Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Work Makes Us Crazy, Including the Essay Writers

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.

Consider this:

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.


David said...

I see the sort of complaining you're, well, complaining about, as part of a necessary balancing. After all, on the other side there's Objectivism, work-hustle culture, lean in, life-as-a-moral-drama tough guys, Sinema and Manchin, etc., etc., etc. I suspect anti-work screeds are simply part of the mix that is necessary to get the top income tax rate increased by, say, 2%, to get even a nastily means- and virtue-tested child tax credit passed, and in general to move the needle even a tad. Plus, of course, I don't mind hearing it and rather identify with it, even as I recognize the practical problems. So I can look upon anti-workism and benignly mouth wisdom about balance, tolerating diverse opinions, so on and so forth. Whereas I wouldn't be troubled if I never heard from an Objectivist again. Fortunately our society is so structured that I can enjoy begrudging Objectivists, Q-Anon, and whatnot their right to be part of the balance, while I have no actual power to determine who gets to be part of the balance and who doesn't.

G. Verloren said...

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.

Other modern affluent countries manage to have more nurses working fewer hours at higher wages, and their healthcare still costs far, far less than ours does.

The problem isn't one of capability, but of will. There's nothing stopping us from making changes to bring ourselves in line with other comparable nations, except that we simply refuse to do it out of stubbornness.

We don't want to spend money on having more nurses who work less and are better paid - we prefer to waste that same money (and a lot more on top) lining the pockets of shareholders in a for-profit system.

We prefer to allow pharmaceutical companies to do insane things like sell life savings drugs at 10,000% of their manufacturing cost, advertise prescription drugs on television, and operate a system of kickbacks where they pay doctors to aggressively push their products instead of prescribing people what is actually most medically appropriate for their health needs.

We prefer to have a system where a huge bulk of our costs are derived from a needlessly bloated and byzantine insurance bureaucracy that is designed not to protect people or reduce medical costs, but simply to profit investors as much as possible by extracting medical 'rent' from the populace.

We prefer to have a system where instead of the norm being spending a small amount on mere ounces of prevention, we spend absurd amounts on countless pounds of cure.

We prefer to have a system where instead of keeping our nurses healthy and effective at their jobs, we overwork and underpay them to produce high rates of turnover, poor quality of care, and the needless human suffering (and added financial costs) of both physically and mentally sickening employees (who then need their own medical care) by working them into the ground.

We simply prefer to have the most expensive, least effective healthcare system out of modern affluent countries. We could do far better by making common sense changes and emulating the best practice of our international peers - but that would mean taking much of the money out of medicine, and we just can't tolerate that notion - we don't want a system that produces less human misery if it also produces less profits for shareholders.


A hatch opened up and the aliens said,
"We're sorry to learn that you soon will be dead,
But though you may find this slightly macabre,
We prefer your extinction to the loss of our job."

- Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes, August 9, 1992

David said...

Adding to my own post:

One of my favorite evil Scrooge moments of the past few years came when the Texas lieutenant governor declared in March 2020 that we didn't need social distancing or business closures to combat Covid because plenty of over-age-70 folks were happy to face death if it meant business could still boom. I'm content to see any amount of we-can-all-slow-down-and-still-get-stuff utopianism as a counterbalance to that particular POS.

John said...

@G-American nurses are the highest paid in the world, significantly higher than in most of Europe.

G. Verloren said...


Measured by what metric? As I've pointed out in other posts, raw dollar numbers are meaningless - pay has to be considered in terms of inflation, cost of living, buying power, etc.

Also, presumably the raw dollar numbers are intrinsically higher because nurses here work more hours? If the average US nurse works 50% more hours than the average European nurse, then obviously they will be earning at least 50% more raw dollars (and should actually be earning far more than via overtime hours).

Also, how much more miserable are the working conditions? If American nurses are being made to put up with more bullshit than their foreign counterparts, they deserve commensurately higher wages as "hazard pay".

Also, how much more expensive is it to obtain training and a license? How much harder is it to find open positions in the places people would prefer to live and work? How much harder is it to find affordable housing within reasonable commuting distance? How much more reliant are US nurses on private transportation? How much more do US nurses have to pay for malpractice insurance?

US nurses might make high raw numbers, but you need to then adjust those for all the additional costs external to their wages. If you earn twice as much in raw dollars, but your basic expenses are three times as much, you aren't richer than your counterpart, you are substantially poorer!