Who gets to have fun...at work?

Fransini Giraldo says her job as a dance instructor is totally fun, but that her parents wouldn't say the same about their work.

Nobody gets up in the morning and goes to fun. We go to WORK. But more and more, we want to have fun at work. Remember the ping-pong tables and Nerf guns during the dot-com boom? All those tech geeks in Silicon Valley looked like they were having so much fun. The idea was to stimulate a sense of purpose and spur innovation by encouraging employees to have fun.

But in today’s economic doldrums, is having fun at work as important as it used to be? If it is, who's having it? And who's not? Or is "fun work" only for the select few? Time to kick off our "fun at work" summer series with a look at just who gets to do "fun work."

LET'S DANCE!

It may seem obvious, but what's more fun than dancing for your paycheck? No, not that kind of dancing! I mean like what  Fransini Giraldo does for a living. She is a Latin dance and fitness instructor in Los Angeles. She teaches samba, salsa, Zumba, does weight training and body sculpting. And Giraldo never looks miserable at work. I know. I'm one of her students. She says it's those endorphins that keep her happy.

“Moving and being creative provides that sense of fun,” she says.

Giraldo says she's worked hard for the opportunity to do fun work. She was the first in her family to graduate from college. She studied Kinesiology and has made a conscious effort to do what keeps her smiling. The same can't be said for her parents though.

Giraldo moved to the U.S. from Cali, Colombia when she was 19. Her working class roots made it difficult to climb the income ladder in Colombia, so her family moved to the United States in search of more opportunity. When her parents arrived, they found work in textile factories in South Carolina. Her mom works in a factory and makes mattresses, car rugs and Halloween costumes.

"I don't think she has fun," says Giraldo. "She complains that the work is hard and her fingers are developing arthritis because of the work that she does."

I QUIT!

"I don't remember my dad coming home and telling stories about how much fun he had at work," says Karl Staib, an entrepreneur and author of the book "Work Happy Now." "He basically came home, ate and then went downstairs and did some billing."

Like Giraldo, Staib was the first in his family to graduate from college. His dad is an electrician who runs the family business with his mom. Staib, on the other hand, got a degree in marketing and has  hated every job he’s had. In 2008 at the beginning of the economic meltdown, Staib quit his job at a credit union in search of fun. Now, he teaches workshops on how to have fun in the office and says that a creative outlet at work is key.

Katherine L. Ziegler, a psychologist and career coach, notes that the recession has made fewer of her clients willing to risk ditching a terrible job in search of more fulfilling or  fun work. "I do hear a lot of people say, ‘well I don't really like this job, it's denigrating, it produces anxiety, but I'm afraid to leave because the economy is so bad.’"

FUN MATTERS!                                                                                    

Richard Florida, author of "The Rise of the Creative Class" and a business professor at the University of Toronto, shares Ziegler's view of fun work. "It’s interesting, especially in the middle of a recession," he says, "to be talking about fun at work." But, he adds, now is the perfect time to be having the conversation. Florida believes we're quickly moving into a two-tiered economy of knowledge work and service work. He says knowledge work lends itself more easily to fun. Artists like Fransini Giraldo, entrepreneurs like Karl Staib, engineers, professors, doctors are, for the most part, he says, college-educated workers whose unemployment rate never tops 5 percent.

But the service tier is comprised of workers with a high school diploma, whose unemployment rate is in the double digits and whose pay is so low they have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Not fun. And Florida argues that, in the long run, encouraging that kind of cheap labor is also not good for the economy.

"Nurturing human talent and nurturing human beings is the key to economic advance," says Florida. "We can build purpose and meaning into work and I wish that's the conversation we would be having in this country."

Human beings are resilient, he says. We’ve found ways throughout history to have fun while laboring in fields and in factories. But in an affluent society, fun should mean more than whistling while we work.

About the author

Shereen Marisol Meraji is a reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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