We were sitting around the dining table, dinner over, really, but still chatting. I threw into the discussion a theme I had been talking about with my driving son on a recent Saturday. My companions are used to me doing this sort of thing.
‘What’s the best job you ever had?’
They looked at each other. One is a retired graphic artist, another is a retired gas fitter, a third is a former Treasury guy, and the fifth is a former Army officer, and he spoke first. He’d only really had one job, in the army, and he’d enjoyed it, rising to the most senior position in his area. The gas fitter, an immigrant from Serbia, had done all sorts of things, but the occupation that most satisfied him was his stint as a gas fitter. The artist enjoyed most the time when he had a job as a cleaner, when he had formed himself into a company. The man from Treasury occupied a significant role in that powerful place. They waited for my contribution, which was when I was a young academic researcher, able to do pretty well whatever I chose to do, and paid reasonably to do it. Indeed, I’d never had a real income before, so I was in a sort of heaven, doing what I wanted to do, not subject to supervision of any kind (I had to produce, but that was not a problem in my case), and paid a decent salary.
We went more deeply into the question, about which all of us had opinions and stories. What were the core ingredients for a really good job? One common theme was what we might call ‘autonomy’: you were trusted to do whatever it was with minimum supervision, which meant you were valued. That was a good feeling. Another was being properly paid, not so much highly paid, but what was appropriate given the level of skill you had, and all of my friends had specific skills. A third ingredient was something we might call ‘passion’ — we wanted very much to do what we were doing in our favourite job. In my case I could hardly believe my luck. I was being paid to do something, research, at which I was pretty good, and I simply loved it. I could work at any time, before dawn, at midnight, whenever I wanted to. And the best part was that I never saw it as work. It was fun, not drudgery. I could do it at home or at the university. I thought about it much of the time. The others had similar accounts. You would decide when you started and when you finished. You were good at it, whatever it was. Your clients, your colleagues, your superiors, they were all happy with what you did. You were keen to start the day’s work, and almost sorry when it ended.
After those came one about which we all had some reservations. I’d put it like this: the level of responsibility we had in our ‘best’ job was appropriate to where we were. I was asked why I hadn’t chosen being a vice-chancellor rather than being a junior wood-chuck. I’d thought about this. Being a V-C when I was in my fifties was exactly right. I was well prepared for the task, emotionally ready, too, and certainly well looked after. But that job came with a huge amount of responsibility — 10,000 students and 1,000 staff, a large budget, 120 hectares of campus, and so on and so on. Every difficult issue, if it couldn’t be solved further down the system, found its way to my table. One of our students suicided, another complained that her ‘boyfriend’ had insisted on sex and promised to tell her parents that they had been intimate, which would ruin her marriage prospects in her home country. Inevitably the boss is drawn into such matters, and you are never really prepared for them. So while I could say that being the V-C for more than a decade was an immensely satisfying job, because I thought I’d been most effective, it wasn’t fun in the way my first job was. And there were a few days, like the time we had a garbage strike, when I didn’t want to go to work at all. My dining companions could all provide their own equivalent tales.
So there it is, an interesting subject that we could all relate to and wrestle with. I engaged my companions with it because my son had been talking about his work. He loves what he does (he’s a middling senior public servant) and I asked him whether he thought his work was properly valued. Yes, he said, he was sure it was. He is what is sometimes called a ‘policy wonk’, and is given a good deal of latitude where he is for deciding his own priorities for work. He would have enjoyed the dining table conversation.
Do we all have a ‘best job’, I wonder. I fear that some people never have one. Some years ago I wrote a novel (Turning Point) part of whose story was the introduction of ‘flatter structures’ into a government defence factory. It had a dozen levels of management, the large number apparently due to the need for ‘co-ordination’, though what was being co-ordinated was not clear to anyone. By reducing the number of levels to about five the workers were given the opportunity to work together on what it was they were making, rather than being subject to continual direction, often by managers who had little idea of how it was actually done. The real opponents of this change were management and the unions, both of whom were used to hierarchy, and saw much less place for them in a factory based on flatter structures. My novel was set in the 1960s, and things may have changed.
Certainly the shift to self-employed tradies from the days when workers needed foremen to supervise them is a sign of change, as is the increasing number working from home. Canberra’s roads every day carry hundreds, maybe thousands, of tradie utilities. There may be a shift in the knowledge base of all trades, just as there had been an immense increase in the knowledge needed for almost anything. When I was deeply interested in ‘knowledge’, and that was the 1980s, it was claimed that the amount of human knowledge had increased by at least fifty times since the end of the second world war. That was forty years ago. How much has it expanded since then, I wonder.
But back to my readers. What was your best job, and why was it the best?