What "Work/Life" gets wrong

How "work" lost its worth

It's a Monday morning so why not talk about work.

There are a variety of "framings" that lead us astray when we attempt to think about our lives and society. "Work/Life balance" is one of them.

  1. "Work" is an integral part of Life. Artificially separating the two leads to the kind of instrumentalization and commodification that destroys Life itself.

  2. The superior framing is "contribution/leisure" and we must delve into what it means to genuinely contribute to society and how our society has to reward that.

Amputating Life (or, How we have forgotten the point of Work)

One does not stop living when they begin working. One does not dissociate when they enter the office and then return to consciousness upon leaving (although I am sure many of us would like to).

So when we place a mental distinction between "work" and "life," we are effectively amputating Life. What happens when we psychically detach a third or a half of our waking hours from "life?" Is it any surprise that so many feel life isn't worth living when we have amputated and sterilized Life in order to serve the almighty Line?

We are alienated from the impact of our labor. It no longer becomes clear what we are doing or why we are doing it. Is it any surprise over a third of Brits see their jobs as not very fulfilling or not at all fulfilling? Bullshit Jobs, by David Graeber (may he rest in peace), argues 40 percent of all jobs in America are B.S. And I think it’s fair to say that “revealed preferences” (the opioid epidemic, SSRI prescriptions, etc.) make it clear that number may be even higher.

What is the point of Work? Is it to engage in mere production of things? I do not believe so. If we wish to recover a proper understanding of Work, if we wish to reintegrate Work into Life, then we must understand Work (and the broader economic sphere) as being embedded in a variety of social spheres, relationships, and commitments/obligations/duties we have to each other. What we must be measuring is contribution and the leisure that must accompany it.

Actually Contributing (and how to measure it)

The proper framing with regards to our questions of "work" comes down to contribution vs leisure. The problem is two-fold here:

  1. For 40 hours a week or more, we are taken away from our families, friends, and community in order to do work that does not seem to contribute much at all. All around us there seems to be a massive proliferation of "Bullshit Jobs"

  2. Compensation for our work seems to be totally divorced from the actual contributions we are making. Some of us are paid vastly in excess of the actual contribution we make, and some of us are not paid nearly enough compared to how much we contribute.

On the first point, I want to refer to an earlier piece I have written:

There is a scene in the movie “Margin Call” (think a more dramatic, better version of “The Big Short”) where Stanley Tucci’s character delivers a monologue to Paul Bettany about a bridge he built and the immense material impact it had on the lives of the people who used it:

Of course, the subtext in the scene and its context in the movie is that Tucci’s character feels that his time as an engineer—when he was poorly compensated compared with his job on Wall Street—was when he had more meaningful effects on the lives of people. There was an immediacy. He could see what he had done.

On the other hand, in our hyper-bureaucratic and obfuscated world, it isn’t particularly clear what we are doing. Do financial markets actually work toward “proper” capital allocation, or is it all just a game, divorced from its underlying purpose? (My guess is Tucci’s character would argue the latter.)

The solution to the first point is simultaneously simple and extremely complicated: We have to answer the question "what are we contributing towards?" Simply increasing GDP, increasing "aggregate material prosperity" seems wholly insufficient. "A rising tide lifts all boats" doesn't hold when the tide happens to be a tsunami. Market fetishists simply hand-wave this as saying that the market will, when left alone, naturally lead to a situation in which total welfare is maximized. This, of course, is nonsense.

Instead, we must reject our fake stances of "neutrality" and affirm what production is for.

Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction— purpose and dignity—that afflicts us all.

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. . . .

It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.


And so, if we want to address the poverty of purpose and dignity that Robert Kennedy so eloquently described, we need to focus on building a society that truly allows for people to build lives worth living.

Which brings us to the second point: how do we accurately measure people's contribution towards this production, and how do we fairly compensate it? As I have discussed before, "fairness" only really emerges out of a system in which the various actors have roughly equal levels of material power. How do we get there? Perhaps the single most important point of this is that we must distribute power to the people. And not to some entity that purports to represent the people, like the State, etc; no, we must distribute power to the actual individuals and families that comprise this nation. It isn't enough, but it is a start. Describing this system in detail will take far too much space for this piece alone, so I will punt on that for now. It is coming though. This represents one of the most important issues of our time, and it deserves the time needed to deal with it.

The Importance of Leisure

The counterparty to contribution is leisure. Leisure is not "Life", but Leisure is the time and space in which individuals can continue to develop their interests, spend time with friends, and plot their own paths in life. Leisure is absolutely critical to the moral, intellectual, emotional, and physical development of individuals, and this time must be protected. Three parts of this protection:

  1. Individuals require time to spend on developing themselves. Without this time, development is impossible. Constraining the workweek and making sure no individual has to work 80hr weeks to survive must be a main goal.

  2. Individuals require space, physical and emotional, to test themselves without fear of embarrassment from failure. Simply saying "you shouldn't be embarrassed" is no more meaningful than whining about how people "shouldn't be selfish." People are insecure and selfish, and we must acknowledge this and work around it to build a functional society. Trying to engineer people's personalities will always end in failure.

  3. And individuals require the resources needed to support their development. I am not saying to make everyone a millionaire, but people should be able to survive and have disposable income without selling their souls or giving up either time or space (or both).


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