The pandemic and now the looming return to the office have inspired a torrent of writing about how we should change our relationship to work. Which is great, work is something we ought to reassess continually. But what I am finding to read on this topic is strangely blinkered, shot through, it seems to me, with an improbably utopian vision of both economics and psychology.
Right now the most widely read long screed in this vein is probably Jonathan Malesic's "The Future of Work Should Mean Working Less," which the editors of the NY Times spiced up with numerous reader responses to prompts like "I am never going back to _____" and "I resolve to _____"
You pick up on the problem with Malesic near the beginning when he starts quoting Thoreau – always a bad sign in any social thinker – zeroing in on one of the paradigmatically bad Thoreauisms:
We should look for purpose beyond our jobs and then fill work in around it. We each have limitless potential, a unique “genius,” as Henry David Thoreau called it. He believed that excessive toil had stunted the spiritual growth of the men who laid the railroad near Walden Pond, where he lived from 1845 to 1847. He saw the pride they took in their work but wrote, “I wish, as you are brothers of mine, that you could have spent your time better than digging in this dirt.”
If you're Wendell Berry and you really think we should all go back to being subsistence farmers, fine. But for the rest of us who like having trains (and cars, airplanes, computers, smartphones, sewer systems, solar panels, and so on) this is nonsense. If we're going to have anything, somebody has to make it, and much of that work is not going to be fun. To me, the fact that some things simply have to be done is absolutely missing from this whole discourse.
Consider this line:
Pope Leo mentioned miners as deserving “shorter hours in proportion as their labor is more severe and trying to health.” Today, we might say the same about nurses, or any worker whose ordinary limitations — whether a bad back or a mental health condition — makes an intense eight-hour shift too much to bear.
But if an eight-hour shift as a hospital nurse is too much to bear (actually most hospital nurses work 12-hour shifts, but setting that aside) then who is going to take care of sick people? If we're going to cut the hours nurses work then we're either going to have to pay nurses less, or hire more of them and charge everybody more for health care. It's simple math. But simple math is, so far as I can tell, beyond the ken of Malesic and his ilk.
As it is, work sits at the heart of Americans’ vision of human flourishing. It’s much more than how we earn a living. It’s how we earn dignity: the right to count in society and enjoy its benefits. It’s how we prove our moral character. And it’s where we seek meaning and purpose, which many of us interpret in spiritual terms. . . . But work often doesn’t live up to these ideals. In our dissent from this vision and our creation of a better one, we ought to begin with the idea that each one of us has dignity whether we work or not. Your job, or lack of one, doesn’t define your human worth.
This view is simple yet radical. It justifies a universal basic income and rights to housing and health care. It justifies a living wage. It also allows us to see not just unemployment but retirement, disability and caregiving as normal, legitimate ways to live.
To which, ok, sure, people who can't work remain human, and Malesic has some good paragraphs on disabled people trying to recover their dignity. But how, exactly, are we suppose to work less and provide people with more: guaranteed housing, guaranteed health care, a universal basic income? Those things are expensive, which means it takes a gigantic amount of labor to make them happen. The world Malesic describes would require those of us who do work to somehow produce even more than we already do, which isn't going to leave us much time for pursuing our genius or even righting our work-life balance.
I think part of the reason so many people today anguish about the time they spend working is that we live in an extraordinarily rich world. We have a million things we could be doing instead, from video games and streaming movies to bike paths and National Parks. But if we all worked less, including the game designers and the film-makers and the novelists and the people who build bicycles and bike trails, and the park rangers, then our world would be less rich, and we would have a lot less to do. If the doctors and nurses and drug chemists worked less, we would die a lot younger and have much less time to explore our individual geniuses.
This is the heart of my beef with the whole anti-work movement. What, I want to ask, are you willing to give up? The answer, it seems to me, is usually "nothing." There are a few people out there who understand the equation, like the Times reader who wrote,
I resolve to: save more, stay put.
That is the sort of decision you have to make to actually escape from work.
But I see a persistent denial that there even is such an equation. One symptom of this denial is the obsession with David Graeber's book Bullshit Jobs. Which is an interesting book in which Graeber exposes the existence of thousands of pointless jobs that contribute pretty much nothing to anybody. This fascinates the anti-work people because they think Graeber has proved that much of our work is pointless, and if we could eliminate the bullshit we could all work less and be just as rich. Obviously this is true to some extent.
But when this sort of writer isn't complaining about bullshit work he or she is likely to be complaining about the relentless pressure to be productive, and how capitalism's profit motive puts the squeeze on everybody to work harder and stay focused on the bottom line. Which is also, to an extent, true. But these things cut against each other. A cursory study of human history will show you that there is no mechanism for fighting bullshit jobs like capitalism, and that the relentless pressures of the marketplace do in fact force people and companies to cut out bullshit wherever they can. That the system is far from perfect should be your clue that removing bureaucratic bullshit from human life is in fact an incredibly hard problem. The real elimination of bullshit jobs could probably only be achieved by even more ratcheting up of competition and pressure to be productive. In practice, bureaucratic bullshit actually creates some of the slack that makes our work lives bearable.
I am also skeptical, as my readers know, of the notion that people who don't have to work will find tons of other meaningful stuff to do. Some will, but many won't. Long bouts of unemployment are strongly associated with depression, not happiness.
I encourage all of you to rethink your relationship with work. Find other sources of meaning, limit the damage that work-related stress does to the rest of your brain, and the rest of your life. Question the notion that this or that has to be done.
But work is at the center of human life for deep reasons. It remains simply true that the less people work, the less stuff we will have to enjoy, and it remains true for most of us that vast stretches of unproductive time are a curse as often as a blessing.