Should we work?
Work is strange. It’s something we all have to do else we die. Not right away, but if we stop working, we will not get any income. We will get evicted from our home, and once our savings are gone, we will start going hungry, starve, and eventually die.
A lot of people work not because they like their jobs, but just to stay alive. The truth is a lot of jobs kind of suck, or are entirely pointless.
A lot of jobs kind of suck
In his book, Bullshit Jobs, anthropologist David Graeber argues that there are whole classes of jobs that do not need to exist. These jobs are so pointless as to serve no purpose at all but for the job to exist. He argues that the modern economy has become a vehicle for creating these bullshit jobs. Bureaucrats, people who only make other people look important: doormen, receptionists, facilitators, and delegators telling people what to do without actually doing anything themselves. He also argues that national armed forces are bullshit. They only need to exist because other national armed forces already exist. If everyone agreed to dismantle their militaries, the world would be much better, and safer place.
This is not a partisan issue. Both the left and the right want to create more jobs, but the creation of ever more jobs, he argues, necessitates the creation of an ever growing number of bullshit jobs as well. Nor is it an issue unique to capitalism. Under capitalism a lot of people are paid to do nothing in both the private and public sector Graeber argues. And under socialism with full employment, it becomes the state policy to invent bullshit jobs to fulfill the goal of full employment. You end up with having three cashiers in a small grocery store with two of them always sitting idly not doing anything.
Graeber argues that there are a significant number of bullshit jobs today already, and that you can know if a job is bullshit by asking the person doing the job. A You-GOV poll reports that 37% of British office workers believe that their job makes no meaningful contribution to the world. An additional 13% were uncertain. When we don’t find the work meaningful, and are forced to work long hours, we will burn out sooner or later losing productivity.
It's not much better for blue-collar workers. People who have deeply meaningful and necessary blue-collar jobs or traditionally feminine jobs are more often than not treated badly, the target of demeanor, and not compensated equitably. The architect who drew the house, is compensated, and is treated far better than the workers who actually built the house, and had to solve the problems in the architect's design, but don't receive any of the recognition. However, people need jobs to survive, and are forced to take shitty or bullshit jobs in absence of better opportunities.
Now, I’m very lucky that I found the only job I have had deeply meaningful, challenging and was treated very well. And I’m privileged to live in a country where I don’t have to have a separate job besides my studies because studying is seen as a job here, so I’m likely to minimize or misrepresent how soul-crushing these shitty and bullshitty jobs can be because I have never been in that situation before.
However, I still feel a lot of guilt whenever I’m not doing something productive. Whenever I’m not studying I feel like I should be working on something else. God forbid that I take time to relax, or do nothing at all, I might as well commit sacrilege. But is it healthy to be so obsessed with work?
We work too much
In the US of A and much of the rest of the world, we have an obsession with work. We define ourselves by our work. When we introduce ourselves, we introduce us by our job title. “I’m an engineer” or “I’m a nurse”. In his essay “The Abolition of work” Bob Black argues that everything we do is in service of work. When we are not working, we spend our free time recovering from work, and getting ready to work again, we eat and sleep just so we can go back to work in the morning, and we work so we don’t die.
But humans are not made to work as much as we do now. Throughout most of human history, we didn’t work nearly as much as we do now. Before capitalism and the industrial revolution, we didn't have this obsession with work either. Hunter gatherers worked only a few hours a week and spend the rest of the time doing recreational activities.￼ Under feudalism peasants were only incentivized to work just enough to meet their quota. Any access would just go to the feudal lords would not help the peasant themselves. But with capitalism, came the idea of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, something notoriously impossible, that if you just work hard enough you can succeed, and climb the socioeconomic ladder. But in reality, this is all but a illusion. Your parents socioeconomic status is the single greatest predictor of your socioeconomic status.
But it's not hopeless. The workday has been reduced before. The 40 hour work week we know today came as a response to the 12-16 hour work days 6 days a week common during the early industrial revolution. In the 1833 Factory Act in the US, they limited the working hours for children of ages 9-13 to 8 hours, and of ages 14-18 to 12 hours. Still with a 6 day workweek. While the 8 hour work day was first proposed by Robert Own in 1817, it wasn’t before 1926 after years of unionizing and protests from workers who had taken Owen’s slogan to them “8 hours of labour. 8 hours of recreation, and 8 hours of rest” that Henry Ford noticed that the assembly line factory workers were more productive if he reduced their workweek to 40 hours.
Today, we have research that shows that working longer hours adds no productivity, with extra hours being virtually wasted after the 50 hour mark, and that long hours lead to higher rates of burnout and decreased health making it a long term bad strategy. We can reduce the workday without losing any significant productivity.
There have been experiments several places such as Spain and Iceland where they have tried reducing the work week to 4 days importantly without getting their pay cut which turned out to be beneficial for both the workers who reported being happier, and having lower levels of stress and for the employers who could save some money on not having to keep the offices open while not losing much if any productivity.
While I think a 4-day work week is a huge improvement to what we have today, I think it misses a key point: Humans cannot concentrate that much in a given day. Untrained, we can maybe do 1-2 hour of concentrated work, if we have training, maybe slightly more. Now, not all work requires you to be deeply concentrated: Writing emails, entering data into a spreadsheet, or writing code once you have solved the problem doesn’t require much concentration, but even with those considerations it seems that a 8 hour workday is too long to be productive. Workers report spending less than half their time at work on their primary work tasks. That's equivalent to a 4 hour workday, and another 4 hours where they have to do meaningless administrative work, or look busy what Graeber would call bullshit.
But even if you're one of the lucky few who are able to spend the majority of your time at work doing actual work, have you ever been able to work productively for 8 hours? If so, were you equally productive during all of the 8 hours? Personally, I seem to become quite unproductive after around 4-6 hours, and anecdotally top performers seem to concentrate their work into a few shorter bouts like 3x90 minutes of deliberate practice as described by Phyllis Lane in the 10,000 hours book. Yet I still feel the pull to work increasingly longer hours.
When I started university, I felt I had to do everything. I would pack my schedule to the brim. 16 hours, sometimes more every day was scheduled with work. I was studying full time, I was doing honors, I was working with a research group. I was presenting at conferences all while I was also working nearly full time at the robotics startup, and still felt bad that I didn’t have more time to work on my own projects. There were always way more to do than there was time, but I felt it was okay because I found the work to be meaningful.
Eventually I couldn’t keep up with it anymore. I collapsed with stress, and depression and had to stop everything. At this time, when I was taking the best care of myself, I simultaneously felt awful for not doing more work. It’s a feeling I’m still struggling with today.
Even today when I know it’s not healthy, I look back at that time with a romantic nostalgia. Even though I know it’s not healthy to work that much. I still feel the need to overwork myself to the point of burnout.
I think there is a trap here. Even with meaningful work it can be so easy to overwork oneself. It’s not just jobs that are the problem. It’s work itself.
But isn’t that just laziness, and Isn’t laziness bad? We live in a culture where we value hard work for the sake of hard work. Hard work is moral and laziness is immoral, bad. Lazy people deserve the consequences, and people like me who receive welfare are leeches taking your tax money. We completely ignore structural barriers such as lack of access to education and worthy jobs, mental illness, and social issues such as racism and sexism. People are supposed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
In his essay, in praise of idleness, Bertrand Russell argues that the myth of hard work has been created by the powerful to keep them in power. Think of billionaires bragging of how many hours they work. Work mostly consisting of taking meeting and telling other people how to work what Graeber argues is a bullshit job. How hard can being a CEO really be when Elon Musk can run 4 companies at his prime, and still find time to get himself fired on Twitter. How many nurses have you seen do that? Are all nurses just not hard working enough? Yet, compensation is not calibrated to the value of the work, but based on the value that the market can bear, and since CEOs set their own pay (as long as they can convince the board) they often set their own pay high, and keep increasing it.
If the payment does not follow the value of the work, we might want to ask ourselves what is considered productive work in the first place?
What is considered productive work?
Under our capitalistic system, work is only considered productive if it involves financial compensation. Volunteer work is not seen as a productive worthwhile endeavor. Moreover, work I do for myself is also not seen as productive. If I clean my own apartment, I’m not generating economic activity, but if I get paid for cleaning my neighbors apartment, then I generate economic activity, and it is seen as productive. Moreover, if I help my friend move and my friend in turn bakes a delicious cake, it’s not considered productive, and therefore worthwhile. If my friend, on the other hand, had paid a moving company to move for them, and I had bought a cake at the local baker, both these activities would suddenly be seen as productive.
That’s interesting it seems that the value of work is completely decoupled from the activity itself. The same activity can be considered productive or not depending entirely on the context. But in order to survive we have to do the right activities in the right contexts.
Being forced to work goes against the assumptions of capitalism
Under a pure capitalistic system, if you’re a member of the majority working class, you need to work to survive. Your ability to meet your basic needs is conditioned on your ability to work. But this gives the owning class a lot of power. If you have a shitty job, capitalism says, you are free to resign and get another better job. But if all the jobs available to you are shitty, which for many people they are, then you have no choice but to work at a shitty job or starve. In most countries, there are more or less developed welfare systems that are supposed to offset the negative effects, but no country in the world makes or has ever made work completely optional for all citizens making the analysis relevant.
One of the fundamental assumptions of capitalism is that workers are free to choose their working place and by extension their working conditions, but if you don’t really have the ability to say no, and all the jobs available to you are shitty or bullshit, do you really have a free choice?
What will happen if we made work optional
Making work optional probably sounds like a radical proposal. I hear you say "won’t society collapse if we don’t have to work?”. Maybe, but if you let me, I hope I can convince you that it’s perhaps not as radical a proposal as it might seem at first.
First of all, making work optional does not mean that we don’t work at all. People would still be able to work if they wanted, and thought it was meaningful. "But what about the shitty but necessary jobs like cleaning the streets?". For one, I believe we will be able to largely automate these jobs away, but even if you don't buy that now that the work is optional, the workers will be able to demand higher salaries and better working conditions since they have real leverage by being able to say no. Something workers don’t have the luxury of today lest they die.
An employment negotiation is inherently unfair towards the employee since the employer has the ability to say no without any major repercussions whereas if the employee says no, they have the choice between another shitty job, or death. It’s insane that we pretend that is an equal and fair exchange. Making work optional is really just a way to meet the assumption of capitalism, letting people choose to work of their own volition, and not under the threat of eviction, starvation, and death. Abolishing work would also by necessity have the benefit of removing the bullshit jobs, and free people to do meaningful things with their lives, since people are able to quit and say no.
Second of all, we do have the resources to meet all people’s basic needs. If we didn’t waste our food, we could feed an additional 2 billion people we produce 2750 kcal per person per day more than enough to feed everyone. We have cities with more empty homes than homeless people. Our problem is not one of production, but one of distribution. We have designed a society where we withhold access to food, shelter, and medical care to people who don't have money instead of providing everyone with what they need. Moreover, we waste a lot of time at our jobs on bullshit activities, if we just eliminated that alone, we could radically reduce our work day. We have seen that research supports reducing the workday without losing productivity.
But even if we removed work as a concept, society still might not fall. In his essay abolition of work by Black, he argues for the radical position that we should abolish work altogether, and instead embrace play, or ludis, and asserts that society would still be able to function under these conditions. People have general need to do meaningful things, to ludis. Black specifically contrasts ludis from idleness, and argues that people will spend their new non-working time studying, playing, creating art, and doing work that’s seen as productive today. While idealistic, I’m still skeptical that the complete abolition of work could function. I fear we might end up in a situation where we are no longer able to produce the things required to meet people’s basic needs if we get rid of organized essential workers like farmers, and healthcare staff. In the weaker version where work is optional, there would still be incentives to work as a means of fulfillment and as a way to get non-basic needs met. We can get closer to the ideal of Black than where we are today even if we can’t completely reach it. We should strive.
I think that as a society, we should reevaluate the role of work, and move towards making work optional. We should start by reducing the number of hours required to work. It is unproductive, and makes no sense to have 40 hour work weeks. It’s inefficient even when assuming work is the most important thing. It increases burn out, and in the long term limits productivity. Furthermore, we should start exploring initiatives such as UBI to make sure that everyone can have their basic needs met no matter what their circumstances are. We should make basic needs such as food, shelter, medical care, and education a human rights ensured for everyone, not just the people with money.