The Joy of Work

Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – May 22, 1948 

The Joy of Work 

I see that a Polish miner, Wincenty Pstrovski, who has just died at the age of 41, is to be given a state funeral in recognition of his success in introducing the Stakhanov system into the Polish mining industry.

He increased his normal output by more than 300 per cent, and so inaugurated a competition in hard work—a competition as exciting apparently as a dog race of the football fight that ends today in Wembley.

To me in my young days such a state of affairs would have been unthinkable. At school a boy suspected of working hard was regarded as a rather mean fellow who was trying to take advantage of the decenter members of the class.

We looked on him as all but a cheat, determined to win prizes even at the cost of using such underhand methods as working at night when the rest of us were reading Dickens or playing games. We spoke of him contemptuously as a “stew.”

To do him justice, I must admit that the poor fellow seemed ashamed of himself. He would never admit that he did any work; in fact, he usually represented himself as a loafer.

I do not think I ever knew a schoolboy who admitted that he worked hard. There are things too shameful to be acknowledged.

Oddly enough, on prize-giving day we always cheered the “stew” on his way to receive his ill-gotten gains. If we had been more logical we should have booed him all the way to the platform and back again till his knees turned to water and he realized how atrocious was the crime of hard work.

Later, in my teens, when I became a Socialist, I disliked even more strongly the notion that life should be largely a competition in work. I detested the competitive system and loved the slogan that runs something like: “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.”

The world, I thought, would become a better place if it contained no greedy competitors but only millions of friendly people, all eager to share with each other all the good things they possessed.

There were sound reasons in the 19th century, however, for the objection to competitive hard work. The workers were quick to realize that in a world in which unemployment was widespread a man who did two men’s work was doing another man out a job. Hard work in such circumstances came to seem a particularly odious form of self-indulgence.

At times it was as though it had become a virtue to be lazy, and to take it easy was not so much a pleasure as a duty to one’s comrades.

It looks as if the 19th century theory that the passion for work needs to be restrained, like the passion for drink, is now done for. Suited to a world crowded with unemployed men and women, it is less suited to a world in which there is enough work to be done to keep everybody employed for a very long time indeed.

Hence the new theory that hard work is a noble thing is likely to spread with the speed of a forest fire; and before long the newspapers may be devoting as many columns to the results of competitions in work as they now do to the results in competitions in sport.

It will then seem as ludicrous to encourage a man not to work his best as it would seem to encourage Bradman not to bat his best.

Will this mean, I wonder that work will become as enjoyable as playing cricket, and that a bricklayer who makes a record score with his bricks will feel the elation that Hutton must have felt when he made his record score at the Oval?

Perhaps there will even come a time when the “stew” or “swot” will become the most popular boy at the school, and when small boys will do obeisance to him, instead of to the captain of the football team.

This is certainly a topsy-turvy world. I shouldn’t like to have missed it.

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