Speaker by Various Artists


I am a Really Useful Engine

by Rebecca Gray

A couple of weekends ago, we were getting ready to go try out the new section of Te Araroa tramping track between Paekakariki and Pukerua Bay. Very nice views, I recommend it, though probably not on a really windy day.

I went to look for a backpack and my partner said “don’t worry, all our things will fit into this pack that I’ll take”.  And I was like... “but, but IF I DON’T CARRY ANYTHING I WON’T BE USEFUL."

And it was mostly a joke, and we continued to make jokes about it (“you can put the poles in the pack if you like”; “NO I WILL CARRY THESE BECAUSE NOW I AM USEFUL”). But it was also a little bit not a joke. How dare I let someone else contribute more than me, when I could just as easily do my share?

We all have different comfort zones with this sort of thing, but some of us genuinely feel uncomfortable taking money for nothing, sitting around while someone else looks after us, or generally not appearing to work as hard as we could. This may be the sort of learned cultural hangup that my brothers blame on Presbyterianism. I blame Thomas the Tank Engine.

I was very keen on Thomas and Friends ever since pre-school age. My innocent memories of the Isle of Sodor and its benign dictator the Fat Controller were rudely questioned in recent years. Some critics have made a pretty valid observation that these stories conveyed unsubtle messages about gaining all your self-esteem via labour in a conservative, imperialist system. No seriously, do not read this article if you want your memories to stay untarnished. Buuut…

Our hero, Thomas, and his friends jockey for positions just below that of the bullying aristocrat Sir Topham Hatt but never seek to rise to his level. The stern, dour little Englishman in top hat and tails dangles meaningless honors like getting to "carry the most special special" to divide and conquer the trains...

The trains, complicit in maintaining this unjust system, humiliate each other for the small scraps of praise the little tyrant doles out rather than banding together (no unions on Sodor)...

once you have engaged in Thomas cultural criticism, there's no going back. It's nearly impossible to listen to lines like "being strong was only good if you were also really useful, and he had to be really useful" without hearing something sinister.

(Jessica Roake)

Oh man. Actually I’m pretty sure unions were represented in the stories, but it was only the trucks – who were plain looking and probably had less posh accents – who sometimes went on strike. They were portrayed as trouble-makers with bad attitudes.

I have been thinking a bit recently about what kind of “work” is valued differently, and why. Whole books can be written about the undervaluing of caring work or the persistent assumption that women will undertake “unpaid emotional labour”.

Then there’s the treatment of people who can’t work: if society sees receiving aid as a sign of weakness then they can be further disadvantaged. Sarah Wilson writes about this on her blog Writehanded

It’s this (beneficiary-bashing) rhetoric that makes me, and so many others, feel like ‘less-than’ for needing what we’re entitled to. It’s so ingrained in kiwi culture that, for me, it’s now internalised self-doubt, and sometimes even hate.

(Sarah Wilson)

This blog has drawn attention to just how frustrating and dispiriting it can be to deal with the welfare system while suffering from a chronic disease. Blogging looks like a voluntary activity, but Sarah is also a professional writer and what she is doing here looks very valuable: it may result in much-needed change. I hope she is getting some payment for her efforts.

I recently stumbled upon an advice column that expressed the trouble society seems to have with accepting that people who don’t earn money make valuable contributions, and indeed that people who are not able to do what looks like “work” are still valuable. A brief excerpt:

Sometimes, the thing that people Do, the thing that is their work in the world, is not something our culture (or our country) is willing to pay for.  Emotional labor and artistic work are two big examples of that, advocacy and activism are others. These are real and valid and utterly necessary kinds of work.

That’s true alongside the fact that not all humans have the same capacity for work, for various ability-related reasons, and our idea of what constitutes enough work for someone to avoid being tagged with “lazy” is predicated on this tremendously ableist model.

(S. Bear Bergman, via Bitch Media)

Our work in the world is not always something that we will be paid or widely recognised for. While volunteering recently, I met someone who has restructured her whole work life to concentrate on voluntary social support work.

What she is doing seems immensely valuable. It involves helping vulnerable people who might not otherwise get enough support. She wants to do it and is able to do it because her husband has a well-paid job. Due to circumstances (i.e. the need to pay bills), some people who are equally good and capable and motivated simply cannot make the choice to do such a good thing.   

Payment is clearly not the only way we gain value from what we do. As Thomas and his friends apparently thought, the sense of prestige and satisfaction attached to certain types of work means that we choose it without prioritising financial benefit.

I recall, when working in an embassy, editing speech notes for a diplomat who was going to talk at a university. He planned to say to the academics that their careers had something in common: they were a path that would not lead to high financial reward but brought great opportunities to contribute and engage with exciting ideas. Now, it’s fair to say that neither of these careers are terribly paid, but at the same time he wasn’t wrong to imply that people who are smart enough to get into diplomacy and academia could probably earn more in another sector.

I confess that I am still utterly mystified by the full rationale behind why certain types of work are paid more than others. This 2008 comic about payscales at American colleges recently resurfaced, and prompted some frustrated eye-rolling (spoiler: football coaches paid more than 10x what professors are paid).

My current musings are general but also self-interested. I’ve been doing various kinds of study-related talking and writing while preparing for my final PhD thesis exam.

In the meantime I’ve been searching for non-academic job options. My professional identity is thus switching awkwardly between "experienced research adviser, can pass for a real adult when talking to a bank manager" and "aspiring junior academic, will do anything for kudos/ attention/book vouchers". 

Dr Miya Tokumitsu has written about how exhortations to “do what you love” can lead to workers being exploited (think unpaid internships in socially desirable fields) while the majority of the less-educated workforce, who may not have a choice about whether they love their job, are disrespected. Tokumitsu observes that this issue is particularly prevalent in academia:

Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. This intense identification partly explains why so many proudly left-leaning faculty remain oddly silent about the working conditions of their peers. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.

(Miya Tokumitsu)

I think it’s fine if we do a bit of work for free. Most of us who want careers that involve coming up with new ideas do. If people only created while being paid, then independent voices would not be heard, start-ups wouldn’t start, and artists would not create enough to get to a point that people wanted to pay them. Our world would be a much more boring, much less progressive place. But it’s also totally fine if we have to sometimes make a call about spending our energy on the stuff that keeps us fed.

I wonder whether the deeper difficulty we face is with allowing ourselves to concentrate our efforts on things that other people might not see as “really useful” work. I picture a spectrum of social pressure around career work that on one end is all about the conventional, materialistic trappings of high-earning success, and on the other about being inspiring and exciting and the sort of person that others want to quote and create with (often with little money involved - this is more about recognition).

But in the middle there must be many people who will not be widely recognised in either financial or reputational ways. They may be contributing massively to the people around them, but most of us will never notice. They may be on the brink of figuring out something amazing, but in the interim their work doesn’t make much sense to anyone else.

It’s nice to be validated as “useful”, but we can spin ourselves into all sorts of angst by attaching our self-esteem to jobs. Thankfully we are not engines. We are so much more complex and more wonderful than that. It helps to recognise that we contribute and produce in many areas of our lives. When we find ourselves being lectured by the narrowly work-obsessed little Fat Controller in our head, we sometimes need to tell him to back the hell off. He doesn’t have the full picture.

Rebecca Gray is a PhD student at the University of Otago and blogs at Choose Your Story

19 responses to this post

Post your response…

Please sign in using your Public Address credentials…


You may also create an account or retrieve your password.