Labour day: a fairy tale

Once upon a time, in a country across the sea, there was a king. The king was in a bad state, because all the money that he made from selling bread to his subjects was spent on his subjects’ wages, so that there was no money left on Sunday for himself and his ministers to eat raspberry cake. On this particular day, all they could afford was plain cake, and when the young heir, who had been taking tea in the nursery, entered the great hall and asked: ‘Daddy, where are the rahbries in my cake?’, the king’s heart broke in two.

So the king gathered his ministers, and the first minister said: ‘sell more bread’, but there was only so much grain the king’s farmers could grow in a week, and only so much flour his millers could grind, and bread his bakers could bake. Then the second minister spoke, and he said: ‘stop paying wages to the people’, but the king had tried that, and noticed that the people had stopped buying his bread. Besides, there had been a lot of shouting in front of his palace and his roses had been trampled on; in short, the whole business had been very unpleasant. But then two new ministers stepped forward. They had only just arrived at the court, but the king had heard they had greatly helped out a befriended head of state with his wardrobe.

The two ministers stepped forward and announced they could take away all the king’s worries. All he had to do was run a lottery. Everyone who worked for him would enter the lottery: their ticket came instead of their wages. Each Sunday, the king would have to draw a winner and that winner would receive a fifty-fold weekly wage and could loaf about for an entire year if they so chose.

So that evening the king issued lottery tickets, and everything worked splendidly. The whole week long, his subjects worked away diligently, and the king still saved ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine weekly wages in one week. The winner of the lottery came to the palace – but rather than trample on the king’s roses, he shook hands with him. Meanwhile, the rest of the people mustered fresh courage for the following week’s lottery.

And everyone in the kingdom lived happily but on average very shortly.


The drawing is by Queen Victoria, of her son Albert Edward (1843), and now in the UK Royal Collection RCIN 980062 (reproduction from Wikimedia Commons). Unnecessary to add that Albert Edward was not the prince in the fairy tale; Victoria’s drawing is used purely because it offers such a beautiful illustration to the story.


CV of Failures

Public domain. Placed on Wikimedia Commons by Fry1989.

Public domain. Placed on Wikimedia Commons by Fry1989.

We live in a market economy – a market economy in crisis, where jobs are scarce – which means that in our work, just doing our job is not good enough. We have to ‘excel’, ‘stand out’, in short: be the best. Employers are spoilt for choice. In many sectors, a single vacancy will routinely receive a hundred applications.

How can workers make sure they don’t lose their heads in these circumstances? (‘Workers’, that’s most people in this case: everyone who earns a living through working, rather than through winning a million and living off the interest. Even small entrepreneurs have to compete in ruthless market and application processes.)

One worker in the academic sector has just shown how: by demonstrating that no one is perfect – that no one is ‘the best’. Alongside his ordinary CV, economist Johannes Haushofer published his CV of Failures online. (Other academics have done similar things, some of them inspired by this article by Melanie Stefan.)

Have a look. It will

  1. make you feel better about your own failures;
  2. show the marketeers of ‘excellence’ how misguided their concept is: as Haushofer explains, his successes and failures have always been largely a matter of chance rather than a matter of belonging to the best or not;
  3. inspire solidarity: if employees share their failures, corporate employers have less ammunition to play them off against each other (as in ‘look, Haushofer has had a 100% success rate, so why don’t you?’);
  4. make us rethink whether the current system of grant and subsidy applications that governs many sectors of work, is really the most efficient system we can come up with: a lot of productive time is wasted by it.


    Public domain. Placed on Wikimedia Commons by Fry1989.