Ideas

Ideas | Livia Gershon

What if working less is better?

Yevhenia Haidamaka for the Boston Globe

“You eat a coffee for lunch. You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is our drug of choice. You might be a doer.”

The ad, featuring a vampire-pale, attractively frazzled young woman, is for Fiverr, a company that lets workers compete to design a logo, build a website, or illustrate a children’s book for as little as $5 a task. In a video from the same advertising campaign, Fiverr implores: “Woo the customer, schmooze the customer, always be available” while, onscreen, a gig worker pauses mid-coitus to check her phone.

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The campaign touched a nerve, outrage ensued. But, beneath its calculated edginess, Fiverr’s message is pretty conventional: Hard work equals success; laziness is wrong.

But here’s the thing: For most of human existence, the idea that idleness was a serious problem would have been unintelligible. If Fiverr’s message creeps us out, looking back at a time before being a “doer” became our measurement of human value might offer some insight into what a real alternative might look like if automation brings an age when there’s not enough work to go around.

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Reprioritizing idleness — and deprioritizing work — isn’t some retrograde, Luddite vision of the future. It could be critical to human flourishing as we approach the limits of human productivity. Rather than make-work programs or trying to slow automation, a better way to handle the declining economic value of work might be to stop recoiling in horror from idleness and start distributing its benefits more widely.

Hunter-gatherer societies offer a useful, if imperfect, window into ways that humans have spent the vast majority of their time on earth. In many of these groups, research tells us, work and leisure were not differentiated. Even when humans began farming, they worked many more hours but still blended their work, social, and religious lives together, laboring together with family and friends on a common task.

It was only as the Industrial Revolution approached that the kind of success that Fiverr champions began to materialize. This new work ethic helped unlock the greatest gains in material prosperity in human history. But it didn’t convert the world completely, easily, or peacefully. The horror of idleness quickly became a convenient cudgel. Some early industrialists fought the “weak work ethic” by hiring social workers to monitor employees’ personal lives and thugs to crack their heads if they agitated for shorter hours.

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Of course, there have been dissenters from the new consensus view of work, even among the most privileged. In the 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness,” the British aristocrat and philosopher Bertrand Russell insisted that, given the productivity created by technological improvements, a little political ingenuity could cut wage earners’ work to four hours a day while still satisfying the needs of society. “Without a considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of the best things,” he wrote. “There is no longer any reason why the bulk of the population should suffer this deprivation; only a foolish asceticism, usually vicarious, makes us continue to insist on work in excessive quantities now that the need no longer exists.”

Americans today may be even more horrified by idleness than Russell’s peers were. It’s become a mark of privilege to work absurdly long hours. Or at least pretend to: A 2015 study found that employees at a big-name consulting firm were expected to work 60 to 80 hours a week, but workers who secretly took time off — one pretended to be working from home when he was really out skiing for days in a row — were just was well regarded as those who really put in the time.

The work ethic saturates our lives in other ways, too. Pleasurable activities, from surfing to watching TV, are “recharging,” necessary supports for our work-driven lives. Fitbits treat a walk in the woods as industriousness. We read to our kids as an investment in their future.

The idea that work is at the center of our lives has also reshaped our ideas about the economy. We revere companies not for producing the things we need, but as job creators.

That paradigm is due for a big shake-up as automation takes off. Bill Gates shone a spotlight on the odd logic here recently, when he suggested taxing robots that replace workers, slowing the course of automation to protect jobs. Tellingly, most prominent responses took for granted his underlying premise that retaining jobs is a key economic goal.

The idea that jobs are, in and of themselves, something we should protect at all costs, seems too obvious to mention to most commentators. No one runs for office decrying the importance of work. Responding to the fringy notion of universal basic income — a guaranteed payment to all citizens regardless of whether they hold a job or not — Josh Barro, senior editor at Business Insider, recently wrote that “work is one of the core institutions that holds our society together.” Besides its financial rewards, he wrote “it provides a sense of purpose in life and society.”

“The decline of work is asymmetric,” Barro added, “An expensive policy that is designed to accommodate the decline of work is likely to generate more resentment from those who work toward those who do not.”

There’s some good evidence for that concern. Unemployed people do tend to be really miserable, far beyond what you’d expect from their loss of income alone. Many low-wage workers take deep pride in working hard and resent those who don’t. Attacking poor people for laziness, often in a more or less explicitly racist terms, has long been a fixture of American politics. The idea of cutting off able-bodied people from public benefits, too, is a perennial winner with voters, even when the number of people who actually fit that description is tiny.

Yet there are also reasons to think that the attitude humans have held toward work for most of our species’ existence isn’t all that deeply buried. If unemployment makes people unhappy, the same isn’t true of people who are out of the labor force for other reasons. Retirement boosts well-being significantly. Some studies find that stay-at-home moms tend to be happier than their paycheck-earning counterparts. Meanwhile, 16 percent of dads say they’d stay at home with the kids if they could, and 30 percent would only work part time. Young men who spend their days playing video games instead of working report being quite happy, despite all the dirty looks they get from their elders.

All these findings have complicated stories behind them, of course. Retirees can relax into years of travel, helping out with the grandkids, or daytime TV knowing that they’ve put in their 40 years on the job. Stay-at-home moms may be happier than working moms partly because they don’t face the stresses of balancing paid work and kids. All those hours of video gaming may catch up with unemployed men if potential mates hold their lack of ambition against them.

What these examples suggest overall, though, is that work isn’t a particular key to happiness today, any more than it was in other historical eras. When we can get social approval and feel like we have a legitimate place in the world without bringing home a paycheck, it looks like a pretty good deal to many of us.

To take a step back from the ideology of the doer would demand enormous change. If we could free ourselves from guilt and shame of not working enough, many of us might eat without e-mail, pick a lower-pressure job, or just spend the weekend playing that new Zelda game with our kids. And we might also become less judgmental toward people who don’t work as much as we do. But, in a world of stagnating real wages, rising expectations from overstressed bosses, and increasing competition for admission to the colleges that guarantee a place in tomorrow’s economy, any of that can seem impossible.

Meanwhile, policy changes to distribute the fruits of technological advances more evenly — shorter standard working hours, universal health care, or a universal basic income — could easily depressurize our lives. But our devotion to the work ethic makes those changes politically untenable.

Of course, there are good reasons to honor and value work. There are bridges to be rebuilt, renewable energy systems to be designed, sick and dying people to be healed and comforted. But how much of our frenetic activity, as individuals or as a nation, goes toward any of these vital needs? How much do we spend satisfying demands from bosses and clients, creating cheap consumer products, or trading ever-more-complex financial instruments?

To advocate for more idleness isn’t to say we should transform ourselves into passive consumers. It’s to imagine a psychological and political starting point like the one most humans through the ages had: one where work is part of life, not its driving purpose. If we took idleness, rather than productivity, as our baseline, we could stop worrying about being doers and start figuring out what, exactly, it is that we want to do.

Livia Gershon is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @liviagershon.
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