On Learning Your Life’s Work Amounts to Nothing

Scott Deshefy


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No weapon’s more devastating than learning your life’s work amounts to nothing. Psychological experiments on how humans respond, when their reasons for labor are diminished, test the “Sisyphean condition.” Folks work harder when their purpose seems meaningful, a relationship between significance and motivation often ignored. Mythology’s Sisyphus was punished by Zeus for ruthless, inhospitable behavior towards travelers. Generosity and good treatment of foreigners and guests (i.e., Xenia) was a moral obligation in ancient Greece. Sisyphus’ hubris violated that code. For eternity in Hades, he was forced to roll a boulder uphill, only to have it tumble back again before reaching the summit. Sisyphus had no choice. He was damned to unfulfilling repetitiveness. Yet, many of us mow vast, expensive lawns which grow back endlessly, toil on assembly lines, write the same grant proposals year after year, restock the same shelves each shift; empty hoppers in warehouses perpetually refilled.

Summer of ‘72, I maintained the Groton Sub Base softball fields. Each morning, an older gent and I cleaned trash beneath bleachers, mostly sailors’ beer cans, inadvertent troves of loose change, occasional folding money and scores of cigarette lighters, even a few mitts. My colleague, an itinerant philosopher, would spear aluminum cans or pieces of paper with nail-tipped sticks and regale me on immediate gratification. “It’s there. I poke it. It’s gone.” He’d murmur existentially ─ rare instances of immediate, tangible impact. The following summer I ship-fitted at EB with a guy near retirement. Every lunch he’d sit, sandwich in hand, tossing crusts beneath slips at water’s edge.  His last day, his one concern was who would feed the rats and swans once he was gone. So, I did. For the remainder of my BOOMER-building tenure, those interludes and offered ends of bread made steelwork more satisfying.

The pandemic’s killed millions, causing oceanic and terrestrial plastic pollution of epic proportions (e.g., mask-litter and hospital waste), but it also revealed anthropause’s environmental benefits, exposed our social and political flaws and limitations, and acted as a union. Following shutdowns and rapid economic rebounds, sought-after workers refused to return to pittance wages and meager benefits. Given unreliable, unaffordable childcare (which the reconciliation bill rectifies), women especially left workforces, downshifting careers to raise kids and care for aging parents. Anticipated female influxes, returning to jobs after schools reopened, never materialized. Perhaps we’re revisiting mid-20th century priorities: one good spousal salary, attention to family, prudent consumption and remote, independent work providing happiness supplemental paychecks and commuting woes can’t. Burnout and the pandemic have been harder on women than men. Women, paid less and harassed more in the workplace, also handle most household duties. Lack of agency and time-control leaves many disengaged and fatalistic. Single mothers, particularly, who don’t have the luxury of leaving employment, struggle to make ends meet in low-wage jobs, debt-traps, credit-induced inflation and capitalism’s continuous-growth psychoses.

Spending less and saving more the last 20 months, young people are also leaving payrolls in droves. As economists ponder the Great Resignation, Gen Zs and millennials, averse to working harder but enjoying it less, seem well-suited to finding new ways of earning income. As Congress passes legislation creating millions of jobs and 10,000 people retire everyday vast staffing shortages assure leverage over employers. Labor can march in the streets, take risks and demand change. And unless restaurant and hospitality industries incorporate those changes, “zillennials” will abandon nine-to-fives, choosing mental and physical wellness over income. Facing mortality for 20 months, people found more important things than unsustainable workloads and untenable workplace conditions. Stress from overwork kills 2.8 million people per year globally, and 50 years of 2-spouse breadwinning and profligate madness have everyone exhausted. Trickledown has failed. The Big Quit’s quest for personal fulfillment and purpose has better social contracts and continuous improvement percolating up.

Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.