“Is There Anything That Working Less Does Not Solve?”

Before I was enlightened, I chopped wood and hauled water. After I was enlightened, I chopped wood and hauled water.

-Attributed to various Zen masters

Yves here. I hate to pick on a writer who no doubt means well, but I have little patience for happy-faced, single remedies to complex social problems, particularly where, as the author acknowledges o his pet remedy of “more leisure,” things have been going in the opposite direction for the last 100 years. So even if this were a solution, how is this magical state of working less supposed to come about?

In due course, I’ll get to what I think is the main problem with this wooly-headed post, Is There Anything That Working Less Does Not Solve?, by Rutger Bregman, which is that he conflates jobs with work. Work is necessary to have well-functioning communities, families and households. Just imagine the science experiment of not cleaning your kitchen for a month.

But the reason Bregman’s post annoys me is I have run his little experiment. I had 14 years of tons of leisure time. It sucked. Working was a far better state to be in.

With the benefit of hindsight, neoliberal values of placing a job above all other loyalties became normalized in the 1980s in investment banking and in other elite professions and was already eroding what passed for social life in Manhattan. Mind you, investment banking was also an elite but tiny field in the 1960s, and was also less time stressed. As Wall Street grew rapidly and the pace in finance increased due to the adoption of personal computers, the rewards for giving up a semblance of a personal life also rose. And those who made that sort of sacrifice increasingly thought that people less well paid should nevertheless be willing to slave away the way they did.

I had a very peculiar consulting business. Without boring you as to why, I was able to command a very high per diem but never was able to sell more than 100 days a year, and 70 was more the norm for me.

So I had a good income and lots of time on my hands. I tried volunteering for a few not for profits, but they all wanted a regular commitment of time (as in certain regular hours every week) and given the erratic nature of my consulting work, I couldn’t give that (their prototypical volunteer seemed to be someone retired or a mother with kids in school). Most bona fide socializing takes place among couples and single women are seen as eager to steal husbands and so are not welcome. Most Manhattan parties, at least among my nominal peers, professionals, are dreadful because everyone is selling and therefore engaged in status competition (I thought I was the only one who felt this way until I went to a McKinsey alumi party, where two men I know started riffing afterwards on how a homeless McKinsey alum living in a box would spin it to sound glamorous and exclusive).

Another problem is that I was low enough on the social totem pole that most of the people I knew from my prior life would cancel social appointments with me on less than 24 hour notice and not even be apologetic. Having what one thought would be three dinners out with friends turn out regularly to be one or zero was demoralizing.

Now I did try other avenues to meet new people whose schedules were more like mine. That was not very successful either. It is hard to make new friends when you are over 30. Most people have families and jobs by then and don’t have room to include you even if you have common interests and get on. I did try a meditation group and other New Age-y gatherings but found that the ones that had more to offer substance-wise were also cultish. I also took courses, like acting and improv comedy classes. The shortcoming with those was that the other participants wanted to be professional actors, and as much as I found what amounted to warmup exercises to be very instructive, I wasn’t very motivated to memorize lines and perfect a character.

Some of the more conventional among you might wag your fingers and say this is why people should be married. Not only do I not see all that many great marriages around me, but America now has more single adults now than ever, so if anything, people like me are becoming more normal with every passing day.

My experience instead suggests that the problem of low-quality leisure time has a lot to do with America. When I was in Oz for two years, despite knowing literally no one in Australia two years before I moved there, I was able to build a decent social circle pretty quickly. And there was a group that worked with homeless people near my flat where I had started getting trained to volunteer there, and they were looser about scheduling than similar groups in New York.

I believe that my experience in Manhattan in the 1990s, as a person with reasonable means who found having oodles of free time to be largely miserable, was in fact a leading indicator of the effects of neoliberalism on personal networks and community organizations. Imagine what it is like now, 20 years later, with social media eroding social skills and the quality of interpersonal interaction? As the must-read post Why We’re Underestimating American Collapse put it:

American collapse is much more severe than we suppose it is. We are underestimating its magnitude, not overestimating it. American intellectuals, media, and thought doesn’t put any of its problems in global or historical perspective — but when they are seen that way, America’s problems are revealed to be not just the everyday nuisances of a declining nation, but something more like a body suddenly attacked by unimagined diseases…We need a whole new language — and a new way of seeing — to even begin to make sense of it.

But that is America’s task, not the world’s. The world’s task is this. Should the world follow the American model — extreme capitalism, no public investment, cruelty as a way of life, the perversion of everyday virtue — then these new social pathologies will follow, too. They are new diseases of the body social that have emerged from the diet of junk food — junk media, junk science, junk culture, junk punditry, junk economics, people treating one another and their society like junk — that America has fed upon for too long.

Fetishizing leisure as a solution to deep-seated social ills is deeply wrong-headed. Yes, the typical employed American is badly overworked, with far too little in the way of vacation and far too much in the way of stress and indignity. But getting to say, world norms in terms of hours worked and labor protections is a very different remedy than saying more leisure time is a magic bullet. For instance, from Bregman’s post:

Emancipation of women? Countries with short workweeks consistently top gender equality rankings. The central issue is achieving a more equitable distribution of work. Not until men do their fair share of cooking, cleaning, and other domestic labor will women be free to fully participate in the broader economy. In other words, the emancipation of women is a men’s issue. These changes, however, are not only dependent on the choices of individual men; legislation has an important role to play. Nowhere is the time gap between men and women smaller than in Sweden, a country with a truly decent system in place for childcare and paternity leave.

Ahem. For starters, correlation is not causation. Countries with shorter workweeks are (like Sweden) almost certainly ones with strong labor protections and social safety nets. That means more support for mothers, such as paternity leaves and good daycare, which reduces the total hours parents have to spend on childrearing (as in the more equitable distribution of work, as the author tries to finesse, probably does not come from “more leisure” but “more support of childrearing” alleviating the load on mothers).

The real problem is not work but the worsening state of jobs. As worker rights have gotten weaker, they have been subject to more abuse. Lower-level employees are subject to surveillance and unreasonable Amazon-warehouse style productivity demands. White collar workers are expected to be on call, ever-ready to respond to a boss’ e-mail, and run the risk of being turfed out if they don’t hop to and address after-hours demands. Participants in the gig economy have it worst of all, not being able to plan their days, being at the beck and call of whatever “opportunity” shows up.

First, society involves work. Caring for babies in an exercise in bodily fluids. Children need to be civilized and educated. Old people often need special care too. Even with Roombas and self-cleaning ovens, homes still require being ordered, cleaned, and maintained. Where do you think your food comes from? We do not live in a state of manna from heaven. Society’s infrastructure, from roads to waterworks to electrical grids to government operations, like city halls and courts, all take work.

It is noteworthy that with the rise of the knowledge economy, other forms of labor are increasingly viewed with contempt (see the opening chapters of Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal if you doubt me). So some of the unhappiness about work (as opposed to jobs) is also due to devaluing humble yet essential work. When I was a kid and there was less income disparity, this wasn’t the case. Respecting the local doctor did not imply looking down on a plumber or a factory worker.

In many cases, unhappiness with “work” has to do with working conditions, not job substance. Johann Hari described the case of bicycle repair shop employees who were miserable until they set up their own shop. Their increased satisfaction was not the result of making more money (they weren’t) but having more control over their work environment.

Another reason for more anomie is that a job is less likely to be a source of new friends than it used to be. In the stone ages of the world before 1990, if you left a job in less than six years, better yet ten plus, new employers wondered if there was a performance problem. Longer job tenures meant more opportunity to find like-minded people. Even today, the workplace is often where people meet their spouse.

Similarly, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that the key to happiness is in getting in a state he calls “flow” in which you are engrossed in what you are doing. The reason I greatly preferred working to leisure is that I would often get in that state while on projects, typically while writing or doing other analytical tasks. Some people I know seem able to achieve “flow” while cleaning their kitchens and that in rather than “work” they are putting off. Others get that sort of engagement from gardening or crafts. So the idea that work is inherently unpleasant, which is a subtext of the Bregman piece, doesn’t appear to be accurate.

Having tried to  prejudice you throughly, I will nevertheless let Bregman make his case below.

By Rutger Bregman, a historian and writer. He writes for Dutch online journalism platform the Correspondent. He is the author of Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World. Twitter: @rcbregman. Originally published at Evonomics

Had you asked the greatest economist of the 20th century what the biggest challenge of the 21st would be, he wouldn’t have had to think twice.


In the summer of 1930, just as the Great Depression was gathering momentum, the British economist John Maynard Keynes gave a curious lecture in Madrid. He had already bounced some novel ideas off a few of his students at Cambridge and decided to reveal them publicly in a brief talk titled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.”

In other words, for us.

At the time of his visit, Madrid was a mess. Unemployment was spiraling out of control, fascism was gaining ground, and the Soviet Union was actively recruiting supporters. A few years later, a devastating civil war would break out. How, then, could leisure be the biggest challenge? That summer, Keynes seemed to have landed from a different planet.

“We are suffering just now from a bad attack of economic pessimism,” he wrote. “It is common to hear people say that the epoch of enormous economic progress which characterized the 19th century is over…” And not without cause. Poverty was rampant, international tensions were running high, and it would take the death machine of World War II to breathe life back into global industry.

Speaking in a city on the precipice of disaster, the British economist hazarded a counterintuitive prediction. By 2030, Keynes said, mankind would be confronted with the greatest challenge it had ever faced: What to do with a sea of spare time. Unless politicians make “disastrous mistakes” (austerity during an economic crisis, for instance), he anticipated that within a century the Western standard of living would have multiplied to at least four times that of 1930.

The conclusion? In 2030, we’ll be working just 15 hours a week.

A Future Filled with Leisure

Keynes was neither the first nor the last to foresee a future awash in leisure. A century and a half earlier, American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin had already predicted that four hours of work a day would eventually suffice. Beyond that, life would be all “leisure and pleasure.” And Karl Marx similarly looked forward to a day when everyone would have the time “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, raise cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner […] without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

At around the same time, the father of classical liberalism, British philosopher John Stuart Mill, was arguing that the best use of more wealth was more leisure. Mill opposed the “gospel of work” proclaimed by his great adversary Thomas Carlyle (a great proponent of slavery, too, as it happens), juxtaposing it with his own “gospel of leisure.” According to Mill, technology should be used to curb the workweek as far as possible. “There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress,” he wrote, “as much room for improving the Art of Living.”

Yet the Industrial Revolution, which propelled the 19th century’s explosive economic growth, had brought about the exact opposite of leisure. Where an English farmer in the year 1300 had to work some 1,500 hours a year to make a living, a factory worker in Mill’s era had to put in twice the time simply to survive. In cities like Manchester, a 70-hour workweek – no vacations, no weekends – was the norm, even for children. “What do the poor want with holidays?” an English duchess wondered toward the end of the 19th century. “They ought to work!” Too much free time was simply an invitation to wickedness.

Nevertheless, starting around 1850 some of the prosperity created by the Industrial Revolution began to trickle down to the lower classes. And money is time. In 1855, the stonemasons of Melbourne, Australia, were the first to secure an eight-hour workday. By century’s end, workweeks in some countries had already dipped south of 60 hours. Nobel Prize-winning playwright George Bernard Shaw predicted in 1900 that, at this rate, workers in the year 2000 would be clocking just two hours a day.

Employers resisted, naturally. When in 1926 a group of 32 prominent American businessmen were asked how they felt about a shorter workweek, a grand total of two thought the idea had merit. According to the other 30, more free time would only result in higher crime rates, debts, and degeneration. Yet it was none other than Henry Ford – titan of industry, founder of Ford Motor Company, and creator of the Model-T – who, in that same year, became the first to implement a five-day workweek.

People called him crazy. Then they followed in his footsteps.

A dyed-in-the-wool capitalist and the mastermind behind the production line, Henry Ford had discovered that a shorter workweek actually increased productivity among his employees. Leisure time, he observed, was a “cold business fact.” A well-rested worker was a more effective worker. And besides, an employee toiling at a factory from dawn till dusk, with no free time for road trips or joy rides, would never buy one of his cars. As Ford told a journalist, “It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either ‘lost time’ or a class privilege.”

Within a decade, the skeptics had been won over. The National Association of Manufacturers, which 20 years earlier had been warning that a shorter workweek would ruin the economy, now proudly advertised that the U.S. had the shortest workweek in the world. In their newfound leisure hours, workers were soon driving their Ford cars past NAM billboards that proclaimed, “There is no way like the American way.”

The End of Work

All evidence seemed to suggest that the great minds, from Marx to Mill to Keynes to Ford, would be proven right.

In 1933, the U.S. Senate approved legislation introducing a 30-hour workweek. Although the bill languished in the House of Representatives under industry pressure, a shorter workweek remained the labor unions’ top priority. After World War II, leisure time continued its steady rise. In 1956, Vice President Richard Nixon promised Americans that they would only have to work four days a week “in the not too distant future.”

Keynes’ bold prediction had become a truism. In the mid-1960s, a Senate committee report projected that by 2000 the workweek would be down to just 14 hours, with at least seven weeks off a year. The RAND Corporation, an influential think tank, foresaw a future in which just 2% of the population would be able to produce everything society needed. Working would soon be reserved for the elite.

As the 1960s progressed, some thinkers did begin to voice concerns. Pulitzer Prize-winning political scientist Sebastian de Grazia told the Associated Press, “There is reason to fear […] that free time, forced free time, will bring on the restless tick of boredom, idleness, immorality, and increased personal violence.” And in 1974, the U.S. Interior Department sounded the alarm, declaring that, “Leisure, thought by many to be the epitome of paradise, may well become the most perplexing problem of the future.”

Despite these concerns, however, there was little doubt over the course history would ultimately take. By around 1970, sociologists talked confidently of the imminent “end of work.” Mankind was on the brink of a veritable leisure revolution.

The Forgotten Dream

Yet history took a different turn.

In the 1980s, workweek reductions came to a grinding halt. Economic growth was translating not into more leisure, but more stuff. In countries like Australia, Austria, Norway, Spain, and England, the workweek stopped shrinking altogether. In the U.S., it actually grew. Seventy years after the country passed the 40-hour workweek into law, three-quarters of the labor force was putting in more than 40 hours a week.

Even citizens of the Netherlands – the nation with the shortest workweek in the world – have felt the steadily increasing weight of work, overtime, care tasks, and education since the 1980s. Three-quarters of the Dutch workforce is feeling overburdened by time pressures, a quarter habitually works overtime, and one in eight is suffering the symptoms of burnout.

What’s more, work and leisure are becoming increasingly difficult to disentangle. A study conducted at the Harvard Business School has shown that, thanks to modern technology, managers and professionals in Europe, Asia, and North America now spend 80–90 hours per week “either working, or ‘monitoring’ work and remaining accessible.” And according to British research, the smartphone has the average employee working 460 more hours per year – nearly three weeks.

It’s safe to say the predictions of the great minds didn’t exactly come true. We are long past due for Keynes’ prophecy. Around the year 2000, countries like France, the Netherlands, and the United States were already five times as wealthy as in 1930. Yet as we hurtle into the 21st century, our biggest challenges are not leisure and boredom, but stress and uncertainty.

The Solution to (Almost) Everything

Recently, a friend asked me: What does working less actually solve?

I’d rather turn the question around: Is there anything that working less does not solve?

Stress? Countless studies have shown that people who work less are more satisfied with their lives. In a recent poll conducted among working women, German researchers even quantified the “perfect day.” The largest share of minutes (106) would go toward “intimate relationships.” At the bottom of the list were “work” (36), and “commuting” (33). The researchers dryly noted that, “in order to maximize well-being it is likely that working and consuming (which increases GDP) might play a smaller role in people’s daily activities compared to now.”

Accidents? Overtime is deadly. Long workdays lead to more errors: Tired surgeons are more prone to slip-ups, and soldiers who get too little shuteye are more prone to miss targets. From Chernobyl to the Space Shuttle Challenger, overworked managers often prove to have played a fatal role in disasters. It’s no coincidence that the financial sector, which triggered the biggest disaster of the last decade, is absolutely drowning in overtime.

Climate change? A worldwide shift to a shorter workweek could cut the CO2 emitted this century by half. Countries with a shorter workweek have a smaller ecological footprint. Consuming less starts with working less – or, better yet – with consuming our prosperity in the form of leisure.

Unemployment? Obviously, you can’t simply chop a job up into smaller pieces. The labor market isn’t a game of musical chairs in which anyone can fit into any seat and all we need to do is dole out places. Nevertheless, researchers at the International Labour Organization have concluded that work sharing – in which two part-time employees share a workload traditionally assigned to one full-time worker – went a long way toward resolving the last crisis. Particularly in times of recession with spiking unemployment and production exceeding demand, sharing jobs can help to soften the blow.

Emancipation of women? Countries with short workweeks consistently top gender equality rankings. The central issue is achieving a more equitable distribution of work. Not until men do their fair share of cooking, cleaning, and other domestic labor will women be free to fully participate in the broader economy. In other words, the emancipation of women is a men’s issue. These changes, however, are not only dependent on the choices of individual men; legislation has an important role to play. Nowhere is the time gap between men and women smaller than in Sweden, a country with a truly decent system in place for childcare and paternity leave.

Aging population? An increasing share of the older population wants to continue working even after hitting retirement age. But where thirtysomethings are drowning in work, family responsibilities, and mortgages, seniors struggle to get hired, even though working is excellent for their health. So, besides distributing jobs more equally between the sexes, we also have to share them across the generations. Young workers who are just now entering the labor market may well continue working into their eighties. In exchange, they could put in not 40 hours, but perhaps 30 or even 20 per week. “In the 20th century we had a redistribution of wealth,” one leading demographer has observed. “In this century, the great redistribution will be in terms of working hours.”

Inequality? The countries with the biggest disparities in wealth are precisely those with the longest workweeks. While the poor are working longer and longer hours just to get by, the rich are finding it ever more “expensive” to take time off as their hourly rates rise.

In the 19th century, it was typical for wealthy people to flatly refuse to roll up their sleeves. Work was for peasants. The more someone worked, the poorer they were. Since then, social mores have flipped. Nowadays, excessive work and pressure are status symbols. Moaning about too much work is often just a veiled attempt to come across as important and interesting. Time to oneself is sooner equated with unemployment and laziness, certainly in countries where the wealth gap has widened.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We have the ability to cut a big chunk off our working week. Not only would it make all of society a whole lot healthier, it would also put an end to untold piles of pointless and even downright harmful tasks (a recent poll found that as many as 37% of British workers think they have a “bullshit job”). A universal basic income would be the best way to give everyone the opportunity to do more unpaid but incredibly important work, such as caring for children and the elderly.

The Good Life

When I told people, in the course of writing my book, that I was addressing the biggest challenge of the century, their interest was immediately piqued. Was I writing on terrorism? Climate change? World War III?

Their disappointment was palpable when I launched into the subject of leisure. “Wouldn’t everybody just be glued to the TV all the time?”

I was reminded of the dour priests and salesmen of the 19th century who believed that the plebs wouldn’t be able to handle getting the vote, or a decent wage, or, least of all, leisure, and who backed the 70-hour workweek as an efficacious instrument in the fight against liquor. But the irony is that it was precisely in overworked, industrialized cities that more and more people sought refuge in the bottle.

Now we’re living in a different era, but the story is the same: In overworked countries like Japan, Turkey, and, of course, the United States, people watch an absurd amount of television. Up to five hours a day in the U.S., which adds up to nine years over a lifetime. American children spend half again as much time in front of the TV as they do at school. True leisure, however, is neither a luxury nor a vice. It is as vital to our brains as vitamin C is to our bodies. There’s not a person on earth who on their deathbed thinks, “Had I only put in a few more hours at the office or sat in front of the tube some more.”

Sure, swimming in a sea of spare time will not be easy. A 21st-century education should prepare people not only for joining the workforce, but also (and more importantly) for life. “Since men will not be tired in their spare time,” the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in 1932, “they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid.”

We can handle the good life, if only we take the time.

Rutger Bregman is the author of 'Utopia For Realists', published by Bloomsbury in the U.K. and by Little, Brown in the U.S.

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      1. Clive

        Or is it the high income ennui which is more bothersome?

        No-one who is financially secure deserves any sympathy for complaining about how lack of money worries brings you the mental bandwidth to simply substitute other worries.

        But just because someone has no problems with having enough money to live on doesn’t mean that any struggle they may have for a meaningful life is automatically thrown into the “I don’t give a stuff” bonfire of compassion.

        My mother in law who is not unintelligent but comes from that generation which, due to social norms which prevailed at the time never worked beyond her early twenties at which point she gave up any prospect of a career and devoted her attentions to her child rearing responsibility while also enabling her husband to pursue a well-remunerated job unencumbered by having any domestic concerns, did not get the chance to build out a support system which provided her with mental challenges and that intangible sense of “doing something with your life”. When her husband made a nusience of himself by dying in his mid-to-late sixties, she was cast adrift.

        Her plight is one of the saddest things I see in my life. I genuinely believe that if it wasn’t for her cat, no kidding, she would suffer a significant mental and social interaction decline. And it may well come to that regardless. At which point, she will present a demand on heath and social care services. So it is inaccurate to take a view which states, in effect, “so what, let her decline and fade away — I don’t care because she’s rich therefore not deserving of sympathy and it doesn’t affect me” because when the problem is taken in aggregate it does affect us all.

        1. diptherio

          Thanks, Clive. This is something I’ve started to focus more on in my riffs about the dysfunctional state of our society and economy — it doesn’t work well for anybody, not even the people who are supposedly successful within the system. Deepak Chopra and Ken Wilbur wouldn’t be getting rich selling their knock-off spirituality texts if their middle-to-upper class readership was actually being fulfilled by their economic a social “success.” That’s one of the great tragic ironies of modern life, even when you win, you lose.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Sorry! I don’t understand how this happened. I had added more material about the general problem of work versus jobs and had also loaded the Bregman article. I have no idea why an older version of the post was the one that ran. It was in the backstage along with the posted version. There is also a debunking of a particular para from Bregman that was in the later version.

  1. vlade

    The below is missing. Well, no, it’s not missing. I think you wrote most of what will spur a good discussion below already :)

    1. cocomaan

      I really appreciated hearing Yves’s personal experience. That’s a lot of opening up and it’s appreciated.

      She’s on to something with regard to our culture of work. I’ve been shopping around for a new job lately in my discipline (grant writing, communications, non-profit management – live by the pen, die by the sword kind of work). Not because I have to, but because I’m a little bored with where I am. Organizations I want to work with usually have very little cash flow and are on the verge of collapse every fiscal year. You have to move on pretty quickly or get burnt out. It comes with the territory.

      The funny thing is, you can tell that there’s little work being done at organizations by reading between the lines on the ads. But every firm certainly tries to make it sound like they’re busy. In my experience, the work follows the 80/20 rule, with the minority doing the majority of the work. Everyone is busy yet no work is getting done.

      There’s a tension at play in Yves’s article and the article she’s responding to. Her homeless shelter needs help, but is unable to adjust to its own standards of how they do their job. The place I currently work for has initiatives it has peopled with morons, then builds a veil around them under which they can’t be criticized.

      It’s what Graeber called Bullshit Jobs, but it goes beyond just work that has no meaning. That’s why the Underestimating American Collapse piece is so important.

      I’ve worked in places where there’s an extraordinary amount of work to do, yet nobody does anything. Management seems bewildered and sequesters themselves in their offices, doing management-by-email, which never works and only results in resentment. My fear is that if we continue to labor in the same way we’re laboring, we have a situation where people aren’t actually working on anything.

      1. diptherio

        Hey, Cocoman, you should move up here to Hot Springs, Montana. We’re starting the process of organizing a tiny-house ecovillage with a healthcare component and we could really use someone with your skillset — and you’d get to soak hot mineral water every day, if you wanted. Think about it… :-)

        1. cocomaan

          That does sound pretty great!

          I was looking at a self guided hunting trip for mule deer in the upper missouri breaks just a few weeks ago. I give money to the American Prairie Reserve up there, they’re trying to recreate the American Serengeti out there and have some cool hunting grounds. Too many logistics though so I decided to do a trip to Maryland instead.

          And then, on the other side of the state, there you guys are soaking in hot springs. Montana is a really incredible place.

  2. james wordsworth

    I think you might have missed the point of the zen master quote that started the piece.

    As an aside, my spouse does not do paid work (she teaches meditation, but never for money) and our kids are grown (so empty nest). She is extremely happy, happier than I have ever known her. She meditates, reads, bakes, cooks, takes the dog for a walk but rarely sees anyone. She finds outside interaction to be a waste of time. Her focus is on the internal, not on what society is trying to reflect back to her. And that really is where the issue is. We live in a society madly focused on reacting to what others are saying, doing etc. True happiness comes from inside (not from more stuff) and hence the zen master quote. It does not matter what you are doing if you have the right approach. Personally though I would prefer the non work life, or at least say a 3 day week, but then I am not that enlightened yet.

    1. diptherio

      Um…if you are of the belief that the sayings of Zen masters have only one “true meaning” or correct interpretation, you probably need to spend some more time studying Zen…just sayin’.

    2. jrs

      a lot of people do manage to be happy in retirement etc. (not so much unemployment as there is still need to earn income there). But they are people that have some sense of purpose that they think work gets in the way with. I was just at a social event with people discussing that this weekend. 3 happy people that don’t need to work anymore. But lots of people have no real deep values (no concern for helping the community and the planet, no hobbies, etc.) beyond compete, beat the joneses, win, struggle, be miserable, boss other people around etc.. And I guess they need work.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        What you call hobbies are work. Gardening, woodworking, cooking….all are things you can hire other people to do, ergo it falls in the category of work.

        1. Toske

          And those things often benefit the world far more than many of the forms of work that people are paid huge salaries to do.

    3. Andrew John

      How does one square “true happiness comes from inside” with a depiction of a person with free time, grown children, and a life with you in it? For people without any of those things, the effort of trying to believe something that isn’t true for the vast majority – contentment with being utterly alone, now and forever – will drive people to madness. Humans are social creatures. Without children and without you, I am not sure if your partner would be so happy.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        I would put this differently. He is epitomizing the point of view that I argued against in the post, that unpaid labor is work too, that “work” is not limited to jobs, and some of the most important unpaid “work” like tending to our communities, is extremely valuable.

        And I hate to sound churlish, but he also seems to be epitomizing an attitude that feminists have long decried, that what women do is not regarded as work and hence devalued. Isn’t his wife’s housecleaning and cooking (I assume she does half at a bare minimum) not work? Or her teaching classes?

    4. dk

      If one doesn’t chop wood, one has no fuel for the cooking fire.

      If one doesn’t carry water, one has none to prepare the meal with.

      Self-sustenance (and by extension, contribution to family and community) is not intrinsically materialistic in the modern sense of fixation on the illusory world of possessions. We depend on the physical medium for our very lives. It is only through distribution of tasks across and large industrialized economy that some may find abundant leisure, while others toil to exhaustion.

    1. a different chris

      Yes she did. But her post was such a mic-drop that I don’t really care about the article at all, let alone take the bother to go sneer at it.

      It’s funny how many things I winced in recognition of, as well as how much in there I was glad to have missed in my little corner of life. Women and minorities were unfairly held out of the means to have stable, secure incomes and opportunities to make a difference. But what can finally be said, though is that being a white male in the late 20th century* wasn’t so great either except for the few. Being allowed (expected!) to participate in “commerce” and “decision-making” (hah, the important decisions were already made) and the glory of whatever it is we did (most of the hard currency of it accruing to the 1%) in this late stage of Western Civilization (apologies Ghandi!) doesn’t in absolute terms seem like so much of a privilege.

      *Yes please chime in on some rotten part of Industrial Age history to tell me that people like me never had it so good.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        You appear not to recognize that I’m a woman. Help me. I made that explicit.

        Or do you think that women should only do “women’s work” and my problems were male problems? The fact that I am not temperamentally suited to be a parent does not mean that I don’t have an appreciation for how much effort it takes to raise children. But it also involves a lot of really unglamorous tasks that many men as well as some educated women foist on others.

  3. Conor O'Brien

    Hi all,
    There is work involved in reading the article referred to. It involves reading Yves article and identifying the link in the seventh line as the article.

    Personally I completely agree with Yves. Adam Smith said, “There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation”; but if you start with the young and neglect to develop their social abilities you will get there much faster.

    The question is not what we, plural, must do to teach them; but what we ourselves do. We, young or old, cannot be taught, we can only learn. Proper work is the greatest means of learning that there is.

  4. Jesper

    Legislative free time would force all to have free time so it should be easier to make plans with others.
    Having free time alone might be a miserable time (for some), having free time when others also have free time – which seems to be what the author argues for – might be a lot better.

  5. cnchal

    Totally missing from Rutger’s essay was any mention of the mountain of debt that requires servicing by everybody thrashing and bashing in bullshit jawbs.

    The debt treadmill means one cannot afford to tell their employer to stuff it it and take more time off.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Try maintaining child-support working at an unstable constantly changing job. I kept the same job for more than twenty-years but never once felt secure. And failing to pay child support — set at a scale based on the income from that insecure job — would have landed me in jail.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        Aiee, yes…worse than student debt in many respects.

        I know someone who lived overseas for a bit and made the mistake of paying his child support to his ex. The court came after him and said he hadn’t paid. His ex went to the judge and insisted he had. The judge didn’t care, said from her perspective he’d missed those payments since they were supposed to go through the court. The guy didn’t have the scratch to make up the supposedly missed payments. He’s been living totally in the cash economy since then. He has family overseas he can’t visit. Had to miss his father’s funeral. I can’t imagine the stress of living that way.

  6. cojo

    To paraphrase Sting’s comment of “not letting my schooling get in the way of my education”, I’d like to think the argument being made is, too often, one’s job gets in the way of the important work that needs to be done to nurture a healthy human/citizen. I see too often, the busiest of people who have not had much introspective thought in their own philosophy of being and end up being swayed back and forth by powers not of their own making.

  7. Carolinian

    I read something once that said the difference between England and America is that in England one can be a failure and still have friends. While this may be a gross generalization it does speak to the fact that our somewhat more fluid class structure creates a constant status anxiety. In this country you are what you do and the ever eroding safety net means failure to do anything may place you among those homeless living in tents on the sidewalks of Los Angeles. And yet, oddly, some of those homeless prefer to live on the streets and this defiant individualism is another part of America. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

    Here’s hoping that the US does snap out of this Darwinian mode–imposed from the top down and perhaps having little to do with the heartland where social attitudes are more like England than hard charging NY or LA. At our best we are about freedom and individualism. At our worst we bomb the rest of the world just to show who’s on top.

    1. Anon

      At our best we are about freedom and individualism. At our worst we bomb the rest of the world just to show who’s on top

      From the beginning (1492) “we” have been about “bombing” (bullets) to show whom is “on top”. “We” don’t give a hoot about children (or their mothers) in Syria, Iraq, Yemen or anywhere else (except the occasional local natural disaster). In fact, “we” can’t be bothered to scrutinize our political leaders to effect “freedom” anywhere (even at home).

  8. Alex Morfesis

    Somebody get me bregmans publicist…the bernaze sauce is powerful in him be…if you reverse engineer what he is describing as what needs to happen to make the world a utopia…one might notice he is talking about “his” personal world…not “THE” world…born in a tiny beach tourist community in the Netherlands…quoting “richard nixon”…richard nixon…as “proof” his ideas make sense…

    Everyone is different and we are all victims of our experiences…good victims as in the lucky dna klub…or bad victims by situations some can not find a way to extricate themselves from…

    As you absorb and evolve from the experiences you keep…life reflects against your synapses in new ways…the youthful curiosity or fear of the unknowable, adjusts to acceptance, rejection, avoidance or embrace…

    Much of our disruptions come from perhaps unreasonable expectations…jumping from one task to another, one job to another and one dream, plan or thought to another…

    Embracing boredom and giving it a fat wet kiss on a regular basis is my fiendish and personal solution…it may not be anyone elses…

    As the queen bee points out…and what I have also grunted at fools what want me to join some noise they confusingly are labeling revolutionary…

    In the morning who is going to drive the bus…who will get the breakfast on the table…who will do the simple enough things all too often written off by our imagined betters as beneath them and those of their station…

    The powerful and wealthy throughout history have always worked to create leisure time…rich folks twist the tax codes to create “public” museums of art when they are really just tired of paying storage fees for their glutinous appetite for painted over canvas and chipped pieces of marble and thus get together with some friends and form their own non profit and get to let their fellow taxpayers pay to house their art collection…but the museums need work…marketing is still work…and more often then not…the leisure time leads to hubris, which leads to weakness…then all that becomes dust or landfill…

    Bergman just seems some ageing child with a great publicist who just wishes the smart kids who used to visit his small beachfront town could have stayed longer and played…

    A working global theory it is not…

  9. Ook

    In my mid-to-late 20s (for three years) I lucked into a job that paid a comfortable living wage but only required only two hours a day, four days a week, with occasional spurts of more hours.
    This was the happiest time of my life. In my free time I played my music, learned a foreign language, read a lot, and wrote (writing being the only activity for which I insisted on being paid). Most of my social life was with free spirits, and I had no shortage of memorable evenings.
    Perhaps being under 30 (and not being in the USA) made this more socially acceptable, and I readily agree that many, if not most people would not be able to handle this level of freedom well. And yes, there was some “you’re wasting your life” finger-wagging, mostly by Americans, and I have to admit it I didn’t take it well, and generally avoided those types.

    1. JohnnyGL

      “Perhaps being under 30 (and not being in the USA) made this more socially acceptable” – Yes. People in the USA need to have the concept of a ‘gap year’ explained to them. I understand this is fairly common in the UK, Ireland, Aus, and NZ. But in the US, we’ve strangled it in the crib with student loans.

      I knew one hiring mgr who wouldn’t interview a perfectly qualified candidate at least partially because he’d just spent 18 months traveling around Asia. Very frustrating.

      Personally, out of college, I had to grab a part time job on weekends and a couple of nights during the week to try to make a dent in those student loans. It took me nearly 2 decades to conquer them.

      1. a different chris

        “Gap” year in USA also means “no Healthcare” so another reason for US students to not take the time needed to visit other places. Sure you’re unlikely to have a heart attack, but what does a broken leg cost?

        And if they don’t visit other places, they don’t see first hand that things can be different.

        It’s a great racket if you’re on top.

        1. jrs

          I imagine a major fear would be “what would an employer think?”, and I’m not sure it’s wrong an employer in the U.S. very well might judge that “gap year” as a reason not to hire someone. Yes maybe not much healthcare, but unless one is cursed with early health problems how much does a 20 something tend to care, but the “maybe not get a job when I get back” thing has to be concerning.

        2. rps

          Young Adult Coverage: Under current [affordable care] law, if your [healthcare] plan covers children, you can now add or keep your children on your health insurance policy until they turn 26 years old. Children can join or remain on a parent’s plan even if they are: Married. Not living with their parents. Attending school. Not financially dependent on their parents. Eligible to enroll in their employer’s plan.

          1. Anon

            Just don’t plan to be outside the US when you need healthcare services. Many plans limit the amount of coverage when abroad. Then again, healthcare is much less expensive in Europe, I hear.

      2. Synoia

        I took a Gap year – Gas Station, Build Church Organs, Traveled to Andorra.

        I believe, a Gap year works, or worked, in the UK because the undergraduate period is fixed at 3 years.

        Not the meandering 4, 5, or 6 years which appears to be common in the US.

        After graduating, I then Meandered over Africa. Many young or many nationalities, Few from the US.

  10. Arte

    I have done the not cleaning the kitchen for a month thing in my student days. It turns out that this is an entirely survivable experiment.

    In fact, in my dedication to science I repeated it several times.

  11. casino implosion

    After 20 years in the trades I can assure you that the contempt between knowledge workers and people who make things is a two way street.

  12. Tom Stone

    These glimpses Yves’ provides into the insular world of the credentialed elite are fascinating on a number of levels.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      It is worth pointing out that during this period, (1990s and early 2000s), if you had used the word “elites,” you would have been regarded as a conspiratorial nutcase. It was only in the wake of the crisis (IIRC 2010) that the word became acceptable to describe a certain social level in the US.

      And I would never have been considered “elite” in NYC. Not even close. I was a mere worker bee, albeit at fancy firms. And I had lower status as a self employed person.

      1. Synoia

        No so in the UK:

        Upper Class
        Middle Class
        Lower Middle Class
        Working Class

        were always in common use.

        I remember of painting of a Zulu Warrior on the dining room wall of my hall of Residence at university. labelled “1851 Kaffir Wars.”

        The K word was the N word of Southern Africa.

        The US was once a more equal place. That time seem to have passed.

  13. Mary H

    Have read the post, not the article, and it summarizes my feelings about work and leisure exactly. I’m an Ivy League graduate mother who stayed home with the kids for ten years and currently has a well paying job in financial services. I loved being able to provide a well ordered home with nutritious home cooked food and having the time to sew, garden, work on my own projects and teach my kids things instead of handing them off to a sitter. I’ve always loved real work but find my job soul-sucking. If I didn’t want to pay for my kids college I’d be out of here in a heartbeat. And I have few friends near me. Most people I meet have embraced the neoliberal value system and I don’t even try to compete so really stand out and not in a good way.

    1. ArcadiaMommy

      In the midst of a similar experience now. Stayed home with kids until they were in school/activities for the most part, other than “project”-type work that I could do from home or work for my husband’s company. I think I would have been anxious beyond belief to be separated all day from my kids, but that’s just me. Some of the stay-home moms I know REALLY should go back to work. It would be good for them. And I realize this is a luxury, most people have no choice. Now I need to quit procrastinating and get back to tax work papers. Bleh.

  14. Wukchumni

    “If working is so good for us, how come they have to pay us to show up?”-some New Zealander I met

  15. johnnygl

    Yves, thanks for your personal example of less work and more leisure not doing much to make you happy. I would like to make a couple of quick points.

    1) you stumbled into this sort of set up inwhat is probably the worst environment to attempt it…NYC. You’d have probably had better luck attempting it in other places.

    2) lack of control over schedule, especially consistent hours, is something you touched on, but is seriously underrated in affecting people’s happiness, in my view. Having little predictability or control of your schedule probably gave you a lot more of your frustration.

    Recently, my wife didn’t mind being somewhat underpaid in her job because she could get away with calling out of work pretty frequently without a ton of complaints (mostly child care issues, or being sick from the germs they brought home).

    1. Grumpy Engineer

      @johhygl: You make some good points. I personally would love to see a shorter work week, and I would quite cheerfully give up 25% of my pay to work 30 hours instead of 40. Indeed, it seems to me that the American workforce is effectively split into two parts:

      [1] The full-time workers, who are well paid and get good benefits but have to work their tails off and are always on the ragged edge of burn-out. Leisure time is a luxury that is in short supply, and early retirement is the dream of many full-time workers. The work-life balance is NOT good here.

      [2] The part-time workers, who are poorly paid with minimal benefits, but typically have more leisure time and a better work-life balance. If they can avoid the financial stresses that typically accompany the low-pay scenario (which, sadly, is usually not the case), it can be an attractive life-style.

      There needs to be a middle ground. One where the work-life balance is better but the pay is still adequate.

      And to close my comment, I’m going to flip the headline around: “Is There Anything That Working MORE Does Not Solve?” If working less than 40 hours is of little or no benefit, it would likely imply that working more than 40 hours would be a net improvement. After all, it is unlikely the arbitrary whole number of 40 happens to be the exact mathematical ideal.

      1. JohnnyGL

        You’ve got that right. In our family we’ve flip-flopped between 1 and 2.

        1) When we’re both working full time, money isn’t a horror show, but we’re doing errands and chores all weekend and squeezing in social lives around the margins.

        2) When my wife doesn’t work full time, we’ve got more time to breathe, but barely break even each month.

        1. Grumpy Engineer

          We’re doing errands and chores all weekend and squeezing in social lives around the margins.

          Oh, yes. I’m all too familiar with this. My wife and I both work full-time, and your sentence describes our lives with alarming precision. We’ve both pondered options for part-time work, but the “fault tolerance” of the scenarios we studied was pretty minimal. It would work, but only if nothing went wrong. Unfortunately, both of us have some risk of layoff this year, even though we work at different places (residue of sins by upper management past). So we both keep grinding away, wondering where all of our free time went.

        2. Martin Finnucane

          Gotcha beat: I work full time, then come home to cook, read to the kids, clean after they go to bed, and … I live paycheck to paycheck. Best of both worlds!

          1. ArcadiaMommy

            I’m sure you know all these things but…..Take care of yourself. Your kids will be bigger soon and they can help you. It will make them better people. Cook on the weekends with them (spend time together and get meal prep out of the way), ignore the messes (kids don’t care), and keep reading (probably the best part of their day). I’ve have found that having less stuff makes things easier to manage as far as cleaning goes.

            I recently dropped a client because he wouldn’t pay his workers enough. He was wondering why he had constant employee turnover, people “flaking out” as he put it, problems with poor work product, etc. It boggles my mind that so many business “leaders” these days can’t seem to stop wringing every little drop from the people they need to trust to get things done. And while they are clearly living a different lifestyle from the people they employ. He was obsessed with being “lean” rather than “good”. Oh yeah and he owes me a ton of money too.

    2. jrs

      I think it would work better even in (expensive) California. Because here in the greater L.A. area there are meetup groups that meet in the day, I know there is volunteering if you like to work in a garden or a nature center that you don’t have to have a firm commitment for etc. (and the weather is great out). But if one hates meetup groups, hates to do those types of things etc.. then maybe one is in a bad way.

    3. Yves Smith Post author

      I’m not sure about the NYC part. Single women are pariahs in pretty much the rest of the US. So I would have traded one set of problems for another.

      1. The Rev Kev

        Sorry, I am going to have to ask this question. Are single women pariahs among other women, married couples or just on the social scene itself? Come to think of it, you have a whole franchise of shows called Real housewives of Orange County, New York City, Beverly Hills, etc. but there isn’t a show called Real Single women, is there? Don’t know why that didn’t click.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          I had a widowed woman in LA who is pushing 60 tell me that was exactly her experience, that women in couples acted as if any unattached woman was out to steal her man and were loath to invite her to social events. It’s even worse in the ‘burbs, where there is not much partying and a lot of dinners among couples.

          Re being looked down on, outside cities where you have a meaningful number of women in serious professional roles, the norm is for single women to be treated with a combination of condescension and hostility, as if there is obviously something wrong with them for not having gotten married and had kids like they were supposed to.

          1. Oregoncharles

            There is a relative shortage of men past about 30. Men have a higher death rate as well as a higher rate of homosexuality. Of course, the disproportion becomes more obvious as people pair off.

            There is an argument for polygyny among seniors – assuming there are women interested.

          2. The Rev Kev

            That pattern of anecdotes about how so many women in couples are loath to have single women in the social presence of their husbands. Those are not the actions of a healthy, secure population group. Those actions speak volumes about an underlying sense of insecurity and lack of faith in their husbands. Between that and insecurity in the workplace for so many people I cannot see how any society of people can function well on a steady diet of fear and stress.
            Those actions against single women may be part of a ‘spill-over effect’ as a result of these internal angsts and sisterhood be damned. Stuff like this makes you reflect that there is a major difference between ‘normal’ behavior and ‘average’ behavior.

            1. Yves Smith Post author

              Yes, I agree. I admittedly didn’t live in Oz very long, but I had some male drinking buddies (I adopted a local pub) who had girlfriend and the women didn’t seem edgy about it.

              And I find it really weird that women treat me as a potential home-wrecker when I am the antithesis of a woman on the make. I am not flirty (I hate flirting and view dating with about the same degree of enthusiasm as I do getting root canals), don’t smile much, lead with my intellect (which is a turn off to almost all men) and interrupt men pretty freely. To your point, if they regard me as a threat, they see anyone with female anatomy between 18 and 65 as a threat. And that likely means they are actively worried that they will be dumped for a younger woman, and project that fear onto pretty much any “available” woman.

  16. Jim A.

    And of course most “friend making” activities are going to b scheduled on the evening and weekends for the convenience and ability to market to those with 9-5 jobs. Which leaves the daytime hours still a yawning gap of unoccupied.

    1. jrs

      it depends on what one likes to do. I’m always amazed how many meetup groups meet in the day when everyone is you know working. And the coffee shops are full. Of course I could see this being a problem in a small town maybe. There is also and maybe always will be some who work swing or graveyard shift.

  17. The Rev Kev

    I suppose that I can make the original observation that there are all sorts of people in the world which range from the classic Type A personalities to total slackers but there is more at work here. Either end of this bell curve encounter their own problems so perhaps it is a general truth that so long as there is balance in that person’s life, it will be OK, wherever you are on this curve. I remember reading about the early astronauts talking about keeping ‘an even strain’ as their working philosophy. One author said that they were tough and went full bore all day long but at night, when they went home, they turned it all off, ate a good meal and got a good night’s sleep which is how they could keep it up. No one part of their life overtook the rest.
    In reading Yves’s experience with Manhattan in the 1990s, I try to imagine her mixing with people like the Sex and the City women – Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda. Having drinks, socializing, chatting about things that are important. Well no, I can’t imagine it at all either. They were not that sort of people. Sometimes you have to stop, haul yourself back, and say out loud “This is not how things should be. They are the crazy ones!” And that applies to things like following the Kardashians, being stuck on Facebook constantly, looking at mobiles while talking with friends & family, etc. In reading this account I think it’s like a cookie-cutter culture where you have to be married, have to be a certain type of person to be volunteering, etc with no flexibility. And if you took up an activity it was not enough to do it for its own sake but you had to be going somewhere with it such as that acting class. Stuff like cancelling social engagements would be crass and rude when one person does it but for whole groups to do this based on perceived social status is not only bad manners but a sign of a toxic culture. Of that there is not a doubt in my mind.
    Perhaps I should give a quote in closing by Jerome K. Jerome who had his own take on work as that is what the original article was all about. I try to emulate it whenever I can-

    “It always does seem to me that I am doing more work than I should do. It is not that I object to the work, mind you; I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours. I love to keep it by me: the idea of getting rid of it nearly breaks my heart.
    You cannot give me too much work; to accumulate work has almost become a passion with me: my study is so full of it now, that there is hardly an inch of room for any more. I shall have to throw out a wing soon.
    And I am careful of my work, too. Why, some of the work that I have by me now has been in my possession for years and years, and there isn’t a finger-mark on it. I take a great pride in my work; I take it down now and then and dust it. No man keeps his work in a better state of preservation than I do.
    But, though I crave for work, I still like to be fair. I do not ask for more than my proper share.”

  18. Wukchumni

    6 or 7 years ago, I was at the optometrist getting my orbits examined, and the eye doc told me that my unaided nearsighted vision would have been prized in doing minute cartouches & scrollwork on the margins of texts back in the day before magnifying glasses say a sextet of centuries ago, as it was that precise when combined with an artist’s touch in my hand.

    It was kind of a lightbulb moment for me, as I had made my living off of those eyes by enabling me to see minute details in a discriminating fashion that gave me a huge advantage over mere mortal rivals.

    Sadly, your eyes are one of the first visible things to go, and I could sense mine were going south on me, and got out while the getting was good and never looked back. I’ve been retired for almost 13 years now.

    But, I can still see the forest for the trees.

  19. Summer

    I think of leisure as being unregimented in any way. Whatever is being done that is leisure is not on any schedule, timeline, or deadline. And the best way to enjoy leisure is not to worry about what everyone else is doing.

  20. JCC

    Yves, right on!

    As a mostly single guy during my lifetime who generally works in the IT Trenches in small to medium-sized towns from CT to NY to CA, your experience reflects mine almost 100% (when I’m working part-time the income sucks, but I still have little to do :-)

    It is not just the credentialed elite in NY City that have to live with the general social structure of these United States.

  21. Amfortas the Hippie

    I had a hard time answering the question on the government interrogation(form):” what date did you become disabled?”
    Not only am I terrible at Time, the question would have been more easily answered if it had been:”at what point did the pain become too great to continue in your menial and thankless job?”
    While the society of the little county I live in did, indeed, judge me harshly for not working any more(until I got my hip…which I guess made the whole disability thing believable?), I found that I did not miss anything about food service, save free meals.
    Turns out I really don’t like people all that much,lol.
    Gnothii Seuton and all.
    I am not unaware of the strange disconnect of being a lonely agoraphobe, but I have learned, sans bosses and customers, to grow into that self directed flow state you mentioned…weed helps. I get on a glide path, puttering around fixing things, planting things, making things from essentially trash, chasing the wayward goose, and yes, chopping wood(with a chainsaw) and changing out the barrels once a month on our composting toilet. With the latter two, as well as with gardening, one tends to take things less for granted…poop goes somewhere…heat comes from somewhere…meat was once a living thing, with a soul in it’s eyes.
    I have no use, nor liking, for the wannabe high and mighty, with their nice clothes and their nice cars, and their unwarranted seats of judgment and condemnation.
    Wife finds it harder to let go of all that pretense and illusion, since she goes and interacts with the petit bourgeoisie every day(She’s a Teacher, ESL/Spanish). she correctly identifies their daily blather as banal and venal and vapid, but cannot seem to take the next step: “well, why do you care what such creatures think?”
    I’d rather hang out, if at all, in the Barrio with the Poor and the Brown, and drink cheap beer, than with any of our “betters” in this isolated community.
    As for Leisure, as something to aspire to…as you say, Leisure is not sitting on the couch watching TV.
    One needs something to do…preferably something useful in some way.
    The most trying times of my life have been those when I cannot move for the pain, and am condemned to lay there watching tv.
    I eat more junk(and carbs=> gabaergic=>seratonin,lol) and smoke more, and end up drinking more when I can finally get up and around.
    Boredom, combined with Being Furniture, is the last thing we need to promote in this culture.
    So Leisure will hafta be re-learned…folks are so unused to self directed meaningful behaviour that they will likely hafta be guided, somehow…although I shudder to think what our current crop of “leaders” will engineer to that end.
    …and that’s only if we acknowledge the realities of life after manufacturing…that doing each others’ laundry and driving around delivering other people and their things, are not really meaningful exercises, nor are they always a replacement for making useful things.
    If these changes in consciousness happen at all, it’s gonna be a hard row to hoe, and we’ll resist at every turn. There’s a considerable amount of inertial denial in place, resisting the knowledge that what we do every day might not have any real worth.
    That said, I look forward to the challenge, not least from a sense of schadenfreude(one takes one’s tiny pleasures where one can get them,lol)

    1. Summer

      “There’s a considerable amount of inertial denial in place, resisting the knowledge that what we do every day might not have any real worth.”

      Someone is spending their life with you. That has real worth. It’s not the only way to have worth and value, but there it is.

      1. Amfortas the Hippie

        Ja, it’s that as yet unmonetized wealth that matters.
        But I think of my brother, coming to terms in his own time, with the possibility that what he does for a living(big corporate software maintenance, or something) might not really contribute any actual light into the world…that it’s all about the greed and shark morality.
        (bought up by a Bain-Like Entity a few years ago).
        Like the Farside cartoon where the cow in the field suddenly realises,”wait! this is grass! We’ve been eating grass!!”
        Existential, ontological ,teleological crises.
        I worry about millions of others like my brother, entering such epiphanies…who don’t have a crazy redneck hippie philosopher for a brother. This may be one of the roots of all the crazy we’ve been witnessing.

  22. XXYY

    Not really discussed here, and perhaps not really the intent, is the difference between being overworked and being underworked. Having a society where some people work 60 or more hours a week, often on rotating shifts, while others have no work at all, seems like the real issue in the US.

    At one time, calls for cutting the normal work week were motivated in part to ensure that the work of keeping society running was spread around amongst the population as productivity gains ensured that fewer and fewer total hours were needed to perform essential tasks. I think the general view was that this was a good thing. The trend now seems to be to keep a smaller and smaller share of the population working a full capacity or beyond, with the rest in prison, on disability, living on rents collected from others’ work, or just wandering the landscape. This arrangement seems messed up.

    Yves’ point is that working only 70 days a year, out of a possible 250 or so, is too little for a satisfying life. This seems easy to believe. 60 hours a week full time seems like way too much.

    1. rd

      More than the hours, I think it is a function of being unpleasantly worked vs,. pleasantly worked. The lower you are on the food chain, the more likely it is you have to tolerate untolerable working conditions with arbitrary, capricious, officious managers making stupid decisions that cause everybody grief….and they wonder why productivity has been declining. The pleasant jobs usually have very high performing teams where everything flows and unpleasant jobs have dysfunctional teams where every day is a grind. The biggest influence on which of these it will be is the team leader.

      Work stress should be like exercise; it occurs as necessary and limited amounts make you better and stronger. Excessive stress breaks you down. Too much work involves unnecessary stress which is why there is such a focus on leisure as the only escape.

      I am in a profession where it can be very enjoyable and long hours fly by. However, I have also had some nasty and incompetent bosses and clients over the years who make the work go by slowly and painfully. There is a reason that Beetle Bailey, Charlie Brown, Dilbert, and Doonesberry comic strips survived so many years as they expose the stupidity of many of the worst workplace traits.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        I agree and the final version of the post (which frustratingly wasn’t the one that launched) says a bit more about that. Job conditions for people all up and down the food chain have gotten worse. It is obviously the most oppressive for people in retail, Amazon warehouse, gig economy, and other jobs where employers are engaging more more surveillance and deploying draconian output targets, but even people who have the appearance of status and higher incomes are subject to more stress and more hours, and have over the heads that they are more likely to be fired than someone similarly situated in the 1980s would have been.

  23. EoinW

    Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. I doubt Thoreau would have any trouble dealing with lots of leisure time. It’s a shame we have a society that, instead of teaching Thoreau, brainwashes its young to be obsessed with materialism. Even a bit of balance – teaching both philosophies – would give people a choice.

    What’s this BS job idea? Didn’t Camus make it clear there can be value in any labour? I know many people with very good jobs who hate them. I also suspect there are people with less appealing jobs who don’t hate them. Work can be of value or it can be an empty motion. Much of this is about the individual and their attitude.

    I do not see leisure time as being a problem. Free time is exactly what it is: free time. Meaning people are free to make what they want of it. That’s how it is suppose to work in a free society. The problem is when people do not have enough time to earn enough money to survive. Working a 60 hour week and still being in debt, sort of thing. Yet this is a materially rich society. I cannot help but think that such people are choosing lifestyle expenses which make it impossible for them to make ends meet. Plus I know too many people who couldn’t save money if their life depended on it. Isn’t the neoliberal economy training everyone to be like this? With such people they will have to always work. So they’d better either change their lifestyle or learn to enjoy working.

    Remember time is far more valuable than money. When you spend money you simply go out and earn more. On the other hand, once each moment of your life is spent then it is gone forever, can never be replaced. How much free time a person needs is up to each individual. And it can take a lifetime for each person to figure out what is best for themselves. To me, that is the challenge of life. It isn’t having a meaningful job.

    1. Jamie

      What’s this BS job idea? Didn’t Camus make it clear there can be value in any labour?

      Don’t know about Camus, but very familiar with BS jobs. They run a gamut from producing and delivering “goods” that should never be made in the first place to keeping a chair warm in order to cement social status and rationalize the low pay of the “supervised”. It goes to the distinction some have mentioned between job and work. The last job I ever had was being well paid to essentially do nothing while a well trained but poorly paid staff managed all the day’s work. I had to be there, just in case something came up the staff couldn’t handle, which was absurdly rarely, and the staff were deliberately not trained to handle the few things that might predictably “come up” just to justify my “position” which was jealously guarded as part of my department’s budget… the problem with the job was there was no “labour” in it for Camus or anyone else to find value in, except the effort to fight off the boredom and make myself come in every day.

      And so, I somewhat disagree with those who focus on “job conditions” as the primary source of worker alienation. Sure, working for idiots in dirty or dangerous conditions can be horrible, but even when the boss is nice and the “workload” is sane, there are many jobs that people do because money is required, not because the “work” is worth doing.

      We are not insensitive to the fact that while we are “making our living”, real work, important work such as Yves describes: Caring for babies, civilizing children, serving meals… is not what we are doing. Often, we are left to do all the most important “work” in our families and neighborhoods in our “leisure” time, because no one has figured out a way to take a profit from that work, so we do it without pay, for the satisfaction of healthy and happy communities… but there is a lot of profit to be made in manufacturing and selling arms, for instance, or in disposing of tons of by-catch while fishing and canning tuna, or selling fizzy sugar water to kids… lots of jobs that entail destruction in one form or another… they are all BS jobs, Camus notwithstanding.

      And the root of the BS is that someone else is telling you to do these things, not because they are good things to do, but because they will generate a profit for the owners of the business and therefore a wage for you. And while you are “free” to say no, you absolutely need money to live and while there may be a few jobs that pay for the important work of organizing and beautifying your home and neighborhood, most people will not be able to get jobs doing that. Most people “labour” in some form of environmental degradation of either our physical or social environment.

      And we know it, though we try not to think about it too much. And we rationalize, that at least canning tuna is providing food for people, and that’s good, right? Well, isn’t it? And we have to destroy all that by-catch because otherwise our tuna wouldn’t be competitive on price… so we just don’t think about it too much, about what it would take to actually labour to produce tuna sustainably without all the collateral damage to the ocean’s ecosystem or the “work” it would take to make sustainable tuna fishing competitive through law and regulation… because that’s not “work” that will turn a profit for the tuna industry and very few people can be paid to do that kind of work… so we do it in our “leisure” time while we type memos for our bosses who own the food distribution company we work for… and we are grateful to have a “good” job and we put it out of our minds…. and we are, in some ways out of our minds, but luckily there are people who make prozac and such that help us deal with it… BS jobs everywhere you look…

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      I don’t think anyone is arguing that the challenge of life is having a meaningful job. “How much free time a person needs is up to each individual.” But how much free time they can have is not an easy matter of their choices. While it may be true that there are people who corner themselves with a situation where they must work 60 hours to make ends meet I believe it is also true that there are a lot of people who have no choice but to work those 60 hours. As for “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity” — Thoreau was a writer who from what I recall enjoyed both social and financial resources uncommon to most of our lives today. He might claim to find communion with waring ants but I think only the most introverted might find fulfillment when limited to such communions. Our social lives are waning toward dark nights as work consumes more and more of our time — seldom as a matter of our choices. If someone can break free from work — the culture of work and the poverty of our society inside and outside work robs them of the means to enjoy those moments of their lives when they can be free from work.

  24. ALex V

    One book shaped my view on work more than anything else; “Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered” by E.F. Schumacher. Touches on capitalism, Buddhism, and sustainability in a beautifully coherent way. Highly worth reading. My biggest takeaway was that any work done is more rewarding and fulfilling if done with deliberation.

  25. Arizona Slim

    Yves had the same party hosting experience that my family did. We used to host a New Year’s Eve gathering, but Mom got tired of dealing with people who called during the festivities to say why they weren’t coming.

    We figured that at least one of our guests would step up and keep our little tradition going. No one ever did.

    1. JohnnyGL

      I’ve been dealing with that sort of thing with both my extended family and my high school friends.

    2. Ellie C.

      Of all the many parties we hosted over the years, it was rare to get a reciprocal invitation. So we stopped having parties. I sometimes miss the feeling of having hosted a well-received gathering, but not enough to have another one.

    3. Yves Smith Post author

      It’s a minor detail, but it is indicative of how people devalue social relations. Being rude to a host is somehow now OK. With a party, there is usually a certain level of no-shows due to real problems, like needing to stay home to take care of a sick kid. But this isn’t what most of the late-in-game cancellations are about.

  26. Wukchumni

    I’ve mentioned trail crews working for Sequoia & Kings Canyon NP’s before, and it’s common to have mostly fellows that start working in the back of beyond from April through to October, and put in 10 or 20 years on the job. The other 6 months they have to find other employment, and most employers aren’t cool with you not being available 1/2 of the year, so it’s a challenge. Only a few out of say 40 on trail crews have the holy grail-a permanent year-round NPS job.

    The work is vintage late 19th century for the most part, and is tough on bodies, most of which give out on account of being worn to the nub.

    Nobody is all that upset at being put out to pasture @ 43 as the aches & ouches accumulate till a total of too many, and most wish they could still do it.

  27. LD

    I tried to sign up as a volunteer at a local Boys and Girls Club, which required training at the central office. When I went, the other three people there were all college-aged and looking for something on their resume. One young woman was a criminal justice major and, from what she told me, needed something like this on her resume in order to get a job as a prison guard.

    After completing the training, I followed up with my local club but they didn’t have a spot for me. Kept on telling me to check back in a few months, which I did for a while but never got placed there.

    I work about 75 days a year. I enjoy cooking and exercise, well more eating and exercise, and tried becoming active in political organizations but always find myself drifting back to my side business where I have ample budgets, interesting work, and smart people.

  28. John R.

    Way back in the early 70’s, my wife and I “dropped out” with the help of unemployment benefits that kept being extended. And learning how to live cheap (without kids, of course.)
    It was boring for me; I needed projects which eventually became handyman work, construction and so on. So I know what Yves is talking about.
    But even after re-entering work society, the hole remained until I started attending Codependents Anonymous, a 12 Step group that focuses on relationships. The experience of shared honesty is what I needed.
    Unfortunately, nothing there does much good for this world that so much needs good action, except for the good we all get from being in it. So I do what I can to let others know of my good fortune, but also continue to live with my sadness for the good work not being done, otherwise. And hope upon hope that Daniel Pinker is right. He really does have facts and figures, after all.

  29. Arizona Slim

    I have encountered more than a few organizations that use volunteers. And I don’t mean that in a good way.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I too have found volunteering dispiriting. It were as though I could not be trusted with any of the real work to be done and where that was clearly not the issue those better placed in the organization seemed to hoard the meaningful tasks to the point where they were poorly executed. Any observations or suggestions contrary to blind praise were NOT welcome.

  30. sleepy

    So some of the unhappiness about work (as opposed to jobs) is also due to devaluing humble yet essential work. When I was a kid and there was less income disparity, this wasn’t the case. Respecting the local doctor did not imply looking down on a plumber or a factory worker.

    When I was a high school and college kid in the 60s, most young (male) students had a history of summer or part time jobs doing hard, physical work in construction, landscaping, etc. This was true even of the sons of the upper middle professional class. I remember kids from relatively well-off families being delighted with a summer job on a framing crew. It seemed to be something that was expected almost as a rite of passage for males, and the cultural and social split between “knowledge work” and physical work was nowhere near as evident today.

    If a kid from a working class background got a good summer construction job everyone was envious back then, even the well off kids.

  31. Pelham

    Let me just say that I very much admire your persistence at socializing. That must have taken a good measure of courage, and it speaks well of your character.

  32. J

    would cancel social appointments with me on less than 24 hour notice and not even be apologetic.

    It’s interesting that you say this as I had always thought this was a new phenomenon among my generation (35 and under). As someone who was raised with very strict rules regarding manners, this always felt like a slap in the face to be cancelled on.

    Recently a friend was mopping about having 2 dates in a row cancelled on him. I don’t even bother with online dating anymore because this is so commonplace.

    I once had an otherwise great friend agree to watch a playoff game with him at a bar a ways away, only to split as I arrived with a “sorry!” because he got a “free” ticket (fortunately it turned out he did have to pay, he had a terrible seat, and the game quickly turned into a rout against the home team.)

    There’s just no censure on this type of behavior. Every time I see an article bemoaning the fact that men don’t ask women on traditional dates anymore, I can’t help but think “Hey genius, it’s because women prefer it that way so they can back out more easily if they’re not feeling it.”.

  33. Jeremy Grimm

    Work defines our identity to other people and often to us as well. In our culture work is ‘who’ we are. Work occupies the greater part of our time and energies and all too much much defines who our friends may be and who we might have a relationship with. Work is our church, our clubhouse, our meeting place, our pool of acquaintances and experiences, and the anchor which holds us to a place. I’m reminded of the hero in the movie “About a Boy” who lived well and work-less supported by the royalties from a pop Christmas song his father wrote. The movie intimated that the feckless quality of his personal relationships resulted from his lack of employment while his lack of employment lead to his being judged feckless in a moment of encounter with the woman he felt genuinely attracted to. Even his attraction to her seemed to emanate in part from the interesting work she did and her animation in describing that work.

    I have on several occasions taken a year off from work [I was a “road shopper” contract engineer working for the MIC. We were all regarded as flakes and so I lost nothing by taking a year off work when I could — although maintaining my skills was problematic.] People I met in a variety of situations — while traveling in Asia or volunteering for a political campaign in Florida — all had great difficulty figuring out who I was as I fit into no neat box. Many of the women I approached in the U.S. tended to assume I was unemployed and looking for someone to support me. In Asia I was a genuine novelty — an American on an Australian trek, but too old for trekking.

    After many years I finally succeeded in finding a wife — now many years an ex-wife — at my place of work. In spite of all the noise about harassment and ‘metoo’ I believe a great many people in America find their spouses through work. Many of my friends were met through work although suburban spread made visiting anyone outside of work time-consuming arduous travel. My work as the work of many in our economy of “flexible” workers has pulled me all around the country in moves which severed any ties I formed to person and place. When I lived in Texas I remember hearing that the two biggest turnouts for the “Rangers” games were when they played the “Yankees” and when they played the “Tigers” — there were so many people who came to Texas from Detroit to find work.

    On one hand work is a defining feature of our lives. On the other hand the nature of our work is dehumanizing and alienating. The ‘Managerial Demi-urge’ exerts ever greater control over our most minute exertions as the specialization and compartmentalization of tasks and for many the ‘division-of-labors’ robs the meaning from otherwise meaningful work. Pay becomes the sole marker for the value and importance of our work and of us and yet cannot overcome our sense of the true value of what we do with the best part of the brief time given for our lives.

    And why is it so hard to find meaning and purpose outside of work? I believe we are trained to work and little else. Keynes regarded a broad education as a possible aid in enjoying the leisure time he foresaw for our futures. But even education has been perverted into preparation for work. Intellectual pursuits are suspect and though admired — artists and musicians are considered odd, misdirected, lost souls — and all these directions other than work tend toward solitary efforts. With the crush of time, distance and motion the social spaces which once filled our lives outside work have been snuffed like an old candle and set aside for fluorescent lights.

    1. Amfortas the Hippie

      @Mr Grimm:”…But even education has been perverted into preparation for work. Intellectual pursuits are suspect….”
      As the guy under the tree with the book for most of my life, I concur.
      My breaktimes in all the cafes I’ve worked, I had a mighty tome with my cigarette, and was always kind of taken aback that this was regarded as weird and suspicious…even after a lifetime of it.
      and I cannot stress enough what a disappointment “higher education” was to me,lol. I remember the first registration spectacle in the big arena/gym, and the person at the table where one declared a major looking at me like i was from mars for saying “Philosophy”.

  34. Labour or work, that is the question

    Thus spoke a true marxist.

    “Labour is the source of all wealth, the political economists assert. And it really is the source — next to nature, which supplies it with the material that it converts into wealth. But it is even infinitely more than this. It is the prime basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labour created man himself.”


    If work was fun, we would have done it for free.

  35. John

    This little wiki seems to be appropriate for this issue: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_alienation
    I never realized Marx wrote about it.
    I ended up by chance in your situation. High hourly income, few billable hours, minimal yearly income. Sometimes I would do it for free for those who couldn’t pay. I have enjoyed the heck out of all my free time.
    I went to a corporate boot camp of a university, got drafted in the VietNam era and the three years in the army to avoid combat burnt out every circuit of ever wanting to “work” on a “jawb” for “groaf” in Murica.
    The thing I realized is that one could live on the edges in America quite nicely, not work on the slaveship very much and have a nice life…of course I used my white, middleclass, unavoidable and unsought privilege as part of the equation. Part of that privilege is being highly educated and very curious about the world. America didn’t get to crush that to death like with so many.The problem is ignorance about what to do with free time and an understanding of the propaganda and mind control of American culture.
    I have never owned a television. Watching teevee is just tightening the slave collar.
    Most jawbs in America suck. Why would anyone want to work for Walmart, Amazon, McDonalds or further up the ladder be in cubicle world? I love laying around all day reading a book or several books. I love laying in the hammock in my yard staring at the sky. I love long slow travel on a low budget. I wasn’t a hippie in the 60’s because I was still on the delusional path…but I quickly got with the program. My best bud and I have what we call our “shirk” club. We discuss ways to shirk Murica and help others.
    American “work and jawbs” is consuming the planet. Americans need to create the conditions where they can just chill. Undermining the neolibs is a good idea. It’s gonna take a long time, so you may as well enjoy the ride. And the planet may kill us first.
    Do you want written on your tomb stone: “Never understood how to enjoy free time”?

    1. JBird

      Most jawbs in America suck. Why would anyone want to work for Walmart, Amazon, McDonalds or further up the ladder be in cubicle world?

      In the past, it was more likely that the job was fairly well paying, even if it was bad, and there was a greater chance that it wasn’t that bad, and that you were very likely to have a job to pay the bills. Nowadays, it’s none of the above. The available jobs for most have been slowly degraded into stupefying, stressful, unreliable, poverty inducing work.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Yes! People still have to eat and if you don’t prepare you food (as well as make it, like engage in subsistence farming or hunting), someone else did.

      1. Synoia

        subsistence farming = Very hard work.

        My Father’s family were farmers, Market Gardeners in the Wash area of the UK.

        Up at 5am to feed the (bad tempered) pigs, do hard manual labor all day until dark.

        1. Isotope_C14

          Well, that’s not how it is anymore in the US.

          My uncle farms in Iowa, keeps no animals because he doesn’t have to, and the margin of profit on them is quite low anyway. I was at his farm 2 years ago.

          He works 2 weeks/year essentially. Planting and harvest.

          While it is interesting how things were before technology revolutionized farming, it’s simply not the same as it was.

          40 years have past and we’ve gone from land-lines and limited communication to computers, instant global communication, next-day shipping on virtually everything.

          Farms are no different. The technological revolution hit there, and it is extreme. Tractors that are 3-stories tall, high-density cropping, GMO seeds that you don’t need to detassle. It’s a world of difference from the late 80’s early 90’s even. I spent plenty of time on my Grandpa’s farm at that time and he had livestock, though at that time was profitable. And yes, he worked every day, and perhaps that was best, he was unpleasant and was best kept out in the fields where he could do as little societal harm as possible, haha.

          1. cnchal

            . . . he worked every day, and perhaps that was best, he was unpleasant . . .

            Cause and effect perhaps?

  36. JEHR

    I used to teach adults how to work with computers (starting with DOS and ending with Microsoft). I left to work for a company that created computer lessons for use of employees working in big organizations. Our work week started at about 40 hours. Then it gradually increased because the boss put a deadline on completion of a project and I found myself working 80 hours to meet the (arbitrary) deadline. I left shortly thereafter because of that overtime for which, by the way, I was not paid extra. No big salary could pay for those endless hours a week that I worked. I have been retired for 23 years now and have no difficulty using my leisure time: taking art courses, reading, painting, making frames, using the Internet, gardening, shovelling snow, planting trees, weeding, sewing, walking, sketching, writing letters to politicians, etc., all activities that keep both body and soul active.

  37. Jay

    Having lived and worked in New York at around the same time, and having a sister who has been largely single and living by her wits in New York until recently, and now being a freelancer working out of a home office in the suburbs, I have an appreciation for the type of workplace/socialization alienation Yves describes. Part of the problem of contemporary American culture, as I understand it in the context of the linked article, Yves’s personal reflections about it above, and the community she has created out of thin air–after toiling for more than a decade–in Naked Capitalism, is that the culture has become coarsened, and its individuals not only have become alienated from each other but have come to lack empathy for each others’ situations and experiences. Many simply do not even recognize empathy as a useful skill to cultivate.

    Even here, where we are her guests in the platform she has created for us, she gets sniffy tut-tuts in response to a post describing profound frustration navigating the curiously unpleasant social world where we find ourselves. Well, if this phenomenon she describes were a semi-opaque crystal, I’d have to say that I see many of the features she describes, just from a different angle, and that the unfamiliar features she describes I can take as genuine, since she has, I hope you would agree, established a reputation for candor and honesty. Yves isn’t correct 100 percent of the time, but no one is, and she comes pretty damn close. If you disagree, maybe you should create your own damn blog and build your own considerable readership.

    Don’t you recognize NakedCapitalism as, among other things, a way to create a community of likeminded persons with whom to socialize? The meet-ups as face-to-face get-togethers with friends? Friends, all I’m saying is don’t be coming to the virtual common room, tracking dogsh*t all over the carpet, and, to use a wonderful term I learned from Lambert, go Pecksniffing from corner to corner. If what Yves describes is not your experience, put your empathy glasses on and try to see where she’s coming from. You wouldn’t be here if you had no interest in learning from one of the most informative blogs on the intertubes.

      1. Janie

        Salem Oregon might work. It’s halfway between Portland and Eugene. A meet-up weekend with camping in a big shady yard with a creek or a unit in the driveway; there’s even a spare bedroom. Better wait for nicer weather, though.

  38. Stephen Gardner

    I don’t agree with the thesis of the article that leisure is a panacea but I think whether one appreciates leisure or not is dependent on one’s personality. Yves may not have appreciated her leisure but that may have been a combination of where she had it and her own personality. Not everyone can appreciate leisure. I had the good fortune to be unemployed but with a very nice severance for about 1 year. I had a home in a northern suburb of Dallas Tx and two kids in college. They had good scholarships and my ex-wife and I shared their upkeep in college. I cut way back on expenses and lived a very good year. I continued to improve my computer skills by learning Mysql and web technology. I created a project for myself and worked on it for several hours a day. I would also take long walks and take time during the spring to watch the duckies with their mother paddling about a quiet place in a stream bed near my home. I cooked my own food and meals for my kids when they were home from college. I was the most relaxed and happy I had been in years. No deadlines, no hyperactive bosses, etc. Good times.

    1. Lambert Strether

      > I created a project for myself and worked on it for several hours a day.

      My view is that the highest and best use of leisure time is doing real work, work that is worth doing and that only you can do.

      1. nycTerrierist

        Agreed on both points.

        Free time (if without financial hardship) is a gift – so one can find, discover or create as Lambert puts it
        ‘work that is worth doing and only you can do’, of whatever sort, whether that’s a project, a hobby, or practice, volunteering for a worthy cause, etc.

        As the existentialists said, we are condemned to freedom to choose and invent meaning for ourselves.

        A challenge for some temperaments, but a worthy one.

        Yves met this challenge by creating the lively and trenchant site that we all enjoy.
        Among its many merits NC is a testimony to the splendid burden of free time!

  39. JBird

    I believe our society was one of being in other societies like social clubs, volunteering, hobbies, but somehow since the 1970s we have become atomized. Yes, Americans have always been more loosely connected to others, but there is difference from being loosely to not at all. For perhaps centuries we were noted as having a very strong civic society, and our basic Americaness hasn’t changed, not really; something did changed and what it is I would us like to find out. Maybe then we could fix it.

  40. Bulfinch

    This made me think back to that Kazan film from the late 60’s — the Arrangement. The main character has a crisis at the summit of his advertising career where he decides he just wants to walk away from it all. After a botched suicide attempt by way of 16 wheeler, he’s frogmarched by his seemingly well-meaning family and cohorts (including his overbearing father, who’s standard salutation to his son since puberty has been “how much money did you make today?”) up from his bed and back toward his golden rung on the corporate ladder, a reappointment which lasts only briefly before he again turns his back on it all — this time for good. The older I get, the more deeply the film resonates with me.

  41. nihil obstet

    While more leisure will not solve all social problems, the lack of time creates so many social problems that we ought to reduce the time requirements we place on people. There’s the job, of course, and outside the major northeastern cities, it’s defined as 40 hours a week rather than 35. There’s the commute. There’s the demand that we each manage our own insurance policies, retirement accounts, car maintenance, tax records, home maintenance or hassles with the landlord, shifting practices and costs of telecom and banks and credit card companies. Cooking meals at home rather than eating out correlates with better health, but after the commute, the day at work, and whatever other time demand of modern life has engaged us, spending an hour or two cooking and another hour cleaning up pales beside the alternative. Especially when you’ve got other life maintenance activities to do. And so on.

    The intro to the post described a situation with lack of control over time, lack of socially supported peers, and a differential in status between paid and unpaid activities. I don’t think it’s a universal experience about not being subject to employment control.

    1. jrs

      wait there are parts of the U.S. where a job is defined as a 35 hour week?

      Yes if we really worked “9 to 5” it would be less than 40 with lunch, but I always thought that was just a figure of speech and not representative of actual full time work for almost anyone.

      1. Left in Wisconsin

        There is no standard definition of full-time work in the U.S. that has any legal meaning. The government statistical agencies have a definition but that is only for data collection – it doesn’t mean anything in a legal sense.

        I can think of only 2 legal definitions of full-time work that have practical, real-world implications. If you are an employee paid hourly (and meet other criteria), your employer is required to pay you overtime if you work over 40 hours per week. This is federal law. There is nowhere in the country where the employer is legally required to pay you overtime after 35 hours, though some unions have been able to negotiate such provisions.

        The other is the ACA, which requires the employer to offer all workers working more than 30 hours per week access to any employer-sponsored health care coverage offered to other “full-time” employees. But this doesn’t qualify one for any specific benefit, just whatever is offered to others (which might be nothing).

  42. ChrisPacific

    I think perhaps a more useful question would be: what is the optimal number of hours per week that people should work in order to have a happy life? Yves argues that that number is greater than zero and that’s consistent with my own experience. But there’s also no reason that it should be 40, or whatever the average number is these days in the US (I dread to think).

    I happen to be a lazy person. I consider this a virtue, because it means I naturally limit my working hours and am able to enjoy my leisure time. I suspect I would feel differently about it if I was independently wealthy and work was optional. Choosing to work (and finding suitable work to do) in those situations requires prioritizing long term goals and satisfaction over short term gratification, which takes discipline. Laziness works against that and I suspect in that scenario I would eventually come to see it as an impediment to my happiness (and would have to do something about it).

    Going back to the ‘optimal number of hours per week’ question, I suspect that there isn’t one right answer and it might depend on the person in question. But we could look at the happy retired for a clue. In general those that still ‘work’ seem to do it for maybe 10 to 20 hours a week. For a younger person starting their life journey, or in their prime, they would probably opt for more – say 20 to 40. And there would be a small percentage who live for work and devote every waking hour to it (as they do today).

    1. Bulfinch

      I like what you’re saying here. Rather than lazy, I’m unapologetically selfish with my time. I want as much of it for myself as I can get. Sometimes I feel like I’m stealing it, which is absurd, but not inaccurate. I also like blowing off the injunction to always be productive as I often find the best way to make proper use of my time is to ignore it as completely as possible. If I could arrange to have someone pull up to my place everyday and drop off a sack of cash, I’d have zero compunction for a wasted life, or fears of falling into a Rake’s progression. But failing that, if I could just afford myself even a slightly thicker buffer between myself and oblivion — where each minute of the day contained, say, 70 seconds — I’d be most satisfied.

  43. Jeremy Grimm

    @ChrisPacific: “Optimal” sounds like it should outfit machinery for some kind of Market mechanism. The contrast you make between laziness and an inclination toward work tends to constrain the meaning of work to work performed at some kind of paying job. I believe work has a broader meaning. I also wonder whether you mean “lazy” or “idle” as “In Praise of Idleness”.

    1. ChrisPacific

      Perhaps ‘desirable’ would be a better term. I didn’t mean to imply that there was only one right answer, or that it should be arrived at by defining some kind of utility function and then maximizing it (perish the thought).

      I define laziness as an excessive preference for doing things that I want to do in the short term (like reading) over doing things that I don’t particularly want to do, but still need to be done in order to preserve or enhance my quality of life. That might include working for pay, cleaning the toilets, fixing the broken shelf in the kitchen – that kind of thing. People who I would consider as suffering from a deficiency of laziness are the ones who feel a strong desire to be ‘useful’ at all times (working on something, fixing something etc.) and regard time spent on non-productive activities of personal interest as wasted time. They tend to find leisure time weighing heavily on them unless they have something to do or a project to work on. Some of them are happy doing that, but a fair number of them are unhappy even as they find ways to devote every waking hour to ‘work’ (I think of them as stress junkies).

      I don’t necessarily consider lazy a negative term (as the saying goes, it was a lazy person that invented the wheel) but if you do then feel free to pick a different one.

      1. Isotope_C14

        “People who I would consider as suffering from a deficiency of laziness are the ones who feel a strong desire to be ‘useful’ at all times (working on something, fixing something etc.) and regard time spent on non-productive activities of personal interest as wasted time. They tend to find leisure time weighing heavily on them unless they have something to do or a project to work on”

        I call them people with a “completion complex”.

        While I realize the northern Europeans were essentially always preparing for winter, and you know, the ant and the grasshopper fable, this ethic will drive the planet to the Venus mk II event.

        I think it takes a great deal of maturity to reach a point in one’s own self to realize that absolutely no one has the right to judge others “work” whether paid or unpaid through the largely capitalist lens.

        If you want to attack racism, gender bias, religious hatred, you also have to come to grips that judging another person’s time choices is no different than bigotry.

        Not everyone is wired to be happy in a structured environment, let alone one with forced days/week, forced hours/week, and a forced commute to a place of business.

        Many people on here lament “unemployment” and I have plenty of experience with that. If I had a basic income, I’d go back. Nothing more fun than helping politicial campaigns, reading constantly, or trolling alt-righters and libertarians on twitter. If I had that, I could also have fun in a microbiology lab instead of forced medical research where I have to do “lawyer/businessman” approved non-basic science.

        When are the completion complexers going to realize that they share the planet with others that don’t hold their belief system? It’s as bad as any religion.

      2. Jeremy Grimm

        Words matter in argument. On this site you can argue and be understood or at least questioned as to exactly what you mean. Here you sing to the choir. But words chosen less well than they might be will cripple your arguments in other venues. I believe arguments and observations on this post matter and should have impact when we make them in the outside world — though there is so little opportunity for that.

  44. freedeomny

    And yet…..Can you imagine someone on their death bed complaining about too much leisure time?

  45. Tom Bradford

    After 20 years in a high-paying job that sucked and having no desire for children I was able to retire at 40. Since then I have lived frugally but happily playing video games and writing fiction. Neither adds anything of value to the world – I have no delusions that anything I write will ever get published and don’t even try, and playing video games is as objectively useful to society as masturbation. I have but one social activity – Freemasonry – which provides a carefully limited modicum of social interaction but otherwise have no need or use for ‘friends’ who want to share my life and expect me to want to share theirs.

    For ten years plus now I have lived purely on the interest and dividends earned from my investment of cash saved over that 20 years which, for ‘conventional’ people, would have been spent on raising children, and I am well aware that this would raise the hackles of many NC followers who seem to regard the rewards of honest labour as the only legitimate income. However I am perfectly happy – when I get into the writing ‘flow’ I experience an almost zen-like detatchment from self while the video-games provide the mental challenges and the psychological rewards of ‘success’ when the game’s objectives are achieved many here seem to equate to the non-financial rewards and fulfilments that only go with having a ‘job’ that in someway contributes to the Commonwealth.

    So IMHO the answer to the above is the Universal Basic Income. Let those who need to earn more to pay for the raising of the children they chose to have, or who cannot fill their time in self-contemplation, or who need a bigger, faster car than is necessary, sacrifice some of the hours of their lifetimes doing the necessary menial tasks to earn the extra cash do so. Those who wish to have the children and/or the flasher cars plus the social applause of a truly valuable contribution such as doctor, engineer, researcher, who have the brains to do so and are prepared to put in the years of training and practice to get there, do so. Let the State provide the basics of shelter and take away the threat of starvation and allow each man and woman to be what he or she wants to be.

  46. Roland

    In the dialogue, De Senectute, Cicero wrote that Scipio Africanus used to say that he never had better company than he was by himself, and was never better occupied than when he had nothing to do.

    While there might be some limit to the amount of leisure that I can enjoy, I have never actually encountered that limit so far in life (now in mid-40’s). I have had voluntary stretches of up to 18 months without any obligatory work, and I have never felt at a loss. I am part of a circle of old friends who still enjoy each other’s company–and who remain strangely tolerant of my moody nature, decade after decade.

    It probably comes down to one’s temperament. As a pensive loner, I find an idle and solitary life to be quite agreeable. A stack of library books in my tiny city apartment, a mountain trail in the wilderness in the summertime, a local park to go jogging in the rain, and I’ll be contented enough. The book of verses and laf of bread are enough. I don’t need the jug of wine or the thou, so somebody else can claim extra.

    However, I do try to be honourable. I think that anyone who wants to enjoy the benefit of others’ labour, must offer others the benefits of one’s own labour. Further, one must produce something for those who cannot. Therefore, even though my own appetite for leisure might be without any practical limit, nevertheless I understand and agree that I must spend considerable time and energy in the labour force. Duty is duty.

    The question is, how fully utilized should one’s productive labour be? How far does Duty go? Somebody else might look at me and say, “Look at all that underutilized labour that could be employed for producing more and better goods and services for trade in the marketplace! If we could make that lazy bugger work more, we could increase overall Utility! Get that underperforming gerbil back on the wheel!”

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I happen to be an introvert, so my experience isn’t a function of needing a lot of company. But you said you had old friends you could hang out with. I moved all the time in my childhood. Harvard is a pretty cold school, but on top of that, I have regularly experienced my single women friends abandoning me as soon as they got married (even including with my best friend from my undergrad years, we were friendly thought her and my grad school days and after we both started working…then poof). I’ve had a similar dynamic with my men friends….as soon as a serious romantic interest emerges (or as a friend put it, they decide it’s time to get married and seal a deal), I get shunted off or at best am relegated to lunch once a year.

  47. Whiskey Bob

    I can sympthasize with feeling social exclusion. For my particular case, it’s for not having enough income and leisure time. My friends are off doing things that I cannot always budget for, and they are hanging out at times when I just don’t have time off from my job that demands me to work at odd hours whenever. Having an unstable schedule like that makes things far worse. That and the low income encourages me to sacrifice whatever free time I have to a job that’s frankly degrading and disrespected. I would love to have at least a livable income AND plenty of leisure time. I suppose it’s this perspective from which the F*ck Work crowd finds strong support.

    Anyways, I agree with Yves’ assesment. There’s already social exclusion under capitalism that favors earning money over having leisure time. With neoliberalism as a more extreme manifestation of capitalism that permeates many facets of society, everything else erodes in the face of that. The problem with the idea of less leisure time (and by extension UBI) is that there isn’t a good way to implement it within the current frame work of contradictions. Neoliberalism leads to a few select clear winners while everyone else scrambles for the top away from the crumbling foundation at their feet. The F*ck Work idea seeks to redistribute the earnings without attacking the power structure that keeps these incentives in place. The ruling class can just implement leisure time and UBI in a very anti-worker and anti-social safety net fashion. It seems like a sloppy bandage rather than a cure.

    Espousing the supposed utopian benefits will just fail as any utopian movements in the past. The current ruling classes in the ideology of neoliberalism will react harshly with full support from its global networks of like minded allies. A radical shift in the structure and superstructure of society not only at a national level but at a global level will need to be achieved. As always how to achieve that within the current political landscape is a mystery.

  48. ewmayer

    The author has a whole section discussing wealth inequality, from which he concludes that the solution is a universal basic income, an idea whose fraughtness and counterintuitive-results-potential Yves and others have discussed at great length and on numerous occasions around here. It is a useful thought experiment to modify the article title to insead ask “Is There Anything That Reducing Inequality Does Not Solve?” For example, Graeber’s prototypical BS jobs appear to be rooted in inequality and its handmaiden, lack of labor power. How about contemplating a society in which everyone who wishes to engage in meaningful work – which could range from keeping the local public spaces clean and tidy for the unskilled and specially challenged (e.g. people with behavioral or substance-abuse issues which rule out 9-5-style office and highly-structured work) to creating and maintaining public infrastructure Great-Depression-style for the able-bodied lacking specialized skills (or merely preferring the physical/outdoors work), to specialized jobs for those with the requisite skills, e.g. working for a national or regional Health Service for medical professionals. The destruction of meaningful-work-for-a-fair-wage and the concomitant meaningful human interactions is the most toxic result of the neoliberal economic paradigm – I don’t see how Bregman’s simplistic “let them eat a UBI” counteracts that. Rather, a UBI would more likely stigmatize the Deplorables receiving same and accelerate the neoliberal crapification of the jobs landscape.

    When news broke last week that the great SciFi writer Ursula K. LeGuin had died, an NC reader (forget who but thanks to you, whoever you are) posted the following quote from her 1974 novel The Dispossessed which interestingly addresses these very issues:

    “A child free from the guilt of ownership and the burden of economic competition will grow up with the will to do what needs doing and the capacity for joy in doing it. It is useless work that darkens the heart. The delight of the nursing mother, of the scholar, of the successful hunter, of the good cook, of the skillful maker, of anyone doing needed work and doing it well – this durable joy is perhaps the deepest source of human affection and of sociability as a whole.”

    1. jrs

      I think we all at some level still sometimes imagine work is like the quote, as we maybe expected it be when we were kids, and didn’t know anything about the real world. (Or what’s wrong with us as individuals if our work is not like that?)

      The problem is that is mostly pre-industrial work and we are post-industrial at this point (or we are in the west). Perhaps sometimes we still raise our kids on pre-industrial fairy tales.

      1. ewmayer

        I find your attitude defeatist and disingenuous – with a reasonable measure of control in one’s workplace, outlet for one’s creative instincts (formerly referred to as “listening to the folks down on the factory floor and soliciting their ideas”) and a fair sharing in the fruits of one’s labors, there is no reason a modern-economy job shouldn’t have many of the same satisfactions mentioned. Of course neoliberalism aims to destroy all those aspects – that tells me that the real problem is with the modern-economic paradigm, not the underlying work. We need to strive to smash the toxic paradigm, not throw up our hands and give up.

  49. Oregoncharles

    Each solution brings a new set of problems in its wake. Women’s Liberation burst onto the scene in the 70’s. It’s been more than two generations, so in many ways we’re living in the world that feminism made. Now we face the new set of problems it brings.

    One of them is that there’s nobody home. As noted above, much of the real work of our lives happens there, or at least not “at work.” Who is taking care of the house, the children, the community? People, especially women, are trying to do these things in the time they have left, but it isn’t really enough. The resulting exhaustion is a big factor in the crapification of our lives.

    There are proposals to pay for that work, but a lot of it is work that really should be done for love, or pride, or direct satisfaction. The direct solution is a shorter work week, for both sexes. That has the bonus effect of providing more jobs for those who don’t have paid work. Granted, that might be a problem right now, though I gather the labor force participation rate hasn’t nearly recovered. The other problem is the millions of people who couldn’t pay their debts if they were employed less. There would have to be a way to raise their pay. And of course, the formal work week doesn’t apply to most salaried or professional people, let alone those in Yves’ previous position. I don’t have a solution for that one to hand.

    Of course, Yves did. The devil finds work for idle hands to do, and she developed Naked Capitalism ;) A unique contribution to society, and it gives her more than enough to do – enough that we’re sometimes concerned about her health.

    After you’ve been here a while, you realize that most of the regular commenters are either retired or, unfortunately, unemployed. I’m not sure how (e.g.) Clive manages. So in a way, Naked Capitalism is a testament to the value of leisure – despite Yves’ essay to the contrary..

  50. Roady

    Inspired by Integer’s excellent selections from the 28th’s Links comments: Open Mike Eagle – “Hymnal” (featuring Sammus)

    Some choice lyrics:

    [Verse 1: Open Mike Eagle]

    I was brought into this world with the instinct to back the hell away
    And the will to write a rap song as long as an Alaskan day
    To fight to balance those two feels is a personal passion play

    [Verse 3: by Sammus (the female rapper)]

    I’d rather be hiding alone like some Ewoks
    Up in tree tops
    Creeping around like I’m T-Boz
    Steeping the grounds in my teapots
    But I’m Steve Jobs
    On my Apple updating my E-Shops
    Eat a apple a day, take a brief pause
    Take a nap, lie awake in-between sobs
    Then I rap and I pray and the grief stops
    My ego take cheap shots
    Can’t believe how she speak to me
    She talks like it’s neat pushing buttons like key fobs
    Well good day, b—-, I’m writing this beat knocks
    Tryna pen classics like Reeboks
    Or Greek thoughts or a Fleet Fox
    And teach a good message like Aesop’s
    That stick to my skin just like grease spots
    So forget all the things that my dreams cost
    Yeah, I’m getting my kicks, f— some clean socks
    Ice cold, we living like freeze pops
    Cause I’m gonna take licks while I defrost

    Divest from your demons, and weak stocks
    And invest in your team ’til your scene pops
    It might mean wearing jeans ’til the seam pops
    But don’t wait like Dre did with Detox
    No hate hinder me, I will clean clocks
    Like today, I can’t play, I don’t give f—s
    I won’t change what I say, take your screenshots
    Yeah, I’m just being me that’s what she wants

    And this might seem weird cause a dream stops
    When you wake up but for the sake of
    Finding peace, no sleep when you dream jobs
    Now please, go be who you dream of

  51. dk

    I have posted a similar screed before, but this seems a topic for its revival.

    I have spent many years of my life in marginal circumstance. But the three weeks (just three) of homelessness was enlightening: it’s demanding and exhausting, regardless of semantic argument about whether it constitutes “real work”. The entire day revolves around being in the right place at the right time to:
    – obtain safely edible and nutritious food (garbage is rarely safe or edible)
    – collect and stash materials for shelter (one word: “corrugated”)
    – find and/or defend desirable turf from competition (it’s not really a social situation in the traditional sense)
    – avoid scrutiny from law and established residents/businesses (they’re just doing their jobs)
    – be able to sleep for hours without interruption (so much more difficult than it sounds)
    – keep abreast of changes in the availability windows of critical resources (getting it wrong can be a major disaster)
    – do it all consistently, day after day after day after day.

    And then on top of that, to try to get out of it.

    These are people who “don’t work”. The have nothing but “free time,” emphasis on the “nothing”.

    On a recent visit to San Diego (site of my full-homeless stint in 1979), I noticed that many on the street now use salvaged and repaired bicycles to get around: brilliant! One can’t carry as much as one can with a shopping cart, but enhanced mobility, to be able to swoop in an out at the right moment more than makes up for it. And it suggests that homeless, at least in that region, are developing their own resource economy, bikes being a commodity and repair a skill.

    But is it “work”? Ah, there’s the rub.

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