“Work is less and less linked to happiness in the public mind. This seems to be possible after work, in spite of work and not because of work“. These are the considerations that form the basis of a brilliant dialogue between Paolo Iacci, Management Consultant and Professor of Human Resources Management at the State University of Milan, and the philosopher, academic and psychoanalyst Umberto Galimberti.
This comparison, contained in the book “Dialogue on work and happiness” (Egea, 2021), stems from a question that few seem to have the courage to ask seriously, without falling into the temptation of reducing it to useless speculation or barstool chatter: is work a way to happiness or a curse from which it is impossible to escape?
Moving between philosophical echoes and literary references from Camus to Primo Levi, from Heidegger to Plato via Jaspers, Seneca and Dostoevsky, the authors engage in a discussion that does not offer easy solutions, but rather food for thought on the current economic system, on the obstacles that prevent mankind from realising itself and on what roads to try to take to reverse a dangerous course, starting from a rediscovered (and renewed) sentimental education.
Pandemic and great resignations
In a world re-emerging from the pandemic, more and more workers are questioning the role they play in their jobs and in the society around them. Nearly one in two Italians say they suffer from psychological distress for work-related reasons, while in the United States the phenomenon of the “Great Resignation” continues raging, with 4.3 million professionals leaving their jobs in August alone, a number that rises to 20 million if we start from April. A similar phenomenon also occurs in Germany and the United Kingdom.
Some scholars argue that the pandemic served as a detonator for some thinking that had been ready for a few decades. Iacci comments that “the pandemic has caused the vast majority of people to reflect on their lives and redefine their priorities. Health, family, emotional attachments and happiness are nowadays considered much more important than job success for its own sake. The threshold of tolerance towards a life that does not make one happy has been lowered, starting with the professional dimension. Many are retreating from a world of work that is still showing little concern for the needs of the individual.
The threshold of tolerance towards a life that does not make one happy has been lowered, starting with the professional dimension.
Work has a new meaning
In the book, the authors note that “in today’s ‘liquid society’, work is objectively taking on a different significance than in the past: no longer a mere means of economic sustenance or social redemption in a well-structured world capable of supporting people at all stages of life, but one of the rare holding points of a social bond that has been loosening over a few generations.
“Our society is characterised by a progressive loss of trust in institutions, whose action is often ineffective, and by a marked intolerance of many social rules whose functionality has been lost. Compared to the past, everyone is freer but also more alone“, Iiacci points out. “It is more autonomous, but also more responsible for its own destiny. Productive organisations, and therefore labour, are often called upon to play a role of substitute for these institutions. Businesses often support individuals and families when the public alone is not enough. It applies to welfare, but we saw it very well also during the pandemic”.
How can work be ‘eroticised’?
The most recent survey conducted by the Italian Association for Personnel Management (AIDP) on the subject of ‘great resignations’, when asking about the reasons for leaving the job, answers focused on bad relations with the boss, loss of trust in the company and lack of autonomy. However, the author points out, “for the first time, 25% of the sample also spoke of ‘lack of meaning‘. This finding tells us that we must try to build workplaces characterised more by trust than by control, with more attention paid to each individuality. However, this is not enough. We must also try to understand and share the contribution that each individual makes to his or her organisation and the value of each job, from the most humble to the most complex”.
We must try to build workplaces characterised more by trust than by control.
About halfway through the book, Iacci writes that “within the limits of what is possible, in the spaces that the iron logic of technology still leaves us, I believe we should try to ‘eroticise’ work, making it desirable and not just a cause of fatigue and a place of tension”.
Would we be happier if we lazed about more?
Today we live in a world based on the myth of success and where, often, only the possession of money seems to be basic for a happy life. A purely productive society understands leisure as a function of work, seeing it as an inevitable and momentary respite from fatigue in view of a better recovery, a higher work efficiency. “How do I explain to my wife that when I look out of the window I am working?” This was the question posed by the great Polish-born British writer Joseph Conrad, who also wrote Heart of Darkness.
“Conrad indicates the importance, in every work, of a space dedicated to the creative moment. Leisure as a simple abstinence from work is obviously indispensable, but in itself does not necessarily produce well-being or happiness. Iacci drives this home by saying, “On the contrary. The idea that happiness is only possible after work, in spite of work, risks becoming a death trap, especially for young people“.
Today two million young people are not working
On the very first page, Galimberti explains that he is the eighth of ten children. His father was a bank clerk and his mother a schoolteacher. “When my father died, I was fourteen years old. All of us brothers decided to start working. My sisters went to university and were also service women. I played the organ at weddings and funerals. For me”, he explains, “work has always been the reality principle that still to this day enables me to distinguish real problems from fictitious ones. […] For me, work has always been the anchor to life and its real problems“.
“The transition from childhood to adulthood has always been marked by the ability to support oneself and take care of the family”, points out the State University lecturer. “In the lyrics of a famous Celentano song, ‘he who does not work does not make love’. Work has always been the first moment of adult sociality. The sign of the need to come to terms with the reality principle. Today, the value of this transition has faded with the risk of an increasingly protracted adolescent psychological condition. Today in Italy there are more than two million young people who neither study nor work. A whole generation that, without employment, risks living in a hopeless limbo. It is no coincidence that Pope Francis, thinking of them, spoke of ‘stealing the future’.
What about the hunger for the future?
As Thomas Hobbes reminded us back in the 17th century, man is famelicus famis futurae (hungry for the future hunger): even if he has a full stomach, he tries to provide for his future needs, because he knows that at some point he will be hungry again. According to some, however, the pandemic has weakened this hunger for the future. “Uncertainty indefinitely prolonged in time is one of the greatest reasons for unhappiness in our time”, Iacci concludes. “The future for our young people is no longer an opportunity, but a threat. It frightens and therefore acts mainly as a depressive element. Not surprisingly, during the pandemic there was a very significant increase in the consumption of tranquillisers and psychotropic drugs. We need to regain confidence in the future. This will motivate us to grow and really build a better future by throwing our hearts over the hurdle. There is no business without a dream and no happiness without surrendering to the madness that pulses within each of us”.