It has been prophesied for as long as people have been thinking about an idealized future: myriad philosophers, writers and regular folks have envisioned a time when our technologies, our human inventions, our very smartness, would help us move beyond a world of work. While most Americans today no longer engage in backbreaking physical labor, many of us still work extremely long hours doing the kind of "knowledge work" that our ancestors thought would eventually lead us to shorter workweeks, more holidays off and lots more time to explore personal hobbies and spend time with family or friends. But as anyone who rolls over in the morning and immediately starts answering emails knows, this is not the case.
But we might be getting there. And it might be happening in a very different way than we would expect.
But as Ross Douthat points out in his opinion column for the New York Times, "A World without Work," instead of the most wealthy people working fewer hours, and that free time slowly trickling down to lower-rung workers, the opposite is happening, and its roots are in the last financial crisis. "It’s a kind of post-employment, in which people drop out of the work force and find ways to live, more or less permanently, without a steady job. So instead of spreading from the top down, leisure time — wanted or unwanted — is expanding from the bottom up. Long hours are increasingly the province of the rich."
Now, whether this is a choice or not is important — presumably, many of the people Douthat is referring to are living at or below the poverty level, and would like a job to pull them out of that predicament, but it also points to the fact that it is happening, and it is because so many blue-collar jobs are gone, likely never to return.
But, America's vast wealth is the key to this situation; without it, this discussion would not be possible. And while certainly some people would like to work more, the fact is that there are plenty of people who aren't working, or who are under-employed and like it just fine that way — and what's so wrong with that, after all? Often these folks are seen as lazy or unproductive, but isn't being able to enjoy life more the point of much of the work our ancestors did before us?
The idea of working less, making less money, having less stuff, maybe even living the minimalist lifestyle — it's not for everyone. But for a growing percentage of the American population, it could actually be a good thing. Not all work is paid, for example, and I can't be the only one who thinks that there is much that needs doing in our communities that might not be tied to a salary. So while Douthat thinks that overall, the decline in fulltime workers is intrinsically a negative thing, I don't.
Douthat ends his piece with the idea that "It’s our fulfillment, rather than the satisfaction of our appetites, that’s threatened by the slow decline of work." I disagree. We don't only get fulfillment from paid work, after all, but from community and connection — and as anyone who enjoys their volunteer work more than their paid labor knows, just because it's unpaid, doesn't mean we're not contributing.
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