The stresses of menial work
Should young workers put much effort into their jobs or even expect a reward other than pay?
Two young writers at the Melbourne Writers Festival, held at the State Library from September 8 to 11, spoke of their alienation from the workforce.
Prize-winning novelist Jessica Au read a demeaning scene set in a restaurant.
And short story writer Paul Dalla Rosa spoke about the nitty gritty of working in a call centre.
Their analyses, at a session Brief Encounters on September 10, sought to examine menial work from the inside.
“Most types of work in the service economy are dystopic,” Dalla Rosa said, summing up the investigation in his highly acclaimed book An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life.
In the story Contact a 32-year-old woman has taken a job in call centre so she can afford to live alone in an apartment. No-one cares about her as a person.
She used to be a poet, but management does not recognise her talent. Instead, they are critical of her style on the phone.
They’ve told her to put more emotion into her voice when greeting customers but not too much.
“The woman believes that a finite amount of emotion can be put into the words: ‘This call is being recorded’,” Dalla Rosa told the session.
And who could argue with him? The words “please hold” are similarly difficult to jazz up in Cold Enough for Snow, Lau’s prize-winning novella, the narrative focuses at one point on a waitress who is kind to a diner but pays the price for letting her guard down.
The diner begins speaking but doesn’t know when to stop. He goes on and on.
“It’s a high-end restaurant and the experience takes something from her,” Lau told the Writers Festival.
The diner doesn’t seem to get that the waitress has other customers to serve.
By the time he has finished talking, the orders are banking up and the waitress, who takes pride in performance, feels belittled.
These stories highlighted cultural differences between direct and more ambiguous ways of handling situations, Lau said.
In the past, panels at the Writers Festival discussed themes arising out of recently published novels.
This year ambition was the over-riding theme and if this session was anything to go by, a new syndrome is emerging, a pre-work disorder (PWD) that protects the young from the stresses of menial work. •