy! When work is a duty, life is slavery”
Maxim Gorky

Why are we such willing slaves?

[This is a fairly long post, but a very important topic. Before reading on go get a hot drink, put your feet up and ease into it :)]

We forfeit the best part of our lives completing work tasks that have no real meaning for us beyond a pay cheque. I suspect that fully 9 in every 10 working people would ditch their current occupation if they had financial means to do so (e.g. passive income from another source, won the lottery, got an inheritance, or knew they could start their own business and succeed).

After a few months of permanent vacation many would eventually return to an occupation, but with the freedom to accept a lower paid more fulfilling job like caregiving, coaching, or non-profit advocacy.  The truth is that we don’t need to earn as much as we do which then means that it isn’t necessary to work full-time.

Most people think – I need money and that means –  I need a job. Money is synonymous with getting a job. That’s faulty thinking though. What we need is cashflow. A job is one solution to generate cashflow, but not the only solution. In fact for many people (especially those that value free time more than extra money) a full-time job is actually a terrible solution to the cashflow challenge.

That said, I am still stuck in a part-time white collar McJob  a couple of days a week. I used to work full-time until I decoupled job from cashflow.  I immediately went down to part-time even though I did not have any extra cashflow at that point.

Going part-time had a major psychological advantage. It is great to know that you have more days to yourself each week than you do chained to sterile office desk.  A McJob is slang for a low-paying, low-prestige, dead end job. In McJob’s security is low, the chance of advancement virtually non-existent, but the work is very easy and so we continue to turn up and don’t get discontented enough to ask a better question.

McJobs originated from the industrialisation of the food service industry. Now McJobs permeate every corner of the economy. There are just as many white collar McJobs as blue collar food service ones.  The strangest secret is that we don’t have to work our life away doing dull, dreary stuff the boss tells us to do. The sadder aspect is that folks are so spent after 10 hours in the grind, and are so habituated to be a good little worker from the moment they enter grade school, that they don’t realise working is a choice.

Wage slavery to a McJob is a mind forg’d manacle. It is an accident of history. Working the majority of our time is in historic terms – fairly unusual. We’ve gotten into this pickle because our society drives home the message that we must all have money to be successful and that hard work and suffering to earn is actually good for us. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be idle than suffer or labour to acheive something unimportant to me.

Idleness isn’t as popular a choice in our society as it should be. Unfortunately, to be idle, indolent, to not work, to not produce has become culturally unacceptable.  Most of the labels for those of us who choose not to work our life away are very negative. Bum, vagabond, unemployed or unemployable, lazy, slob, bludger…

In any social interaction the second question is ‘so what do you do?’. That’s code for what is your job? It’s an important question because your job explains your entire social identity once (if) you’ve grown up.

In the conversation that follows we are obliged to describe how interesting, stressful and exciting your job is. Sometimes we can’t believe what we are hearing from ourself as  we sell our job to others. Even if the truth is that we are miserable or bored with working we see no other option and it certainly isn’t the done thing to discuss unhappiness about our work at dinner with friends.  So we regale our comrades with the highlights from our work. They compare these highlights to an average day at their office. As a result the other person is most likely thinking ‘gosh that sounds so much more exciting than insurance! I must see if they have anything going’. There is that possibility of changing jobs and finding something better, but after a short time in the workforce we learn that one job is much like another. Still change is as good as a vacation.

I find it enlightening, but not surprising that the first recorded usage of the word boredom in the English language coincides perfectly with the industrial revolution. It turns out that we didn’t have the word boredom until interesting and autonomous work of the medieval period was transformed into meaningless repetitive interdependent processes. The industrial revolution required us to become machine like, robotic, mindless manufacturers in the assembly chain…and thus boring work was unleashed on the masses.

The truth is that we are not consigned at birth to toil our entire life for the profits of others. We can win our freedom from the grind and boredom of work. I found it very strange going from being a very free student at 24 to a highly controlled employee at 25 years old. I guess I never properly adapted.  Discovering the following quote from R. Buckminster Fuller (Bucky) many years ago likely destroyed my ability to sit quietly in the corner of a grey office block until I punched my retirement ticket.

“We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognising this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to the Malthusian-Darwin theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

R. Buckminster Fuller (1895 – 1983)

So what is a wage slave to do? Just up and quit? Far too high risk for the majority. I suggest the first step is to recognise that like any mind forg’d manacle freedom is only one good thought away. The shackles are not physical. They are not real. We can think our way free.

Some idle thoughts to loosen the manacle:

  • There are certainly more negative terms to describe the unemployed, but there are some nifty positive labels as well: mogul,  starlet, entrepreneur  trust fund kid, home executive, landlord, retiree, freelancer, unjobber, fund manager, painter, writer, coach…
  • Consider also the examples of people and entire cultures that survive happily without money. The less money you need, the less you need to bother working. This is one idea very dear to my heart.
  • The history of human activity is very long, but the history of societies based entirely on competition for money is a relatively recent development. For far longer we have cooperated in small groups to produce enough to meet all of our needs collectively. Working together, sharing, giving, helping others can also reduce our need to spend and therefore to work to earn.
  • There are many people that survive on very little money (relative to the average income of the society). Thanks to the economic downturn the internet is heaving with examples of frugal folk.

We can also unpick the second part of the statement ‘therefore we all must suffer work’ in the following ways…

  • There are many very wealthy people that do not ‘work’ in the traditional sense. They receive money from value created through the labour of others.
  • There are a great many artists and individuals that would not consider their efforts suffering or work, but rather play. When passions are aligned with vocation there is no dreary drudgery of the work day. Work is no longer a grind. Time flies. We enjoy our labour.
  • There are billions of retired people who live happily without needing to work (although they probably suffered in a job for a long period to win their freedom). I also believe many retirees are forced to live on a fraction of the money they spent when they worked. Had they lived like this earlier in their lives and saved the difference perhaps they could have retired in their 20’s or 30’s.

For the last few years I have been focused on life redesign. Increasingly I receive money rather than work for it. Mostly this flows from entertaining, interesting and playful activities of my choosing. I reject the notion that the only way for me to earn my keep is thorough pointless office work for a large corporation (aka the modern McJob so many of us are afflicted with!). I now only work part-time which gives me more days of idleness than work each week. Highly recommended!

I look to cooperate with others whenever I can. There is no point competing to try to get all the money when one just needs enough to support a very simple life. A well lived life is not working 70 hours per week for the entirety of our adulthood only to fall down dead one day from exhaustion of it all. It is about doing what you want. Living is about freedom to enjoy a healthy dose of leisure everyday.

Having worked for a number of years in an office environment I can honestly say that for me this sort of work is far from fulfilling. I could never experience sustained happiness. I have also arrived at the following conclusions about white collar work (just in case you are waivering or need some convincing that McJob’s are a poor choice for you):

1) Office jobs are all very generalised, simplified and interchangeable. This is so that they are easily refilled as people get fed up and leave.

2) Because jobs are too simple people are very bored in their work.

3) It is socially unacceptable not to be busy at work. So even though we often have too little to do, and what we do have to do is very easy, we must make a great pantomime of every task. We become very skilled at pretending to be very busy and very overworked. Activity is far more important than productivity in the modern office. Because of this much of the activity in an office is pointless. People shuffle paper, create unnecessary activities,  or call an inordinate numbers of meetings. Others skillfully disguise non-work errands as productive behaviour. The goal is to create an indispensability aura around ourselves. Some Harry Potter fans employ a cloak of invisibility. Both tactics are to survive the blades of the management consultants hiding in the long grass waiting to pick off the weaker in the tribe.

4) Workplaces are not meritocracies. The wrong people almost always get promoted.

5) The wrong people get promoted because the main means of achieving promotion is to kiss up to a patron who is higher in the company structure. The patrons only elevate their favourite most grovely underlings. As a result many talented, intelligent and capable employees watch sycophants succeed while they, for all their talent, languish in obscure lower paid roles.

6) Fully 90% of managers are ineffective and unnecessary. Work gives managers a sense of power and something middle aged men seem to crave. A willing audience that have to listen to them talk endless rubbish. Only the office fool challenges the General Manager and so they come to believe themselves very clever indeed. This compels them to arrange even more motivational speeches for the troops to suffer through.

7) Long serving employees are not loyal. They are just very afraid and have a high tolerance for boredom.

8) McJobs pay just enough to keep you hooked, but not enough for you to easily accumulate the wealth required for you to do what you wish you could achieve in your lifetime.

9) McJobs are not secure. This is widely advertised to keep people in line. The unspoken threat is work harder than your colleague or you might lose your job, then your house and shock horror – end up poor!

10) Competition is used to drive people to extreme and often immoral or highly aggressive behaviour that would be considered unacceptable in any other setting or environment aside from business.

9) We rush out of the factory gate as soon as the whistle blows and hurriedly dump our wages straight back into the system. It is our incapability to retaining a share of the wage for ourselves that plunges us into permanent purgatory.

10) Most workplace confidants and friends reveal that they are unhappy and melancholy in their work lives. They live for vacations, lunch breaks, knocking off early on Friday and they always buy a lottery ticket.

I don’t mean to be overly critical or too negative about working. These are just my observations on office life. If you love your job that is great news and I am very happy for you, but many of the rest of us have already knocked off and gone to the pub.

The good news is that we can become free of our McJob if we choose and it is a choice. Simply decide you want out. Stop pretending that you are physically stuck. You are not locked into a shitty deal for the rest of your life. Look around the room. Search for the escape hatch. Check the window latch. There are ways out of solitary cubical confinement. Plenty of them!!  I can’t tell you exactly how you will escape McJobdom, but I will build this blog as a repository for seditious ideas to help you.

3000 years ago Roman slaves could buy their freedom so why can’t you?

In the coming weeks we’ll expand on alternatives and explain far better options for living.  In the meantime check out our skeleton plan for chucking in our McJobs 30 years ahead of time.

4 thoughts on “McJobs: the mind forg’d manacle

  1. I’m glad you never adapted to the lifestyle so many people accept as normal. You have a strong counter culture approach to life that I’d be willing to bet will lead to a better life than most.

    I’m happy to say I’m in the process of buying my freedom as well. I’ve been enjoying my time reading this blog because just about everything you guys write about is what I want for my life. Good stuff – I’ll be around!

  2. A wonderful essay, and you’re quite right to suggest that I really enjoyed the Bucky quote! I’m pulling off a combination of all your alternative pay options – capitalist/artist/retiree

    I think that it’s also good that we’ve actually worked office hours and got some experience as to how dull it is for forward-thinking and introspective individuals. Some of the big blogs in this sphere (say ERE) seem to be written by people with little experience as to what a normal lifestyle entails these days and they’re always gunning down a straw target. Once you have a guest post idea, send it to and I’ll write something for you!



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