Why Do We Need to Work?

“Have you had a productive day?” someone recently asked me, and for some reason it suddenly struck me just how embedded into our lives the notion of productivity is. What am I? A dairy cow? As if a day that has not produced a sufficient “yield” of worthy activity is a day wasted. Even our time off needs to be accounted for as “well spent” – on holidays, gardening, family meals, seeing friends – and where “I sat in my pyjamas drinking beer, eating ice cream, re-watching Firefly for the twentieth time” is a response that would be considered – if not a joke – a cause for deep concern. But when did leisure become work? And when did busyness (or the lack of it) become a moral issue?

“I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass,” wrote Walt Whitman, eulogising the virtues of idleness, while his fellow poet W. H. Davies similarly bemoaned the simple joys that a busy life robs us of: “what is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” Of course, poetry itself being not known for its economic benefits, they would say that, wouldn’t they? The lazy bastards. And depending on where you do it, of course, such inactivity is not always advisable (“The subject was observed standing and staring in a suspicious manner, Your Honour”).

We can perhaps blame the Protestant work ethic, which sociologist Max Weber identified as responsible for the idea that inactivity is somehow sinful (“the devil finds work for idle hands to do”), which considered busyness next to godliness, and where religious salvation might be achieved through personal industry. Not completely coincidentally, Weber argued, this attitude increased in influence at the same time as capitalism itself really got going during the 19th century, resulting in the weird marriage that finds perhaps its ultimate modern expression in the American televangelist, who can seemingly with a straight face praise the pursuit of earthly riches in the name of a man who preached poverty, humility and charity.

But most of us are not busy through any religious motive – at least, not consciously or directly so. We are, at most, inheritors of a centuries-old attitude that equates inactivity with sloth. For atheists, there is even a Darwinian version of this, where (I’ve heard a certain British prime minister assert) the rich are rich because they are genetically superior – more clever, harder working, etc – the principle of “the survival of the fattest (cats)” perhaps. (Sorry, that was weak, I know.) Whatever the case, whether stated in spiritual or secular terms, the virtue of work seems to have permeated Western life from top to bottom. But at what cost?

Various surveys have revealed that most people are far from happy in their jobs. Furthermore, the consumer society (via Instagram) ensures that we are constantly pressured into purchasing unneeded luxury goods in order to preserve our sense of status and self-esteem, all of which must be funded by those aforementioned far-from-happy forms of employment. And then of course there is the effect on health (mental and physical), the impact on family life (children neglected as both parents work to maintain their desired standard of living), the effect on social engagement (where we have no time for political or ethical causes), and so on.

Even where these effects are recognised, there still seems an unwillingness to address the real underlying problem. For instance, the contemporary “mindfulness” movement aims to foster mental well-being, but which in the hands of businesses and organisations often becomes a sort of “Buddhism lite”, shorn of any ethical or metaphysical commitments that might upset the money-making applecart. The recent warnings from those renegades in the tech industry, belatedly concerned that the social media monster they’ve helped create is driving us all insane, focus on stepping back and limiting our exposure to its influence, but mostly this commentary ignores the fundamental force that drives social media in the fist place. And so even if they do work to some extent, such solutions are really only a sticking plaster or pain killer that leave the thing that causes the injury (modern capitalism) untouched. “Ah, here we go,” you say. “Now we’re seeing his true colours! And they’re red!” Well, I’m not a communist – a criticism of one extreme is not thereby a vote for the other, and we should avoid the sort of “binary thinking” that leads us to see things in such oversimplified ways. It may be that what we think of as “capitalism” is only an extreme version of something that – regulated and moderated – can be made to benefit all of us. So is there a middle way?

Speaking of middle ways, Aristotle was among the first to recognise that sufficient leisure is vital to living “the good life” (which often embodies a mid point between extremes of behaviour), and where a human being can flourish to their fullest potential. Granted, in his own times, such leisure was made available only to a small number of aristocrats, who relied upon slaves and women to perform tasks that freed up their masters and husbands to chat about philosophy, play their full role in society, learn the flute, and do other worthy things. But incredibly, far ahead of Marx and futurists such as Ray Kurzweil, Aristotle too realised that leisure might be available to everyone – if only menial work could be automated by machines. So, it seems, we’re back to robots, and twiddling our thumbs until the Singularity shows up. Aren’t we?

And herein lies the problem: to achieve greater leisure through automation, we need to support the system that curently robs us of our leisure, in the hope that one day business-driven technological progress will take us to the promised land. Oh the irony! And, like riding the crocodile across the river, of course, such a thing requires a degree of faith. But will you sacrifice your leisure today for the sake of someone else’s uncertain leisure tomorrow? And why should you?

But there is another option. In Escape Everything!, comedian and writer Robert Wringham argues that it is possible to have the good life now. Admittedly, it requires a degree of sacrifice – renting instead of taking out a mortgage, making do and mending rather than splashing out on new clothes, library books instead of Netflix, etc – but it can be done. In this way, Wringham harkens back to the idealism of such as Henry David Thoreau, who retreated into the wilds of Walden woods to live a simple, self-sufficient and honest life. Wringham doesn’t suggest that we all build log cabins, but points out that, with a few adjustements, a better, happier life is possible; a harder life, maybe, in some ways, furnished with fewer creature comforts, but one in which we would have plenty of time to lean, loafe, stand and stare, and with no one there to make us feel guilty about it

Gareth Southwell is a philosopher, writer and illustrator from the UK. He is the author of the near-future sci-fi novel MUNKi, which concerns robots, the hunt for the Technological Singularity, and people swearing in Welsh.

Note: due to spam, comments have been disabled on this post, but you are welcome to contact the author to discuss further.

Image credit: The Hireling Shepherd, William Holman Hunt