For the Love of Work 

As some may or not may not already know, the 1st of May is International Workers’ Day and is celebrated as a public holiday in South Africa. The history of May Day is significant in commemorating past efforts to eradicate workers’ rights violations and poor working conditions. Yet, as we reflect on the importance of worker solidarity, it almost feels disingenuous to attempt to consider the state of ‘work’ as a concept without contextualising within the broader pop culture media discourse taking place online about work and where it fits into our everyday life. And so, we begin with the (alleged) generational divide.

The Inter-Generational Dilemma…or Opportunity?

Every other week, there seems to be a bombardment of articles about how Gen Z (those born between 1997 to 2013) is one of the worst things to have happened to the modern workplace. Established publications write lengthy explanations about how ‘quiet quitting’ and anti-work attitudes wreak havoc on job permanence. On TikTok, countless creators produce viral videos depicting the difference between Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z in the workplace. Gen Z’s nonchalant attitudes are often the punchline due to the contrast in behaviour and mannerisms compared to their older colleagues. There seems to be some quietly agreed upon torrential dog-piling on Gen Z. This is not because they are young and naïve (although some would argue otherwise), but because they are choosing a path that many did not think was possible for them. But instead of anger being directed towards the systems that govern and dictate our access to fundamental rights to access a clean environment, housing, and food, the repeated cycle of anger is diverted to younger generations who hold little power compared to the 1% making decisions. Capitalism’s obsession with vilifying aspects of human nature that vigilantly centre on our well-being sets a precedent for how we are valued within the systems, institutions and organisations that we are tied to. Misplaced accountability sets a dangerous narrative on who deserves basic human rights based on “hard work”. But hard work is not determined by how much of ourselves we give to entities, nor is it predicated on tolerating substandard conditions to meet certain targets and objectives. This may sound like a fairy tale, but we all deserve to have jobs that value our time and efforts. We all deserve the right to prioritise our physical and mental well-being above unethical work expectations. We all deserve the right to choose how we show up for work, in whatever capacity that means for each of us. Kahlil Gibran puts it aptly in his book The Prophet by saying the following: 

“…to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.”

For many marginalised bodies and identities on the outskirts of what would be considered a “good worker”, now more than ever is it important to advocate for worker’s rights everywhere. In January this year, a few of the leading global tech companies laid off about 12,000-18,000 workers with no prior notice. Shareholder wealth since COVID-19 has increased tenfold, along with the salaries of top management executives across the board in various industries. According to an article written by Walter Matli (2020) on the insights of remote workers’ life situations in South Africa, the mixed reactions signalled the vastness in the experiences of workers for those in well or under-serviced communities. If we compare and contrast how we see ourselves and others within different work environments, then we need to consider how much more we have in common with each other than we think. The issues we think will never affect us may very well be the issues that affect us eventually (ditto to load-shedding being the new normal in South Africa).

International Workers’ Day is a crucial occasion to remind us of the significance of inter-generational solidarity and a humanistic perspective towards labour. It provides an opportunity to reflect on the persistent socioeconomic inequalities that afflict workers worldwide. If we are not aware of this crucial aspect of worker solidarity, it becomes a fictitious and non-committal fantasy through which we fail to understand the very essence of our being. 

Studying abroad: the unceasing struggle for freedom from fear

It is unbelievable that we are already four months into the year as we observe a month genuinely worthy of its commemoration. 27 April 1994 is a day symbolic of South Africa’s democratic leap, the day which saw Africans from all walks of life vote in the country’s first democratic elections. It’s been 29 years, and we have come a long way as a country. Like many other South African holidays in 2022 and 2023, I will celebrate Freedom Day from the U.S.

While thinking about Freedom Day, I decided to look up the definition of freedom in the Oxford dictionary, and among the results I found was ‘the state of not being imprisoned’. This struck a chord with me because of my experience as a visiting student researcher in a developed country. The definition of freedom has often represented the opposite of my experience as a South African student in the U.S., specifically during the first couple of months abroad. I should, however, add that these feelings never entirely subside. They persist throughout what should be and what sometimes is the best time of your life. In many instances, I have felt imprisoned by fears of not being good enough, smart enough, productive enough, or feeling like an imposter.

Of course, when one attains a scholarship as prestigious as the Fulbright, there is a great sense of recognition that you are capable and deserving. And, sometimes, I certainly feel more confident and driven to keep pushing forward. And often, I give it my best shot. However, those fearful moments creep in occasionally, filling you with self-doubt and becoming difficult to avoid.

No one talks much about how quickly the honeymoon phase of living abroad fizzles out. The excitement upon arrival has you site seeing every weekend and opening yourself up to make new friends, despite being hugely introverted. But despite that, about a month into the transition and having adjusted to – in my case – a new time zone, everything sets in, and you remember, ‘oh, this is now my new normal’. In the same breath, you are confronted with the fact that you are now in what’s often referred to as the land of the free, which implies that the U.S. is not only the place of endless opportunities but that you should seize each opportunity on offer. And even though the positives of the new normal substantially outweigh the negatives, a feeling which closely resembles the isolation of the 2020/2021 lockdown lingers persistently.

A good few of the contributing factors to what I have now identified as fear are the massive culture shock, being away from your family and support network, adjusting to different work culture, having to master a new lifestyle, missing out on special milestones of loved ones back home, financial difficulties, adapting to local food, feeling like you do not belong, trying to make friends, the gloomy weather and oh my soul, the time difference in my case. Travelling to study abroad without a booked returned ticket is a topic I will unpack in a future post.

But, as ever, fear remains the constant by-product of change. And so long as we are willing to adjust and adapt to the change, the opportunity for growth will follow. With time, I have learned to acknowledge the fear and attempt to pinpoint what brought it up. I have had to do this every day to not stand in my own way of taking advantage of every opportunity presented to me during this time.

And so, for the past eight months, alongside leaning into this period to stretch me as it should, I have been using the following mechanisms to help free me from fear and anxiety: sharing playlists with my loved ones, getting some sunlight, leaning on my parents for support, taking walks, working out, prioritising social events, planning holidays, and being honest about my feelings and experience and asking for help.

Some might notice that listening to podcasts is not featured on this list, as it was in my ‘day in the life vlog’, and that is because the painful beauty of living abroad relies heavily on a willingness to adapt to the inevitable changes and finding new ways to move away from fear to find happiness. To a great deal, this is an initially challenging realisation for those who, like me, thrive under a strict routine. A final and principal realisation has been that while in the comfort of physically being in South Africa, we may be riddled by fear and anxiety, which prompts us to hide behind high walls and electric fences, but there is no greater freedom than being home, and that is a freedom I look forward to upon my return to South Africa.