When we were sixteen, my twin sister spent a summer working in the admissions office at a nearby college. I don’t remember what her job was, but I do remember that her boss spent all day playing solitaire on his computer. Every time my sister walked past his door, there he was, clicking away, trying to put those cards in order. He didn’t even attempt to hide it. My sister was shocked by this. He was the dean. He got up in the morning, showered, combed his hair, put on his business casual, drove to the office, and sat in his swivel chair playing solitaire from nine to five? She couldn’t believe it. I, however, was impressed.
My own experience with employment at the time was limited to one disastrous night babysitting—the kids were truly ill behaved, and when I couldn’t get them to come inside for bed, I tried reverse psychology and locked them out of the house—and one shift at Taco Bell, which I quit halfway through because I thought I was too good for fast food. Fast food was for poor people, and while I was I certainly poor, I knew it was just a matter of time before some benevolent force granted me riches, and probably fame, just for being myself. I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in a career, but I was sure my future was bright. Just look at my twin’s boss, who figured out how to take the good part of working (getting paid) without the bad (doing work). Genius! Academia, I thought, might be the place for me.
I did not end up going into academia. I didn’t end up going into anything at all, really, and have drifted from job to job over the past decade and a half, rarely staying in the same place for more then a few months. After quitting or getting fired, I am always sure (despite past experience) that the next thing will be better than the last. The truth is, I have never worked hard enough to expect professional success, and yet, when I ponder my current shitty job and shittier finances, I am continually surprised. How is it that I’m neither rich nor famous at this point? I’m thirty. These things were supposed to have been taken care of by now. Instead, I’m nothing but a cog in the machine, about as engaged with my work as the solitaire-playing dean.
This is my typical day: I wake up approximately fifteen minutes before I’m supposed to be at the office. Luckily, it’s a short commute. I wear clothes I wouldn’t put on to pick up toilet paper at Kmart (currently, mom jeans and a baseball cap from the Colorado Tourism Board that makes me look like the kind of lesbian who refers to her golden retriever as her “kid”). Once I get to work, I spend the few first hours eating breakfast at my desk and checking Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Slate, Salon, the Times, back to Facebook, back to Twitter, Dear Abby, Dear Prudence, Savage Love, The Hairpin, The Awl, The Onion, NPR, Instagram, Tumblr, my friend’s photo blog, back to Facebook, back to Twitter, etc. After I’ve exhausted the Internet, I usually sign into my work email and delete whatever messages I’ve received because I like to keep a clean inbox.
Since I started working at this office, I’ve managed to delegate all of my duties to people who were hired after me, so most days, I literally have nothing to do (my sister says this means I would make a good manager). I often pass the time with my own projects, and if I’m working on something I’m really into, the days fly by. Today was productive—I caught up on The New Yorker in the morning, and after lunch I made a coloring book for my nephew. I gathered everything I needed from the supply closet and proceeded to draw, cut, and staple for most of the afternoon. Had anyone walked into my office, it would have looked like I was crafting at my desk, which I suppose I was. Days like this are nice, but usually, I’m bored. I often find myself staring at the Nature Conservancy calendar over my desk, not doing anything but wasting my boss’s money and my own minutes on Earth. Like the lazy dean, I’ve found a way to get paid without working, and I’m miserable.
Aside from the boredom and a tiny bit of guilt (I do like the people I work for, just not the work) there’s the constant fear that someone is going to see what I’m doing or, worse, check my Internet history. I’ve taken care of the first concern by arranging my desk so that my back is to the wall, but anyone in the IT department could easily discern exactly what I’m up to all day, and the answer is not working. There are two ways to deal with this fear: I could stop fucking around, or I could just not think about it. At this point, it feels like it’s too late to stop fucking around. If I tell my boss I need something to do, maybe send an email around asking if anyone needs assistance, people might start to wonder what I’ve been doing. My office is in an out-of-the-way part of the building that my co-workers only trek to to shit in the bathroom that’s most likely to be empty, so for the most part, I’m ignored, but if someone decided to look into my browsing history, I would probably get fired. I try not to let this fear get to me; it’s like worrying about the apocalypse. There’s nothing I can do about it so I may as well put my feet up and read the paper.
It’s not just me, either. No one works. A recent Gallup poll found that only 30 percent of American workers are engaged in their workplace, and there are 20 million of us who actively hate our jobs. This means that I could easily entertain myself all day long solely by Gchatting with my friends who are also not doing whatever it is that they were hired to do. This not only applies to people with jobs you may think inspire such behavior—underpaid data entry jobs, for instance, the kind of work you are so resentful of that you don’t feel guilty for fucking around. It’s everyone. A friend who manages a manufacturing company told me she once brought a tanned hide into work and made sandals for herself. Even people whose jobs I envy are drifting off, wasting time, updating their statuses, and checking their Twitter every fifteen seconds. Included in this category is a friend whose job it is to throw parties at a museum, everyone in academia, and my boss, who spends most of the day tracking the price of gold online and then cuts out early to play tennis. I know someone who once worked at a publishing company while it was being renovated and she was the only person on her whole floor. She spent most of the day watching Hulu and masturbating.
When I’m at work, I feel like I’m in time-out, with nothing to do but count the seconds with my nose pressed against the wall. This unhappiness with my job doesn’t just bring me down, it brings down everyone around me. I used to be friendly, but now I’ve started ignoring my colleagues, passing them silently in the hall like I’m the only one left in the building. My unpleasant disposition has seeped into my non-work life as well. Lately, I prefer to be around my most negative friends. Instead of spending time with people who enjoy their lives, people with good things happening, I’d rather get drinks with the pessimists, those who are happiest when there is something to complain about. We talk about how the world is going to shit and make lists of the local businesses we would close if we were in charge. The Crossfit gym? That bar with no sign and $19 cocktails? All of the cupcake shops? Burn them to the ground. Burn everything to the ground.
I should quit before I get any meaner, but I need the money. I stopped paying off my student loans when I had to choose between my credit score and food—there’s no way I can leave this place without another job lined up. But that’s the problem with right now: careers that may have been a suitable match for me a generation or two ago—journalism, say, or rolling cigarettes for Christopher Hitchens—hardly exist anymore. Unless you want to move to the Dakotas and take up fracking, there are no jobs to be had. My father warned me it was going to be like this after I quit Taco Bell and got fired from babysitting: my generation would be the first to have it worse than our parents. I should have listened to him—worked harder, made a plan or two—but I was a kid, young and dumb and sure that things would be fine. Now it’s 2013, and this is the future I forgot to plan for: I’m thirty years old and one of 20 million unhappy workers, waiting everyday for the clock to hit five, less and less sure that success is near.