Where did our work ethic go? As someone who has two part-time jobs, several children and a largeish household to run, I find myself on the trot all the time. When I’m not at work, I’m doing the school run. When I’m not outside a school gate my toddler and I are running household errands (anyone with a two-year old will appreciate the insanity of this endeavour). When I’m not doing that, I’m preparing a lecture, writing this column or trying to make inroads into my own creative work. None of that? Then it’s fifteen people over for dinner. I do realize my work is more or less the usual work an upper-middle class working(ish) mother and wife is probably doing, but I take it seriously and I do it the best I can. I won’t skive, mainly because I am a grown-up and you cannot skive when people depend on you.
Unfortunately a lot of people I interact with don’t seem to think so. Work is that toad that sits upon many a life, and the main objective is to do as little as possible in order to escape detection by an employer. I teach university students who will invariably ask for extensions on deadlines given well in advance because they have other things to do, ranging from extra-curricular activities to other exams. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that my teaching them is my work, and when it’s time for grades I’m not asking my boss for an extension because I had to do something else. I’d love to be on holiday instead of reading endless essays on why you think Bertrand Russell’s skill as a logician is sub-par. But I’m not, I’m at my desk trawling through thousands of words per student because that is what you are meant to do when you take on responsibility: step up.
We don’t seem to be acutely interested in stepping up, though. Nobody seems to feel particularly embarrassed any more at being caught slacking off—at the passport office (where I find myself far too often it seems) there will be one person manning a three-person desk. Where are the other two people? It’s 11 AM and they still haven’t waltzed in to work, and nobody seems to be bothered because they probably came in half an hour ago themselves. The one thing I’d thank the provincial government for is the seven-to-ten wedding slot, because by eleven you can be done and dusted with the festivities and cosily home in your pajamas watching television instead of thinking about getting ready for a wedding. Punctuality is a thing to be laughed at generally, but the threat of blinking lights at nine-thirty has galvanized the otherwise incredibly late wedding scene in Lahore into something resembling civility. Now if only that same rigour could be applied to other aspects of life; then we’d be gold.
It’s a strange situation. The kids who work hard and consistently are the ones who get teased for being nerds, and when they are successful they are envied by the same people who were laughing before. The domestic staff that resents their employer will take ten days off work because their aunt’s son’s brother-in-law is getting married, but catch anyone working in an office getting that kind of leave even for their own wedding. That’s not how the world works; there are no free lunches. Then why are we raising kids who go to expensive universities and expect that the world will re-adjust itself for them? Why are we setting such rubbish examples ourselves by being perpetually late, by making customers wait whilst we finish up personal conversations on our cell phones, by taking half days off just to pray? We use every excuse we can to avoid having to put our nose to the grindstone, and then feel angry and resentful when we want things we can’t have because we just haven’t earned it.
The trouble is that a lot of people have got lots of nice things they haven’t earned, and therein lies the rub. In a class-based, money-based society like ours we automatically associate class and prestige with the person driving the Prado. No questions asked about how that Prado was acquired. As a society, we have ceased entirely to care about things like family, education and integrity; we flick through the Sunday magazines and wish we could wear the lawn and carry the handbags and take the beach vacations. That’s about it. We don’t have a social conscience any more because we don’t care about hard work and what that means. That’s why our governments are fine with chopping down trees and razing historical buildings; that is why protests for civil justice are so miserably attended. We have no sense of having built something, of having made a contribution, of wanting to give back in a meaningful way. How can we, when the sum of our desire is a Mercedes? When we go to college not to learn and realize our intellectual potential, but as a springboard to a lucrative job? People who want all the wrong things are the ones who don’t rock the boat, because the status quo is exactly what suits them. So we’re all out here looking for a shortcut to wealth and huge flat-screen televisions. In Pakistan there is no shortage of shortcuts, and since everyone is taking them only the nerds, the prigs and the losers are the ones who work hard, who show up, who get things done. Everyone else is just killing time and saying “no tension”.