In praise of work

For tens of thousands of years, the human race survived by hunting game and gathering  fruits and vegetables.  The working life of our first ancestors was organized around the simplest of principles.  When hungry, they threw spears at buffalos and picked berries.  When sated, they sat by the campfire and told stories about how great they were.

Hunter gatherers who have survived to modern times work less than a 40-hour week; they get a lot of practice telling tall tales by the campfire.  (Whether the same was true of those hunter gatherers whose societies grew more complex – and became us – is unknowable.)

Hunger remained the organizing principle for work until the middle of the nineteenth century:  it’s the basis for the dismal Malthusian theory, which holds that the population will expand beyond the ability of the food supply to sustain it.  Before the advent of the fast-growth economy, most people, driven by hunger, worked far longer hours than hunter gatherers, probably for a smaller reward.  The upper classes shuffled into glittering ballrooms and told stories about how great they were.

We Americans live in a different world.  I know it’s traditional to make a compassionate speech about how poverty still remains – but I’m skipping it.  We live in a different world, without qualifications.  Our poverty isn’t Malthusian.  The great problem of the poor is obesity, which the First Lady is determined to eradicate.

If, as this article maintains, 79 percent of Americans under the poverty line live in air-conditioned dwellings, their experience has little in common with the Dickensian horrors of the past, darkened by the ever-present shadow of starvation.

In any case, most of us lead lives of unrivaled bounty.  Our homes are far more comfortable than the palaces of old.  We shop at malls and supermarkets bursting with a fantastic variety of goods.  We ride cars and airplanes to the city center or the farthest corners of the earth.  At leisure, the American lifestyle would incite the envy of every privileged class in history.

But for this, we continue to work long hours.  The typical American probably spends between 80,000 and 90,000 hours at work – ten solid years of days and nights.  Clearly, motives other than hunger are involved.

It might be worthwhile to ask what these motives are, and whether they are worth so many hours of our lives.

First, we can establish that our long hours of work are, to some extent, a matter of choice.  I can say that because the Europeans have chosen differently.  Between 1970 and 1974 – as the David Prescott study cited here shows – Europeans worked longer than Americans, but were less productive.  As their productivity increased, European worked progressively less.  Far removed from the sting of hunger, they chose leisure over wealth.

Europhiles among our chattering classes make much of this choice, which they interpret to be a rejection of rank materialism and an embrace of more humane attitudes.  In praising “French family values,” for example, the ineffable Paul Krugman explains that members of such a family “are compensated for their lower income with much more time together.”  Evidence?  The French take way longer vacations than we do.

I remember French grannies and granpas frying to death in the summer heat wave of 2003, their bodies unclaimed for weeks by their vacationing descendants.  But never mind.  The problem of leisure, in Europe and elsewhere, is a simple one:  what does one fill it with?  Going on ever-longer vacations doesn’t strike me as much of an answer.

Traditional European work habits produced Michelangelo, Beethoven, and Dickens, and a way of life that has been imitated the world over.  The current distaste for work has produced a record number of nudist beaches, and a way of life which, given budgetary and reproductory deficits, can’t long outlast this generation.

Leisure is emptiness.  It must be filled.  If one fills it with good works or great art, one has more than justified the time.  If one aspires to an eternal Club Med, however, one has abdicated on adulthood.  In fact, Europe never outgrew its love affair with the idle aristocracy – a noblesse without oblige is the ideal today.

Americans work harder because we wish to remain self-reliant.  Most of us dislike dependency, even on the best-intentioned bureaucrats.  We prefer to be able to afford our own decisions, a fundamental pillar of freedom as we understand it.

The question may be asked, why work quite so hard – isn’t that bondage to consumerism?  But this supposes that I can tell my neighbor what his hopes and dreams should be.  Maybe he wants to send his kids to the most expensive university.  Maybe he wants to buy a schooner and sail to the South Pacific.  Hell, maybe he even enjoys his work:  who am I to say?

There’s a huge ethical dimension to the workplace, which I have written about previously.  But there’s also an esthetic dimension – a fit between skill and task which, in the best of circumstances, becomes a source of deep satisfaction and breaks down the wall between work and leisure.  If I were to guess, I’d say some version of this is what keeps Americans working overtime, though – unlike Krugman – I freely admit to a lack of evidence.

I have been fortunate in my long years of work.  On many occasions, I was paid for doing what I would have done at home from sheer interest and enjoyment.  This has been due entirely to good luck – and it hasn’t always been so.  I’ve also experienced work’s drudgery and misery.  My memory is that I stuck it out in the hope of eventually finding that magic fit with my meager abilities.

I also confess to a certain fatalism.  I needed to do my share to help support my family – in the language of Genesis, earn my bread in the sweat of my brow.  And nowhere did God, nature, or the United States of America guarantee it must be fun.  I’m happy that it often was, since with my temper and disposition that nudist beach – alas – never even entered my mind as an an option.

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