Back to the Future: The light in dark Satanic Mills

04.10.17

When it comes to addressing the work-life balance, Malcolm White believes advertising should take a leaf out of William Morris’s book and find ways to make work more satisfying, instead of just encouraging people to work more flexibly.

When we think about Victorian Britain, it’s quite likely that we picture in our mind’s eye William Blake’s ‘dark Satanic Mills’ (from Jerusalem) disgorging what Charles Dickens called ‘serpents of smoke’ (Hard Times), poisoning the local populace and exploiting the workforce so that all hope is lost and thousands work and “live, with the sole end of wishing to die” (Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley).

As a result of this ‘bad press’, it’s no wonder that Victorian working life has an image problem, and so it might seem like an unlikely place to turn to for a fresh perspective on the contemporary issue of work–life balance. Actually, looking back to the Industrial Revolution for a way forward isn’t as absurd as it may sound, because times of extreme social change tend to produce thinkers with new perspectives.

One such radical thinker was William Morris (1834–1896), the visionary English socialist and pioneer of the Arts and Crafts movement. You may recognise his famous edict to ‘have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’, and I also admire his clarion call to multitasking overachievement: “If a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he’s weaving tapestry, he had better shut up, he’ll never do any good at all.”

If William Morris had been alive today, I suspect that he would have given short shrift to the debate about work–life balance, as do I. In a lecture given in 1884 to the Hampstead Liberal Club, London, Morris divided work into two different types, which also gave him the title of his lecture: ‘Useful Work v. Useless Toil’. Useful Work is useful and good because it has hope in it, whereas Useless Toil is bad because it does not. The nature of hope is threefold: “Hope of rest… hope of product… [and] hope of pleasure in the work itself.” Useless Toil, on the other hand, is “worthless: it is slaves’ work – mere toiling to live that we may live to toil”.

Of course, the target Morris aimed at in this lecture was the type of ‘Useless Toil’ that we associate with the Victorian mills: back-breaking and dangerous manual labour carried out in appalling working conditions, with few days off and certainly no health or sickness benefits.

But, Morris’s lecture is surprisingly useful to us because it flags up a fundamental issue that lies at the heart of the work–life debate today, and hasn’t been recognised, as far as I’m aware. This issue is with the work–life formulation itself which, thanks to Morris’s insight, I can now see indiscriminately lumps all work together, suggesting as a consequence that all work is bad but that ‘life’, by which is meant ‘leisure’, is so much better. If ‘all’ work is intrinsically bad and all life (aka ‘leisure’) is intrinsically good, so the argument goes, then we should all crave more leisure and less work.

And, a further consequence of our current presentation of the work–life debate is that it points us in the wrong direction for a solution. What’s missing from our contemporary debate is an acknowledgement that work can be brilliant if it brings with it what Morris calls “the hope of pleasure in the work itself… to all living things there is pleasure in the exercise of energies”.

I’m not suggesting that the desk-based service jobs that many of us have in today’s developed world are anything like as difficult as those in Victorian heavy industry. But, let’s be honest, how often have you, or your team, experienced real pleasure and real job satisfaction in the past week? When were you so absorbed and fulfilled in a task (in that state of focused concentration that psychologists of work call ‘flow’) that you didn’t notice the time passing?

You see, I don’t think there is such a thing as work–life balance because on the occasions when one feels that work is truly useful, it definitely becomes part of what makes life pleasurable.

If I’m right, all of us employers should be working harder to find more satisfying work for our teams, and inventing new ways to make work more interesting, not just encouraging people to work more flexibly. And for their part of the bargain, employees should be demanding more interesting work.

Although I heartily agree with William Morris, he might not have been thrilled with my endorsement because I work in a profession that he described, in the same lecture, as “competitive salesmanship, or, to use a less dignified word, the puffery of wares, which has now got to such a pitch that there are many things which cost far more to sell than they do to make”. Indeed.

Malcolm White, Co founder of krow

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