8 min read

the work of William Morris

What can William Morris teach us about enjoying our jobs?

happiness at work

What makes people happy at work?

This is a big question, and one which we'll be coming back to time and again. For now, let's invite someone to the stage to give their answer: how about William Morris?

William Morris was once a poet/artist/writer/titan of the Arts & Crafts movement. He has now found immortality in the curtains of the middle classes.

Morris tackled the problems that a young Marx had identified. In particular, that of the alienation of labour: where the automatism that capitalism demands from labour separates workers from the products they make, from their colleagues, and from the means of production. Alienated workers are unhappy workers.

Morris describes a world cured of alienation in one of his novels, News from Nowhere (1890). A Victorian man, William Guest, falls asleep next to Hammersmith Bridge. When he wakes up, he has been transported to the 21st century. There he finds socialism - or Morris's version of socialism - in the society of 'Nowhere'. Mr Guest then travels up and down the Thames meeting people who tell him all about Nowhere.

We find that the smokestack of Victorian England has been replaced by an Eden, with the common ownership of all property, the abolition of money/class/law/divorce/government, the rewilding of cities etc..

News from Nowhere is squirmingly didactic and often silly. For instance, there's this on socialism and skincare:

She blushed and said: “How old am I, do you think?”

“Well,” quoth I, “I have always been told that a woman is as old as she looks, so without offence or flattery, I should say that you were twenty.”

She laughed merrily, and said, “I am well served out for fishing for compliments, since I have to tell you the truth, to wit, that I am forty-two.”

I stared at her, and drew musical laughter from her again; but I might well stare, for there was not a careful line on her face; her skin was as smooth as ivory, her cheeks full and round, her lips as red as the roses she had brought in; her beautiful arms, which she had bared for her work, firm and well-knit from shoulder to wrist.  She blushed a little under my gaze, though it was clear that she had taken me for a man of eighty...

The novel also contains an ideal of work. Industrialisation is over. Workers are not paid. Instead, they work for pleasure. The pleasure derived from work is that of the pre-industrial artisan: of working with one's hands, of undivided labour, of creating beautiful objects, of seeing the use that others derive from your work.

The citizens of the utopia describe this ideal:

...All work which would be irksome to do by hand is done by immensely improved machinery; and in all work which it is a pleasure to do by hand machinery is done without.  There is no difficulty in finding work which suits the special turn of mind of everybody; so that no man is sacrificed to the wants of another.  From time to time, when we have found out that some piece of work was too disagreeable or troublesome, we have given it up and done altogether without the thing produced by it.  Now, surely you can see that under these circumstances all the work that we do is an exercise of the mind and body more or less pleasant to be done: so that instead of avoiding work everybody seeks it: and, since people have got defter in doing the work generation after generation, it has become so easy to do, that it seems as if there were less done, though probably more is produced. ..

...it is each man’s business to make his own work pleasanter and pleasanter, which of course tends towards raising the standard of excellence, as no man enjoys turning out work which is not a credit to him, and also to greater deliberation in turning it out; and there is such a vast number of things which can be treated as works of art, that this alone gives employment to a host of deft people.  Again, if art be inexhaustible, so is science also...

There's an arrogance to all this. Morris's idealised description of work is a description of his own life: "I'm an artist that comes from a rich family. I work with my hands. I have lots of interests. I work for pleasure because I don't need money. Wouldn't it be good if everyone could be like me?"

Morris's arrogance aside, News from Nowhere can be reduced to 9 quite useful tips for a happy working life:

  1. Socialising (the labour described in the novel is always a collective effort, with lots of banter flying around);
  2. Working with one's hands / physical activity;
  3. Autonomy;
  4. Producing items of beauty;
  5. Producing items of good quality;
  6. Variety (the citizens of Morris's utopia all seem to be renaissance men - weavers spend their spare time studying maths etc.);
  7. The absence of machines save for where they are absolutely necessary;
  8. Work without much division of labour (i.e. you are involved in every stage of the production process);
  9. Seeing others use and take pleasure in the product that you provide to them.

Postal worker

A quick experiment: if one of my interviewees is happy with their job, can their happiness be explained by the fact that their job is close to William Morris's ideal version of work?

I interviewed a postman last year who was content with his job. In his case, I think the answer to the above question is: yes, pretty much.

Photo by Kutan Ural on Unsplash

(1) socialising? Yes. There's lots of socialising at the depot:

[Time to socialise?] I think that's a big part of the job. As much as it's work. And you know, I say this lightly, I used to run a [fast food restaurant], which is a different kind of work altogether. And then to go to Royal Mail, where everyone just comes in and they're all happy as larry, and talking with each other, and they get together but they're working but at the same time, we're socialising. So there's there's definitely an element of that. It's good, though.

(2) physical work? Yes.

(3) autonomy? Yes - or at least probably. Postal work involves fixed shifts, of course. However, your interaction with management is light, and you are left alone to get on with the round (e.g., Royal Mail are apparently happy for posties to listen to music and podcasts as they work).

The autonomy that comes with doing your job outside of the gaze of your manager is not to be underestimated. I used to work in a school uniform shop, and I can still recall the sheer bliss of having a picking task to do in the un-patrolled warehouse (provided you had enough time to do it).

(4) beautiful products? No, probably not:

When I was young, I was all about drawing. Everything: draw it, draw it, draw it. When I left college, in the last few months, it was when the computers came in. You started to see a change then. Before it was all about how good you could draw. Then, when the guy next to me can just [motions typing] in minutes. That took the edge off for me. I got my grades and left. I never really followed it on. The artist inside of me is in everything now: the way we design the house or the living room or wherever, there's an artistic flair.

[Do you get to express that in your job at all?] No, not in the job.

(5) good quality products? Not in a conventional sense.

(6) variety? Somewhat. The tasks involved are repetitive (sorting letters, posting letters). The variety comes from the different locations & weather:

I start walking. I'm on marine parade. Very nice. The houses are one way, but the sea is the other way. You can't help but take in the view.

And the defined working hours allow postal workers to do other things, like the polymathic weaver in News from Nowhere:

I read all these books on philosophy. It teaches you to take on board what other people have got to say and how they've seen it. It might not have happened like that. But that's how they've seen it.

[What are you doing on when you've got four days off?] I normally spend it down my allotment.

(7) absence of unnecessary machines? The postie is not yet beholden to the machine.

On the one hand:

The PDA units, the handheld guns, they've got the locations on all day. If them guns sit still for more than 15 minutes, they start vibrating. The management can look at it [the data]. I don't know whether they do to the extent that Amazon do, but we're going along that wavelength. It will come in soon.

On the other hand: those scanners are incidental to the essential nature of the job, which remains thoroughly manual; you walk around with a trolley delivering post.

Even the sorting that a postie has to do before their round is manual:

And then you have to prep two walks, so I prep my walk and my partner's walk. Those boxes of mail should already be out. I started throwing the letters off for about 45 minutes, then I'll go and check to see if there's any parcels in there in the mini Yorks that have come in that are for us, and then I'll take them around.

(8) undivided labour? Kind of. It's not exactly a Ford factory. You're out and about sorting, scanning, posting, greeting, walking, driving.

(9) seeing others take pleasure in your product? Yes, especially during Covid:

[Did you feel like you were treated differently during Covid?]
At first, yeah. Oh, God, walking down the street and people would bang on the windows "hello", and waving to the postman. "Thank you so much for the work you do". We was getting biscuits. There was drinks left outside. Cans of coke. It was really nice. And to an extent you felt like "At last, getting some praise", and it's well worth it. But like everything, it doesn't last. And I think as soon as we came out of lockdown that was it: "oh it's the postman" - "don't worry about him, just leave him to it".


The postie scores a healthy 7/9 on the William Morris scale. Not bad. Not bad.

Two final thoughts on William Morris.

First, I recently bought a teapot with one of William Morris's Strawberry Thief prints on it. The teapot says "Designed in England" on the base. I presume this means that it was not manufactured in England. It's a fair assumption that it was manufactured in the far east.

I wonder what Morris would have thought about this. He spends his life railing against mass production - the Jeremiah of English craftwork. And yet, after his death, his designs are gobbled up by his nemesis, the stomping monster of global capitalism. And alienated workers in eastern factories are put to work churning out Strawberry Thief teapots.

Second, how should we place the knowledge economy within Morris's ideal of work? Can a software developer be said to be an artisan or a craftsman? I think so. And a software developer that I interviewed thought so, too:

I was reading something to do with... the distraction cycle of humans. Most people can only concentrate for 90 minutes, and then they have to take a break for half an hour or something like that. And the only exception to that is if you're working with your hands, and building something. And I think that - obviously, you're on a keyboard so it's different to building something out of wood - but I think there's something that's like very appealing to humans about creating things. That definitely is part of the reason that I enjoy coding... you go from nothing, and then you have something, even if it maybe isn't the best.

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