Are we living in the age of the zombie worker?

July 2, 2014

If we are what we eat – a notion that seems irrefutable in today’s makansutra fixated Singapore. Then a corollary, at a time when personal identity so often derives more from the mind numbing nine to nine life of the zombie worker would probably mean – we would be WHAT we work.

Think about it – you are essentially your job. That’s to say the work you do and the conditions which makes work possible shapes you. I am just not talking about the blob of abstraction that is you. But the real you that even believes that this whole idea of you being your work and your work being you is preposterous….but do bear with me.

Whether you work in a 23 degree Celsius peppermint air conditioned ambient somewhere in some pigeon slot in some faceless high-rise corporate center in the CBD or a steamy sweat house SME somewhere in forgettable Jurong doesn’t really matter – you will ultimately be your work. Your work becomes you. That is to say your work defines who you are along with probably what you stand for. Your views about life – what car you would prefer to drive….the neighborhood that you see yourself staying in….the type of school that you see your kids studying in….the places that you want to spend your holiday in….right down to probably every aspect and feature that makes up the whole idea of your life.

It should be paradise – the idea that work can fill in so many blank canvases in our lives……it’s better than industrial grade emulsion paint I reckon…just imagine…a concept that can fill in all the nooks, crannies and empty spaces in one life, till every empty space is plugged – the idea of work being all pervasive and omnipresent that it even governs the way we see the world along with define organizational and personal success along with all the attitudes we hold and may hope to hold in our heads…Yes, the idea of work being us and we being the sum of the work.

But something is wrong with this happy picture. Yes….you the perceptive reader noticed it.

Recently workers in wealthy Singapore were polled the most unhappiest in Asia and nearly two-thirds would like to quit their jobs in the next year, a regional survey by recruiting firm Randstad Group.

But why? How can one go about explaining this?


‘If I had to point to one big reason why most workers feel dissatisfied about their jobs it’s because they feel life is just one long endless ‘in and out’- that’s to say the vast majority of Singaporeans work really hard to earn money just to pay off stuff that they have already committed too. A car…house…insurance plan – this feeling of not being able to break out of the cycle of ‘in and out’ no matter how many hours one puts in must be crushing to the human spirit.

Some people I am sure cope better than others. But I am sure everyone finds it a litany of sorts – not the idea of work per se, but the litany of ‘in and out.’ Those who claim to be able to handle this idea better than anyone else may get by with what I can only call the necessary prosthetics of living in Singapore which requires one to first suspend disbelief which in turn makes possible the idea of believing in the illusion that you’re in control of your life – some join a mega supermarket church where at first they may very well derive some sustenance to carry on living the life of in and out. But since all of life is just designed to reduce the average worker into a tool that serves the imperative of making more money, but never earning quite enough to break free from the gravity of the in and out hamster wheel – one can only feel trapped, frustrated and exhausted eventually.

You know most people don’t know this. They wake up every morning. Drink their kopi and munch on their economy behoon and join the rest of humanity to dedicate themselves to twelve or more hours of work everyday and if you stop any of this people and ask them – hey what are you doing day in and out? What’s the goal man? They all give you that dumb struck look…like what the fuck are you asking me this stupid question for? Can’t you see I have no time for your nonsensical diversions? I need to make a living…to pay the bills…to get by.

My point is this is exactly what one should do – press the pause button and reflect about the whole idea of work and how it may fit into the whole idea of life. Preferably before you get to the point when you’re so ground up to a point when you’re so terminally cynical that all you can do is believe this is your lot in life and things will never ever improve or that you just don’t see any point in trying to break out of the ‘in and out’ lifestyle any longer – most people unfortunately have already reached that chronic stage of zombification – I am not saying they’re necessary stupid, unsuccessful, poor or need hand outs – many are intelligent….some of them are even relatively well off and they even seem to be able to accumulate all the symbols of success to earn bragging rights. But my point is because none of them have really given much thought to that idea – WHAT work is…and HOW it should fit into their lives – then it just means all they r really doing despite their relative appearance of success is being darn good at living the ‘in and out’ life.

Fact remains many of them still despite their apparent material success often find the idea of living life under their own terms elusive….and at times even beyond their grasp. And there you have it the reason why people are unhappy with their work and their lives.

As for me. The idea of work needs to be fulfilling. And by that I mean work needs to nourish the human spirit…it must be edifying otherwise it’s just a chore…a litany that keeps going one without any rhyme or reason and when you sit down and think about it a large component of what comprises of edifying work requires financial independence – I mean I don’t want to work beyond 50. But if I am going to be in position to say ‘no’ to that then I need the financial firepower to go with it….and I reckon when you start to think along these lines then your work becomes a thinking thing….it’s something that you see fitting in the greater scheme of things.

I once worked for this manager who always wanted me to stay back and put in more hours like the others. I had a problem with that sort of work culture as to me work is really just a means to an end. To be honest, I don’t see myself doing what I was doing. If anything I was just doing it to get by, to pay the bills. Besides I already know what I want to do with my life and that was to farm and so I needed to get off work on time to further my studies on farming.

But this guy would hassle me all the time and even obliquely threaten me by telling me that I would be marked down in my annual performance appraisal if I didn’t show more commitment to the company.

So one day I decided to visit his wife when he was hard at work in the office. We struck up a very cosy friendship. His wife and me. She was a bit cagey at first, but once she got used to it – and trust me. I am the sort of guy who can grow on you – eventually she found it immensely liberating talking to me and we used to bake cakes together. One day my manager came back home early and saw me in the kitchen. He went berserk and after that he began to break down telling me that he knew it all along that something wasn’t right…as his wife had grown distant of late etc etc. I just listened impassively and after he had finished I asked him, ‘so is it worth it….working late?’ He told then that he was going to sack me. But when I told him that if he did that I would have no other choice but to spend all my time with his wife baking more cakes. He decided against the idea almost immediately and eventually asked me what I really wanted.

I told him that all I wanted to do was to save up enough money to farm abroad.

I don’t know whether my manager experienced a moment of epiphany or whether the heavens opened up and he could hear angels singing – but that was how it came across to me. Because thereafter his face beamed as if he had been spell blinded by some light and he began to confide to me in a very determined tone that he would do everything in his power to make sure that I succeeded in materializing my dreams.

After that day. Whenever I would leave early. He would always beat me to the lift and ask me where I planned to go. He even volunteered to drive me to the library and on several occasions he even followed me around. Presumably to make sure that I was really dedicating myself to my farming studies instead of whiling my time playing online games. From time to time, he would even make it a point to top up my library prepaid card and for a period of time even allowed me to use his Border’s book card to buy really expensive books relating to agronomy.

And whenever I confided to him that I am not sure whether I could pull it off – he even motivated me by driving me all the way to Malaysia to look for land along with writing a letter of reference to the banks to vouch for my creditworthiness – that was the degree of his commitment and dedicating to see me succeed, all the while reiterating his promise that he genuinely wanted me to succeed in my dreams. He was also very generous. Often insisting that I follow him whenever he went abroad for business trips where I would often be given free rein to explore my various fields of interest in farming – he just stuck to me like Velcro. And when the day came when I told him it was time for me to leave and pursue my dreams. He was so happy that he cried…. I don’t think I will ever have a better boss in my whole life.

This just goes to prove that when people are given the right motivation and incentives, they can do almost anything and nothing is impossible including breaking away from the hamster wheel life of ‘in and out.’ I am so blessed to have met such a kindred spirit! I hope to visit him one day in Singapore. The problem is whenever I call his phone these days….it just goes to his inbox.

Maybe I should pay his wife a surprise visit like I used too and bake him a cake….that’s the least I can do for a kindred spirit.’

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