5 min read
The Atlantic published a great article recently. Entitled Would a Work-Free World Be So Bad? it asks some important questions about the way we structure society. What I particularly like about it is the way the author, Ilana E. Strauss, situates the topic historically, while pushing back at (a secular version of) the ‘Protestant work ethic’.
Today, the virtue of work may be a bit overblown. “Many jobs are boring, degrading, unhealthy, and a squandering of human potential,” says John Danaher, a lecturer at the National University of Ireland in Galway who has written about a world without work. “Global surveys find that the vast majority of people are unhappy at work.”
I’m coming at this both introspectively and observing what I see in the wider world when I make the following statement: it seems like people don’t know what to do with their time outside of the nine-to-five:
These days, because leisure time is relatively scarce for most workers, people use their free time to counterbalance the intellectual and emotional demands of their jobs. “When I come home from a hard day’s work, I often feel tired,” Danaher says, adding, “In a world in which I don’t have to work, I might feel rather different”—perhaps different enough to throw himself into a hobby or a passion project with the intensity usually reserved for professional matters.
Part of the problem is that we’re increasingly building our social surroundings as making it easier to get to work. The North-East of England, where I’m based, is covered in a rash of more affordable, densely-packed new estates that make it easy to commute to work in a city, but otherwise aren’t designed for anything other than storing a car and a bed.
Public spaces tend to be small islands in seas of private property, and there aren’t many places without entry fees where adults can meet new people or come up with ways to entertain one another.
Although the author points to hunter-gatherer societies and ‘worklessness’ in those kinds of cultures, I’m more interested in more recent examples:
According to Gary Cross’s 1990 book A Social History of Leisure Since 1600, free time in the U.S. looked quite different before the 18th and 19th centuries. Farmers — which was a fair way to describe a huge number of Americans at that time — mixed work and play in their daily lives. There were no managers or overseers, so they would switch fluidly between working, taking breaks, joining in neighborhood games, playing pranks, and spending time with family and friends. Not to mention festivals and other gatherings: France, for instance, had 84 holidays a year in 1700, and weather kept them from farming another 80 or so days a year.
The problem is that we live in a post-Industrial Revolution society which takes it for granted that work and play should be separate:
Factory owners created a more rigidly scheduled environment that clearly divided work from play. Meanwhile, clocks—which were becoming widespread at that time—began to give life a quicker pace, and religious leaders, who traditionally endorsed most festivities, started associating leisure with sin and tried to replace rowdy festivals with sermons.
Our current way of structuring time in society is largely based on competition rather than co-operation; we’ve all got our eyes on the prize of becoming wealthy in a world mediated by the market. The world we inhabit is that which Guy Debord so accurately described in The Society of the Spectacle. There is a collective failure of imagination of how things could be any different than how they are.
When people ponder the nature of a world without work, they often transpose present-day assumptions about labor and leisure onto a future where they might no longer apply; if automation does end up rendering a good portion of human labor unnecessary, such a society might exist on completely different terms than societies do today.
It’s too late for current adult generations, deep-fried and saturated in the fat of the market, to imagine a different kind of world. But it’s not too late for our children and for their education. Of course, to prepare them effectively for a world of dramatically less work means radically altering what and how they learn.
Trumbach [a professor of history], meanwhile, wonders if schooling would become more about teaching children to be leaders, rather than workers, through subjects like philosophy and rhetoric. He also thinks that people might participate in political and public life more, like aristocrats of yore. “If greater numbers of people were using their leisure to run the country, that would give people a sense of purpose,” says Trumbach.
Perhaps I’m being utopian, but a world with Universal Basic Income would be one where volunteering could bloom, where people could pursue their passions, and where human beings could flourish in a true spirit of co-operation. And perhaps, although this seems like a long shot at the moment, we’d have a more informed and engaged citizenry which could hold political leaders to account over their actions in the long term.