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‘Work on, work on, but you'll always work alone’

Monks Smithing

The monastic nature of contemporary work is no coincidence

If you own a smartphone there is a four in five chance that you check your email and social media accounts within 10 minutes of going to bed at night and waking up in the morning. As a global society, the hours of rest we get each night have fallen from more than nine in the 1950s to little more than seven this decade – the lowest known figure in human history. But we are not just sleeping less; we are barely sleeping and always working.

Before the widespread availability of universal telephony, the working day was clearly defined because work could only occur at specific locations. There was no ambiguity; you were either at the office, factory, atelier, studio … or you weren’t. Today, ‘business hours’ and ‘personal time’ have bled into each other. There is a desperate fear of being left behind, of exiting the loop,  of becoming irrelevant, and so we take our work with us. And technology has made that portability easier. ‘I had better just check’, you think, in case you have some unread alert, have not seen some breaking news or have missed an urgent call.

This instinct to check – or, more properly, to ‘check in’ – is, for most people, still limited to wasted moments  in our personal time: a dinner date goes to the washroom, check; your bus is delayed by a few minutes, check; ad break while slumped on the sofa, check. That time is  not surplus; it is all you have left. At worst, it starts eating into your ‘quality time’ – you ignore your kids to stare  at your screen, cut friends off mid-sentence to post a picture, wake up during the night to bathe in the blue glow. Checking in is the process that ensures you  don’t become out of sync with a horrific machine governing flows of information. 

Our struggle to ‘get a head start’ on our work – as if there was a finite amount – is a response to the stress of being constantly connected. Always working is a self-defeating cycle: we sacrifice a little today to help ourselves tomorrow, only to do the same tomorrow. This investment is emotional – the presence of work in our personal lives convinces us that our work is indeed intensely personal and highly personalised. The complexity of intertwining employment with our own pasts makes us feel vaguely entrepreneurial; it certainly forces us to believe no one else is capable of doing our job. The office is everywhere, and work is all around us. At the same time, more and more our actual places of work resemble the home.

Egg chair

Egg chair

Our fear of redundancy coupled with our legitimate sense of personal investment makes it impossible to unplug. The term mostly used to describe this form of always-on lifestyle is ‘creative’, probably because the only social figure to work with this intensity and personal dedication is the artist. Of course, the artist always works at the fringe of convention. As ‘creatives’, however, we mysteriously constitute ‘classes’. 

The artist is really only a kind of secular monk or nun, who has replaced God with Art. What sets monastic life apart from that of the artist or creative is a certain relationship between solitude and collectivity. Monks laboured alone, but when they did come together it was primarily to celebrate Mass. In other words, the strength of their society was directly related to the possibility of being alone, what they called a ‘community of individuals’. 

When considering the current trend in office design away from impersonal cubicles towards the vibe of a hipster café, it is tempting to view these new forms of workspace – hot-desking arrangements, co-working, studio shares, networking ‘hubs’ – as epitomising just such communities of individuals. The freedom of the open plan has gone far beyond Bürolandschaft (which was only an undifferentiated corporate floorplate) and become concerned with promoting self-investment in work. As a typology, the café is an environment where people choose to come, and thus are free to go. You cannot generally reserve seats and you are not obliged to communicate with neighbours. There is no suggestion that people in a café form a community. In fact, it is the antithesis of monastic work: we are together, but alone; monks were together, though apart. The absence of strong interpersonal bonds in contemporary workplaces, and their aversion to the creation of community, produces an easily expendable and replaceable workforce – no matter what we may like to think about the unique nature of the way we work…

Notwithstanding this difference, our constant state of work is nonetheless the logical endpoint of the monastic experiment that began in England half a millennium ago. At that time, monks or nuns made up nearly two per cent of the population, and a third of all land belonged to the Catholic church. The abbeys that housed these servants of God were centres for crafts, education and culture; monks produced masterful woodwork, practised medicine and metallurgy, developed sustainable farming methods, wrote historical texts, invented record keeping, finance and modern taxation, all while building architectural and engineering wonders. Their immense wealth and prestige posed a serious threat to the king, Henry VIII, who eventually decided to break them up. 

office house

office house

There is still a myth that the Reformation was about divorce. In fact, it was about power. Between 1536 and 1541, Henry went about destroying more than 900 monasteries, annexing their assets and creating a new church with himself as its head. (The abundance of these ruined spires in the landscape became the main inspiration for the English Picturesque movement centuries later.) 

After the dissolution of their homes, the monks and nuns became integrated with the general population, applying their particular way of life to every activity in society. Their academic and artisanal knowledge would translate into universities, guilds and eventually corporations. But perhaps the greatest impact was a radical reconfiguration of our relationship to time. 

The Romans divided a day equally into 12 ‘hours’ of light and 12 of dark. Consequently, the duration of an  hour varied considerably according to the season. For example, in a city like Lindum (present-day Lincoln), a lunch hour could last 84 minutes in summer, but just 37 minutes in mid-winter. This level of uncertainty was a serious problem for medieval monks. They believed that every action served God (a kind of perpetual liturgy) and, as such, the rhythm of the day and its orderly division  into periods of prayer, sleep and work, was extremely important. They spent most of their time alone, only coming together at certain times in the day for specific activities, intended to reinforce the monastery as the aforementioned community of individuals. Without accurate timekeeping, it was impossible for each  monk in his room to know when it was time to meet – hence, monks pioneered the use of mechanical clocks. These early timepieces had no dials, simply bells that  rang out in the cloisters.

Once time had been standardised in this way, new types of measurement began to emerge; with fixed periods, monks knew if they were getting more or less work done than on the previous day. This gave rise to the concept of productivity, as it was better to make more for God than less. The puritan work ethic, and the entire concept that work is fundamentally good, comes from this discovery. Very soon, the monks began to realise that methodical and structured collaboration resulted in higher-quality products when compared with unregulated, solitary work. They had developed the division of labour. 

By the late medieval era, as Henry contemplated his rampage, monasteries had become veritable factories. Moreover, they spread their ideas about work and time by constructing clock towers all over the land, creating public time and systematically restructuring agrarian society. 

Cafe jpg

Cafe jpg

After the Reformation, the monks and nuns formed associations dedicated to commerce and trade. From Clarks shoes and Cadbury, to Barclays and Lloyds, many of the oldest British companies were formed by puritan orders that emerged from the ruined monasteries.  They used the division of labour and ethic of productivity to create as much abundance for God as possible; in  other words, they pursued profit. Within a century this propelled Britain from a European backwater into the most technologically advanced country on earth. It put  an end to feudalism, created capitalism, spawned an empire and colonised a continent. The very same principles would later lead to the scientific method  and the Industrial Revolution. 

If we consider the statistics on how we live today, we seem to be returning to a monastic form of life: little or no sex, no children, one-room apartments in a closed complex, or little cells in a shared house. The architecture of the monastery is today reflected in every dwelling.

This new form of monasticism is particularly affecting young people, who are forced by shortages into over-occupying housing. They increasingly share homes built for families, converting all common spaces (living rooms, sometimes even bathrooms) into one-room cells. At such a large scale, this pressure to share spaces with strangers is driving individuals to spend more time alone in their rooms. For the first time ever, in 2014 the bed overtook the sofa as the most used piece of British household furniture – this is because we are watching less TV at the time when it is broadcast, and are spending more time at home watching our screens in bed rather than socialising.

The rise of Tinder, Grindr and other ‘hook-up’ apps disguises the global trend (led by Japan) toward less physical intimacy. One major cause appears to be lack of privacy at home. The other major cause is financial stress. With all our debt, we can’t afford to get married, have children or buy a house, even though surveys suggest these are the highest priorities for almost everyone under 40. 

However, more powerful than any of these factors is the return – after several centuries of lying dormant – of the monastic concept of perpetual work. The collapse of work and leisure means our sense of self and identity is defined almost exclusively by what we do, and what others (LinkedIn, Twitter, etc) say about what we do. We may have replaced God with Mammon, but this ‘always-on’, ‘stand-by’, ‘just-in-time’ lifestyle is monastic in every sense: we are our jobs, just like the monks. This phenomenon is a potent sign, reinforcing the reality that Western society is transitioning to a neofeudal capitalist regime of extreme privilege and wealth inequality.