In today’s world of hyperconnected, digital capitalism, we hear constantly that careers should be rewarding, fulfilling endeavours that create meaning for our lives. This is in no way representative of most people’s experiences, particularly for those who commute long distances. Work doesn’t give meaning to your life… it just becomes your life.
I saw great evidence of collective worker misery this week whilst commuting to Sydney for two different events. For a little over three years, I also commuted to Sydney from my home town of Wollongong, optimising the trip over time to the point that I couldn’t make it any shorter. My two recent trips were a dark reminder of that earlier period.
People of all ages and backgrounds pile into overcrowded trains, jostling for seats and tiny gaps in which to stand in the stairways and vestibules. It’s always either too hot or too cold in the carriages and passengers turn to their iPhones for any kind of basic amusement, usually in the form of exploitative, free-to-play games with in-app purchases.
The people whom I pity the most are those who do their work on the commute before they even arrive at work, frantically sending emails in the hope of achieving inbox-zero before the end of the week.
Many would say that working on the train is an efficient use of time that would otherwise be spent staring out the window. I don’t believe this at all. It’s an illness. Not only do people waste months of their lives sitting in the same odorous carriages on the way to work, they then further sacrifice their time by doing extra work for an organisation that neither knows nor cares about it.
Digital devices and services that are meant to make our lives easier have become tools of oppression, enabling this productivity-in-transit lifestyle. It seems that for many, flexible work can quickly become even more work, just away from a desk.
I’m glad that I escaped this daily death march to work in Sydney and I only hope that more people can do the same. We need to ask ourselves what we’re working for and why we are motivated to do certain things. Long-distance commuting has become an unfortunate norm and I fear that many just accept their circumstances, never stopping to achieve better balance in their lives. A sacrifice will always have to be made. In most cases, that will be one’s health and time with family.