We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living. — R. Buckminster Fuller 1970
Technology in the forms of machinery and the development of better methods has made this nation a very different place from the 17th Century when William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, told the Pilgrims, “who does not work, shall not eat,” quoting St. Paul from 2 Thessalonians 3:10. Although, as a practical matter, we do not need everyone to be productive, we still organize society around the outdated cultural imperative that everyone must “earn a living.” We take this word “living,” which denotes motion, and turn it into a static thing, “a living”. We are living, so why do we have to earn a living?
We do need to work, sometimes, for two legitimate reasons. Firstly, good work deepens our human experience. Even if we could automate many or all of the tasks commonly described as “work” today, we would still want to do something. Secondly, we need a variety of goods and services, personally and communally. But we don’t have to work as much for second reason as we once did. Yet the American workweek is getting longer and longer, for those who still have jobs, while there are millions of people who need paychecks, but don’t have them, or do not have as big a paycheck as they need (the underemployed). Historian Ben Kline, author of Free Time: the Forgotten American Dream is predicting that, in a few years, a 60-hour American work week could be the norm. We are headed in the wrong direction. Scientific studies are showing that overwork decreases productivity. Overwork is also detrimental to physical and mental health and relationships.
Conservative mantras about the importance of hard work abound in the mass media. We’ve all heard politicians who condemn the extension of long term unemployment benefits, and who support slashing food stamps and general assistance on the ground that these programs discourage people from looking for work, and create a “culture of dependency” on government benefits. This, even though there are about 3 job seekers for every job opening, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
A life and society built around productivism, i.e., growth in production for its own sake, is an unimaginative existence indeed. There is more to life than producing and consuming but many people in the world don’t have the chance to do more than survive. We need not organize our societies around productivism, and indeed, we should not. Annie Leonard of The Story of Stuff project says that 99 percent of the stuff we harvest, mine, process, and transport is trashed within 6 months. We make things that break easily, and are cheaper to buy new than to repair. We replace items after a while, simply because they appear outmoded and unfashionable, even though they still function perfectly well. We are urged by government and business to keep consuming because the economy depends largely on consumer demand. Consumer demand keeps people employed so that they can pay their mortgages, car payments and health insurance premiums, and most importantly, enrich the banks and corporations. If everyone in the world matched the U.S rate of consumption, we would need 5 planets to meet demand. In other words, we are running out of precious, nonrenewable resources by making things just to make money.
If we bothered to look at other cultures and open our minds a bit, we could find better ideas around which to center our society than to slave away the best hours of the best days of our lives working to pay bills, buy stuff, and ultimately for most of us, make others, like the Koch brothers and the Walton heirs, richer. And to do this, we would not have to delve into ancient history, though you should know that the ancient Romans had numerous annual religious holidays during which people did no work, except religious ritual and certain necessary agricultural tasks, and even slaves were given some time off.
In modern times, the famously industrious Germans rank high among European nations in working the fewest hours; Germany has one of the healthiest economies in Europe. Meanwhile, the struggling Greeks are the hardest workers in the European Union according to a chart published by the Guardian, a respected UK newspaper. The Dutch, Danes and Irish work even less than the Germans overall, yet they rank significantly higher in productivity than the European Union overall. Greece, despite its long working hours, ranks poorly in productivity compared to the EU average.
What makes a healthy economy is a complex subject. Technology, lack of business graft and lack of political corruption figure into economic viability as does, most importantly, equality and diversity. But the figures in the Guardian’s European work hours/productivity chart show that more hours worked do not contribute to higher productivity in lockstep fashion.
If we don’t organize our lives and societies around productive work (i.e., making goods and services that other people want to buy), whatever shall we do? Conservatives picture a world where most people would be lazy layabouts living off the taxes of the hardworking “makers” if they were not forced to work. I disagree. We would all do more, and do it more happily, healthfully and sustainably– if we did not have to struggle for survival.
Here are a few ideas:
Taking a cue from Buckminster Fuller, whom I quoted at the top, try to picture a society centered on learning. Education does not mean necessarily getting a PhD. There are many ways of learning, many places to learn besides a formal school and many things to learn besides academic subjects.
What if we focused on achieving mastery? In the movie The Last Samurai, Tom Cruise plays Nathan Algren, an alcoholic Civil War veteran barely scraping by in the post–war era. He is tasked with bringing Western arms to Japan to suppress a rebellion of samurai, but he is captured by the enemy. While spending the winter trapped in the samurai village, he observes that “[f]rom the moment they wake they devote themselves to the perfection of whatever they pursue. I have never seen such discipline.”
Two years ago, I saw a documentary about the making of a kitana, the traditional Japanese samurai sword. It looked at the process from smelting the ore for the blade to putting the finishing decorations on it. Fifteen men worked 6 months to complete this one sword, which is as beautiful as it is deadly. In each step of the process, the people working on it did the best that they could because no one wanted to give the next craftsman in the process anything less than his best work. That is a far cry in attitude from mass manufacture of goods made with monetary profit foremost in mind.
How about culture? Europeans consider culture every person’s birthright, regardless of occupation. Other countries vastly outspend the US for public culture, including Uzbekistan, Mexico, and the Baltic nations.
How about play? Not only literal play, such as sports leagues, or as fostered by organizations such as Right to Play, whose “mission is to use sport and play to educate and empower children and youth to overcome the effects of poverty, conflict and disease in disadvantaged communities.” What if work itself were play? What if everyone could work at what they wanted to do, instead of having to conform to the demands of an oft-manipulated labor market to pay bills? Do you really want to be on the receiving end of goods and services provided by people who are just there for the paycheck?
Despite what capitalism seems to assert, producing and consuming, and buying and selling are not the highest purposes of humanity. They should be adjuncts to lives spent pursuing other goals. It is time to envision new ways of organizing society rather than trying to reform the current failed system. What would you do if no one ever told you that you had to earn a living?
Kéllia Ramares-Watson is an independent journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is an advocate of demonetization and the gift economy, and is active on an international email discussion list of those subjects. She can be reached by email at: email@example.com