With unemployment figures reaching an 11-year high and talk of a recession spreading throughout Europe, working life is coming more and more into the spotlight. Jobs are becoming more scarce, particularly in sectors such as finance or construction, but also, as we have seen with recruitment freezing, in publishing. And workers are becoming stressed— helplines have reported an increased number of calls from people concerned about their finances and the future of their job.
Alain de Botton believes the economic crisis will encourage people to think about more than just where their next pay packet comes from. People must, he believes, examine the meaning of our nine-to-five life— whether it is remunerative or something "higher" and whether being "successful" and "happy" are attainable targets.
In his new book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, de Botton addresses the core belief that work should have meaning, a relatively modern concept, which was introduced to Europe at around the same time as the idea of marrying for love.
"This is the great bourgeois dream— having a job that is essentially your hobby and a wife you love," he says. "It is a beautiful idea, but an incredibly demanding one, and one that leaves most of us feeling inadequate."
Pleasures and Sorrows offers a chapter-by-chapter glimpse into the kind of "hidden" jobs many of us don't think about— factory workers, fishermen, or electricity pylon engineers. He rejects the notion, which he is "sometimes accused of", that his books are self-help; Pleasures and Sorrows will not, he says, help you find the right job. But he believes it can offer a new "perspective" on the types of jobs there are in the world, and what goes on behind the scenes to provide us with tuna, biscuits, and television.
Partly inspired by his own "constant career crisis" and partly by curiosity— having only ever worked as a writer—about "how the rest of the world functions", de Botton thinks the book will tap into a universal interest. "I think it's natural human curiosity, and yet it is weird how much it doesn't come into books very much," he says. "There are journalists' books about spectacular successes or failures— the rise of Google or the fall of Enron—but what is missing is something telling me what it feels like, what people get up to."
The book has a very personal feel, with de Botton setting out as "intentionally naive and a bit innocent, treating some of these things that are very obvious to these people to bring out the strangeness". By seeing the daily grind through new eyes, de Botton brings an alternative interpretation to what most would consider part of the routine, if it were considered it at all.
For example, while following a group of accountants on their isolating commute, de Botton interprets their newspaper reading as "not, of course, to glean new information, but rather to coax the mind out of its sleep-induced introspective temper". And when meeting a young woman at a biscuit factory, he asks: "Why in our society are the greatest sums of money so often tended to accrue from the sale of the least meaningful things?" He is then faced with "a terrified expression . . . and she asked if I might excuse her."
The people he meets range from senior management who are often "incredibly nervous, so far as to say paranoid" about what de Botton might be looking for and those on the shop floor who were "very enthusiastic, very friendly and open", even if their jobs were"truly grim".
As well as the biscuit makers and accountants, he meets Indian Ocean fishermen, the British Inventors' Society and a lonely, somewhat unsuccessful albeit satisfied, painter. De Botton says he looked most fondly on the scientific roles, "the craftsmen of the satellite or the craftsmen of electricity pylons. In a way these are the heroes of the book, because they are very modest people, putting together small bits of the world that nevertheless matter a lot."
The career adviser is one of the more tragic figures within the book, failing to realise just how ironic his very position—one that is derided, underpaid and hardly aspirational— just is. De Botton admits to feeling sorry for him, but is also critical. "He was a very nice man, who was caught up in a dangerous ideology about work that he was peddling to himself and those he saw," he says. "Really what we need is not a career counsellor, it is someone to console us."
At times the book feels incredibly gloomy. Despite de Botton's attempt to make a midnight visit to a logistics park resemble a childhood memory of waking and hearing the goings-on of the house, it remains a stark indictment of the futility of modern life. The many black and white illustrations often lack people and are of sights we tend to avoid capturing on film: electricity pylons, car parks, people sitting at their desks.
"I have no idea whether I will just bore the reader solid," de Botton jokes. "On a good day, I imagine I have brought out the poetry of working life. It is quite poignant, the tension between the incredible sophistication of the machinery and the meaningless of the end product and the fact that these people's lives are wrapped up in it. It's not cheerful, but neither is it depressing. It's melancholic, bittersweet—it is the world we have created."
Alain de Botton The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (Penguin, April, hb, £18.99, 9780241143537)