Working Our Lives Away?

The daughter of a friend of mine recently left university and entered into the world of work, taking on a temporary office job. At the end of her first week at work, she phoned home in tears. ‘It’s horrible,’ she complained to her mother, ‘there’s no time to do anything else. I’m so tired when I get home in the evenings that all I can do is watch TV. And then I have to get up early the next morning and do it all again! If this is what work is like, I don’t want to spend my whole life doing it!’

We take it for granted that work must be a major part of our lives—in fact, for many people, it’s the primary aspect of our lives. We define ourselves, and other people, by our job roles—‘So what do you do?’—and measure our happiness in terms of how successful we are in these roles. Forty hours a week, 48 weeks a year, for up to 50 years—not including traveling time, and the time we spend resting and recovering from the exertions of our working lives.

Is this really what we were born for? Is this really what life should be about?

Of course, if you’re lucky, you might have a job which is fulfilling, which suits your innate interests and skills, and which you find challenging and stimulating. In that case, your job may provide you with what psychologists call ‘flow’—a state of intense absorption, which makes you feel engaged and alive. Perhaps the majority of people aren’t so lucky and do jobs which are repetitive and boring. But I would argue that, even if your job does provide you with ‘flow’, work should just be an aspect of our lives, rather than its defining feature. Working 40 hours a week makes our lives become narrow and constricted, so that we lose sight of whole vistas of possibility—of activity and adventure—outside it. There’s so much to learn in life, so many different ways to develop, so many experiences to absorb, so many activities to enjoy (including doing nothing), but while we spend so much time working it’s difficult to find time and energy for these.

The History of Work

Work as we know it is a relatively modern activity. For the whole history of the human race up until a few thousand years ago, human beings lived as hunter-gatherers. Their main ‘work’ was simply to find food, and perhaps surprisingly, they didn’t have to work particularly hard to do this. Anthropologists estimate that hunter-gatherers only had to spend around four hours a day searching for food – the rest of the time was leisure time. Life only really became difficult once our ancestors started farming. Grinding food out of the soil was a lot more labour intensive than hunting, or picking fruit from trees or plants from the ground. And then came the industrial revolution, when human beings were imprisoned in factories and mills for almost all their waking hours, treated as nothing more than objects of labour, working in appalling conditions for appalling wages, and usually dying at a young age. So much for progress!

Working conditions are infinitely better now, of course, at least in more economically developed parts of the world. But I would argue that we still haven’t gone far enough in a positive direction. We’re still living with the legacy of the industrial revolution, and in thrall to a mistaken idea that work defines us and should be the primary pursuit of our lives. We’re still living as economic objects whose main value is what we can produce.

But what’s the alternative, you might ask? If we didn’t work so hard, our economies would fail, and we would all be living in poverty. But this isn’t necessarily the case. In continental Europe, working hours are significantly shorter than in the US and the UK, and productivity is actually higher. Countries like Holland and Denmark are actually more economically successful than the US or the UK. And not uncoincidentally, they also have higher levels of well-being. Working less does not mean economic failure – the opposite may be the case. It may be that longer working hours just makes people tired and resentful, and therefore less productive.

And in any case, perhaps we need to rethink our whole relationship to economics. It’s clear that the world’s population cannot keep producing and consuming material goods at the present rate, especially now that countries like China and India are becoming more economically developed. The environmental effects are simply too severe—our planet is already suffering the strain, and won’t be able to withstand much more damage. Sooner or later, we may all have to reduce our consumption of material goods (many of which are just unnecessary luxury items, after all). That in itself would necessitate less economic activity, as these goods wouldn’t need to be produced. Societies which were more egalitarian, and more sensibly controlled, might be able to cope with such a transition.

The modern emphasis on work is completely out of proportion, and harmful to our well-being. One thing is for sure: if you spend nearly all your waking hours working, then it doesn’t matter whether you’re a millionaire businessman or a financial analyst, you’re not really so different from a factory worker in a 19th century industrial town—an economic object, whose life only has value in terms the labour you produce. The only difference is that you have the freedom to change and to make your life more meaningful and fulfilling.



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