A Doctor against the Meaninglessness

A Doctor against the Meaninglessness

- in Culture

While the debate on basic income is hot both globally and nationally, one of its foremost advocate works long hours in Lund. Roland Paulsen’s driving force is to free us from the constraint of work.

At the access control in Mälarhöjdens subway station, a young Roland Paulsen was shocked. He had recently moved to Stockholm from Dalarna to study and received work as access control security. He was supposed to punch tickets, but since he had the night shift there were barely any tickets to punch. The meaninglessness at work was astounding.

“It felt incredibly strange. I grew up on a farm where work was very specific. At the access control it was only about killing time”.

There, a seed was sown. Roland Paulsen started thinking about what he later came to call “empty work”, work that does not really fill a function in society, and that definitely is not meaningful, but that still exists.

At first, Roland Paulsen was going to study psychology. He wanted to understand why people feel the way they do. But life in Stockholm gave him insight – namely that societal structures affect the psyche, that peoples’ health are not only chemical balances in the brain.

“I also worked as a waiter at the restaurant Den gyldende freden in Stockholm. It was the worst job I’ve ever had. It was extremely frustrating to never show your real feelings to the guests. It affected me strongly emotionally”, he says.

Instead, Roland Paulsen chose to study sociology. Early on in the education, he noticed that many sociologists studied the conditions of working life, but not the work’s meaning. He knew from his own experience what kind of destructive influence a meaningless job had on well-being, and that way meaningless work became his area of expertise. After that, it did not take long before Roland Paulsen wrote his doctoral thesis. He then moved down to Lund University to cooperate with researcher Mats Alvesson who had founded a school called Critical Management Studies.

However, it was first in 2015 when he gave out the book Vi bara lyder (t/n We simply obey), a reporting book about Arbetsförmedlingen’s occasionally absurd rules and employment measures, that Roland Paulsen hade a wide breakthrough. The book became a smash hit which lead to a national debate about the roll Arbetsförmedlingen plays in Sweden.

Vi bara lyder begins with Roland Paulsen’s own visit to Arbetsförmedlingen. He signs up with his PhD and is immediately pushed into the unforgiving system. It is expected that he shows up at “jobbforum” and he is encouraged to apply for research posts in fields completely different from his own.

“When you come to Arbetsförmedlingen and ask for help they put demands on you, at times completely ludicrous ones, whose only effect is that they wear you down. As I see it, it’s an expensive penalty system meant to make sure that you don’t get too comfortable”, he thinks.

With time, Roland Paulsen has become a central defender of the idea of citizen salary, or basic income. The basic income proposal means that everyone in society are given an income that they can survive on without any need for reciprocation. But what is it that draws him to this idea? To that question, Roland Paulsen refers to an opinion survey that shows that 90% of all working people in the world have a job they don’t feel committed to. Four out of five people would switch jobs if possible, or stop working altogether if they won the lottery, another says.

“It becomes clear that most of us are working due to economical constraints”.

And in many European countries, basic income is actually already being introduced, albeit on a very modest scale. In Finland, the government has proposed a test where every citizen receives the equivalent of 7500 SEK each month instead of grants based on the need for it. In both the Netherlands and Canada small scale basic incomes are about to be introduced, and in Switzerland a referendum on the issue is going to be held in June.

The tests in Europe have received heavy criticism, mostly from the left wing. The newspaper Arbetets editorial writer Martin Klepke wrote in January that the Finnish basic income risks lowering entry salaries and create a new lower class of “working poor”. Roland Paulsen agrees, a low basic income risks failing. He scratches his ear and ponders his next wording:

“I also see the big risks with the proposition, of course. A low basic income may have the effect that many employers lower the workers’ salaries, especially in professions where salaries are already low”.

To Roland Paulsen, a basic income worth the name should be sufficient for someone to lead a bearable life on, because he thinks it is at that point that it starts affecting peoples’ well-being.

Roland Paulsen looks down the street from Arimans’ outdoor area. He speaks without pause but with much eagerness. The coffee cup in front of him is going cold.

“Technically it’s not hard to introduce a basic income of 20 000 SEK a month. We would need to change the tax basis, but it is fully doable. Politically, however, the resistance is tough”, he says.

Roland Paulsen thinks that many assume that it has a demoralizing effect on us not to work, and that it would make us passive and ill. From left to right, work is instead seen as a blessing, which he thinks may have to do with how a different view on work may lead to questioning capitalism. Despite having become a famous advocate for free time even Roland Paulsen spends a lot of his time working.

“I am occupied with very free research, which I find immensely pleasing. So I belong to a very small part of the population”.

But he remembers how it was to hate his job.

“We have a spiritual crisis going on in the shadows. Almost ten percent of the population takes some kind of antidepressants. Among young people, one fifth claim that they feel bad on a regular basis. There’s a mystery, what is the reason for this? Is it simply chemical imbalances in the brain? I don’t believe so. I think a part of this is because people don’t thrive when living constrained”.

Roland Paulsen

Does: Doctor of Sociology at Lund University. Author of the books Arbetssamhället – Hur arbetet överlevde teknologin (t/n Working society – how work survived technology) and Vi bara lyder

Fun fact: Wrote an article in 2010 on online dating, about how capitalism affects the most intimate.

Text: Gustav Wirtén in Culture, May 26 2016

Translation: Elise Petersson

 Photo: Lukas J Herbers


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