#26. Why Do We Work So Much?
We could, as a society, fulfill all our needs with far less work; so why do we work so many hours?
Work, as I’ve noted in earlier letters, is a word with several different but overlapping meanings. In this letter I’m using it as a synonym for paid employment. Work, by this definition, dominates our lives. We live in a world of work. It is how we survive. It is how, on most days, we spend half or more of our waking hours (not counting the commute). It is a source of constant concern. We fret about too much work, or sometimes we brag about too much work, and we worry about too little of it. Work is how most of us define ourselves. “I’m a journalist… or a plumber… or a lawyer.” Why does work dominate our lives and dictate our identity?
In 1930, the British economist John Maynard Keynes (1930/1963) predicted that, by the end of the 20th century, the average workweek would be about 15 hours. Automation had already begun to replace many jobs by the early 20th century, and Keynes predicted that the trend would accelerate to the point where everything that people need for a satisfying life could be produced with a minimum of human labor, whether physical or mental.
Keynes turned out to be right about increased automation. We now have machines, computers and robots that can do quickly what human beings formerly did laboriously, and the increase in automation shows no sign of slowing down. But Keynes was wrong about the decline of work. The average work week for most today is little different than it was a hundred years ago. Why?
It's the Economy, Stupid (or the Stupid Economy).
The most obvious answer to the question, of course, is an economic one. We’ve figured out how to reduce greatly the amount of work required to produce all the goods and services everyone needs for a healthy and satisfying life, but we haven’t adopted a means of distributing those resources except through wages earned from a 40-hour (or more) workweek. In fact, technology has had the effect of concentrating ever-more wealth and political power in the hands of an ever-smaller percentage of the population, which compounds the distribution problem. The powers at the top of our economic hierarchy (the so-called “job creators”) have no interest in increasing wages (for anyone other than themselves), so many if not most people still need to work 40 hours a week or more to support themselves and their family.
Instead of reducing work, our approach has been to continuously create new jobs to replace obsolete ones. Some of these new jobs are direct results of the new technologies and can fairly be said to benefit society in ways beyond just keeping people employed. Information technology jobs are an obvious example, as are jobs catering to newfound realms of amusement, such as computer game design and production.
But we also have an ever-growing number of jobs that seem completely useless or even harmful. As examples, we have administrators and assistant administrators in ever larger numbers shuffling papers (or digital documents) that don’t need to be shuffled, corporate lawyers and their staffs helping big companies and billionaires pay less than their fair share of taxes, countless people in the financial industries doing who knows what mischief, lobbyists using every means possible to further corrupt our politicians, and advertising executives and sales personnel pushing stuff that nobody needs or really wants.
A sad fact is that many people are now spending huge portions of their lives at work that, they know, is not benefitting society. In a widely circulated essay a decade ago, which subsequently led to a book, the anthropologist David Graeber (2013, 2018) labeled these as “bullshit jobs.” The manufacturing of jobs leads to such cynicism that people begin to stop even thinking that jobs are supposed to benefit society. We have the spectacle of politicians on both sides of the aisle fighting to keep munitions plants open in their states, to preserve the jobs, even when the military itself says the weapons the plant is building are no longer useful. And we have politicians and pundits arguing that fossil fuel mining and carbon spewing factories should be maintained for the sake of the jobs, let the environment be damned.
We could, if we had the political will, reduce through legislation the hours people must work, thereby improving lives and, at the same time, benefitting the environment. We could increase the minimum wage and decrease the workweek gradually, over time, in steps that would not dramatically disrupt the economy, eventuating in something close to the 15-hour week predicted by Keynes. Or we could, as some have proposed, provide a universal basic income, paid for by increased taxes on the very rich. Again, this could be instituted on a gradual basis. The powers that be—the ones who profit most from things as they are—provide roadblocks to such changes. But I think there are other reasons, too, why the rest of us have not demanded those changes.
We Are Products of a Culturally Ingrained Work Ethic.
We are raised to believe in the moral virtue of work. Historians attribute this in part to the Protestant Reformation, going back to the 16th century, whose leaders viewed work as God’s will and play as the breeding ground of sin, and even more to the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th century, when the economy changed from primarily agricultural to factory-based industrial. The schools that arose in the Protestant era and became compulsory and state-supported in the 19th century and continue essentially unchanged today (but even more consuming of children’s time), were designed explicitly to promote the ideology of work and suppress the natural human desire to play (more on that in a letter to come).
Our continued implicit belief that work is good for us derives not just from our cultural history and our schooling (where “learning” is turned into work), but also from the continued propaganda deriving ultimately from those who profit most from the work of others. We are made to feel ashamed if we take what is called a “handout,” even if we are disabled or burdened with the unpaid labor that comes from caring for others who need our care
Our culturally ingrained work ethic may also lead us to humblebrag about being overworked. We may “complain” to friends and relatives about being too busy with work and not having time to do the things we would really like to do, but research, by Silvia Bellezza and colleagues (2016), suggests that this may often be more boast than complaint. In a series of studies, these researchers found that people—at least in the Unites States (it didn’t hold up in Italy)—accord higher status to those who work more, other things begin equal, than to those who have more leisure time. The assumption is that long hours of work imply that the person has desirable qualities and great skill that place them in high demand. This is only true, however, for people who work more by choice, not for those who work more out of economic necessity.
And so, as a society, we don’t push as hard as we might for reduction in work. Instead, we push for more jobs.
Too Many Have Forgotten How to Play Outside of Work.
In a research study conducted in the late1980s, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Judith LeFevre (1989) found that many workers were happier at work than during free time at home. Their reports on what they were doing at work and home help us make sense of this seemingly paradoxical finding. At work they were often engaged, in a social setting, in challenging, skill-stretching tasks that were within the range of their competence and over which they had a good deal of control. As I explained in Letter #24, these are the conditions that lead a person to experience work as play, or at least as highly play-like. At home, in contrast, they tended to engage in passive activities, such as watching television or lying on the couch trying to sleep, with relatively little social engagement.
The primary message I take from this study is that many adults in our work-obsessed society had, by the 1980s, forgotten how to play. At work, at least in some kinds of jobs, they found themselves in a situation that had play-like qualities. During leisure time away from work they became, by comparison, both mentally and physically passive. They saw themselves as relaxing, recovering from work, but in fact were depriving themselves of the joy they might gain from more engaging activities.
I don’t think this was just because they were exhausted at work and needed to rest at home. In earlier decades, when work was if anything more exhausting than now or in the 1980s, adults often engaged in active, play-like activities during their free time. I recall, in the 1950s when I was a child, my parents and other adults sometimes played softball and other outdoor games on summer evenings and weekends; often socialized with friends over cards; and spent a good deal of time at skill-demanding hobbies, fishing, gardening, and chores such as lawn maintenance and home repairs that people more often hire out today. Such activities seemed to be a great source of satisfaction and perhaps more effective in rebounding from work than hours on the couch.
Are We on The Cusp of Change Toward a “Post-Work Society”?
The world keeps changing and we are now experiencing a revival of calls for less work. Some are urging change toward what they call a “post-work society” (Minerva, 2023; Rattee, 2023). Nobody suggests we can do away with work entirely, but many believe that Keynes’s idea of a 15-hour workweek is well within reach. Another idea in this movement is that we could change the nature of work, so it is more varied and everyone could choose a balance of physical and mental work rather than just one type of work, which would improve health and make work less tedious.
The post-work movement has been brought on by several social forces. The work shutdown during the COVID pandemic led some to see advantages—for workers, employers, and the environment—of a world in which people aren’t traveling back and forth to work five days a week. Digital technology has made it possible for more people to work from home, which means they can live wherever they want, including near friends and relatives and at places where they like to play, and to choose their own hours of work. For example, some choose to work in the evening so they can play outdoors during daylight hours. More people are choosing to work less, even though it means less income, so they have time for other activities that are meaningful to them (for many examples, see Balderson et al., 2021). Dramatic advances in artificial intelligence have led to predictions of a new raft of jobs becoming obsolete and revival of concern that there won’t be enough work for everyone if we insist on maintaining 40-hour workweeks.
It will be exciting to see what the next few years will bring.
Play apparently does not come naturally to us adults today. Ironically, for many it seems to occur more when we are at work than when we are home and have free time. Perhaps, if we want more play in today’s world, we must plan for it, arrange for it, dare I say even discipline ourselves to come home to something other than the couch. Once we get started on a hobby we used to enjoy or a new one that intrigues us, or join a social group, or create a vegetable garden, we won’t regret it. We will start having more fun away from work than at work.
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Oh, and if you haven’t done so already, please go back to the S1 (survey) letter I posted two days ago and answer the question there: What would you do if you had more free time?
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With respect and best wishes,
Balderson, U., et al. (2021). An exploration of the multiple motivations for spending less time at work. Time & Society, 30(1), 55–77.
Bellezza, S., Paharia, N., & Keinan, A. (2016). Conspicuous consumption of time: when busyness and lack of leisure time become a status symbol. Journal of Consumer Research, 44, 118-138.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & LeFevre, J. (1989). Optimal Experience in Work and Leisure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 815-822.
Graeber, D. (2018). "On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs: a work rant". Strike Magazine. August 7.
Graeber, D. (2018). Bullshit jobs A theory. Simon & Schuster.
Keynes, J. M. (1930/1963). Economic possibilities for our grandchildren. Reprinted in John Maynard Keynes, essays in persuasion. New York: Norton.
Minevich, M. (2023). Charting the roadmap to a post-work society. Forbes, July 27.
Rattee, A. (2023). A new model of work in a post-work society. Medium. June 18.
Photo credit: John Dykes, Wall Street Journal