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lucy kellaway

Recently, I met a professor of office design who talked excitedly about creating visionary spaces for people to work in and filling the air with the scent of fresh linen. After a bit, I protested that surely all we wanted from an office building was natural light and something relatively comfortable to sit on.

"It's all very well for you to say that," he snapped. "You don't care about your surroundings because you love your job. Most people don't love theirs."

It is true that I do like my job. It's also true that most people don't like theirs one bit. (I'm avoiding the word "love" here, let alone "passion," as both are unseemly in an employee.) Every week brings another survey telling how occupational dislike rules in offices. Recently, there was a study showing that 77 per cent of British workers felt they had chosen the wrong career. In the United States, a recent report stated that only 19 per cent of workers professed themselves satisfied with their jobs.

This business of liking and not liking your work is the biggest gap between the haves and have-nots in the office, and affects how we feel about design – and everything else. Yet the division is rather mysterious – and quite unrelated to success or power or money. Powerful people with vast salaries almost never like their jobs. What keeps their shoulders to the wheel is something much more dysfunctional.

Take Stephen Hester, shortly to be relieved of one of the best rewarded and most hateful jobs in the U.K.: running the Royal Bank of Scotland. "It's been a very bruising and difficult job," he admitted. Yet instead of feeling happy to be out of it, disappointment was written all over his face. As he confessed to the FT's banking editor a week or so earlier: "I hate not winning. I hate it."

It's easy to conclude that the mass disliking of professional jobs is a modern affliction. You could say it is a result of jobs being too stressful – and of expectations being too high. The more people are told that jobs should be stimulating and meaningful, the more distasteful they find whatever mundane, repetitive thing they pass their days doing.

But actually I don't think it is a modern disease at all. It is something much more timeless: Most people simply do not find being a wage slave – even a privileged, professional one – an especially enjoyable arrangement.

The wisest self-help book ever, written in 1955 by Arnold Bennett, makes this point rather well. "The majority of decent average conscientious men of business … put not as much but as little of themselves as they conscientiously can into the earning of a livelihood, and … their vocation bores rather than interests them," he wrote.

The book is How to Live on 24 Hours a Day and can be downloaded for nothing: I recommend you read it now. But if you can't be bothered, I can tell you that Mr. Bennett takes mild disaffection with work for granted: It's entirely natural. He does not suggest looking for another job, or trying to improve the one we have. The answer, he says, is for each bored worker to find something absorbing and improving to do in the hours that are spent neither working nor sleeping.

Some of the advice is a little outdated. Most of us will have difficulty relating to his suggestion that you get your manservant to leave out a tray with "two biscuits, a cup and saucer, a box of matches and a spirit-lamp" for an early morning cup of tea to start you on your daunting reading. But otherwise, the principle is utterly sound. It is also utterly unfashionable.

The modern solution to the problem of disaffection is the "employee engagement" movement, where employers strive to make staff more involved in their work. Through such admirable efforts, people may come to dislike their jobs a little less, but I doubt if they ever make the shift from dislike to its opposite.

Liking your job comes from three things, none of which employers can control. It can come from within: Some people are blessed with sunny temperaments that make the best of everything. It can come from liking the people you work with. Or it can come from the work itself. Most people find it easier to like work that involves a craft of some sort. Writing is a craft, which is why I like it.

The professor was right about the dodginess of my judgment. Because I like my job, I naturally wrinkle my nose at the idea of smells of fresh linen. By contrast, Arnold Bennett spent many years bored rigid in "subservient positions in business" and so should be taken more seriously when he says: "The proper, wise balancing of one's whole life may depend upon the feasibility of a cup of tea."