In America, the act of laboring is considered to be a moral good, to be universally praised in and of itself. Put another way, we value work for the sake of work.
But I don’t think I do.
I’ve told a small number of people that I’m planning on leaving the work force in another year. I’ll be thirty seven years old, married, but with no children. Between me and my wife we will have, barring huge market disruptions, at least a million and a half in assets.
The first question I get is a very worried sounding what are you going to do with all of that time?
This is usually followed by some awkwardly phrased questions which revolve around a central theme: being a layabout is not okay for any extended stretch. They’re posed in different ways, but they all lead back to the idea that part of human duty is to remain formally productive, i.e. to work.
The dialogue spools out like this:
Q) Surely you’ll do some volunteering?
A) I don’t know. Maybe not.
Q) You’re going to get depressed without anything to keep you busy.
A) Don’t worry, I’ll be busy. Just not working. Besides, weren’t you just telling me that you were depressed about your own job?
Q) Well then! If you’re going to be busy, you might as well work and make some money.
A) I don’t need the money. I already have more than enough.
Q) Why don’t you think about it for a while longer? You’re so young, you don’t know what you want yet.
A) I know that I don’t want to be employed any longer.
Q) That’ll probably change after a couple of years off. Don’t you think that taking an extended break will make you eventually eager to go back to work? You can’t do nothing forever.
A) No, I won’t want to find another job. Really. I won’t. I’ve been thinking about this for twelve years. It’s over.
Q) Well, what else are you interested in? Maybe you can start your own business and stay productive without having to deal with all of that office stuff.
A) I have absolutely no interest in running my own business. I’ve never dreamed of being an inventor or an entrepreneur of any sort.
These people know I’m not materialistic. They’re aware that I don’t buy much stuff and rarely talk about possessions or Things I Want To Buy. And yet they can’t help but suggest that I find more work to do after I quit my job next year.
Apparently, this is the extent of the human imagination in the Western World when it comes to extremely early retirement: Quit your job so you can be your own boss. So you can pursue work on your own terms.
This is how much our culture values work: We think that even people who have no need to work anymore should still be seeking their next opportunity to make money. We think that if you’re not working or at least looking for something else to do that there must be something wrong with you.
I think it’s useful to, at this point, define work as an expenditure of energy made solely to earn money for the worker and to produce something for the employer. Work is the means of production for someone other than the laborer.
As a counter to work, there is play. Play also requires energy, but money is not the goal of play. We play for its own sake. And there are no consequences assigned to bungling up play other than those which you create yourself. This is unlike work, where a fuckup can result in discipline and even the loss of your job.
Some examples: If you take your dog out for walks, this is play, because you love your dog or at the very least don’t want him to crap on your carpet. The same goes for exercise: hiking, swimming, mountain climbing. Or gardening, making love, even fixing your toilet. (You want to be able to use the restroom, don’t you?) When I think about play, I define it as simply living life. If you feel it’s important to paint the walls in your house, so be it. Just don’t call it work, because you’re doing it entirely for yourself. You’ve determined the payoff of the task is worth the effort.
Now that we have that settled, it’s Fact Time.
Fact 1) Work is the source of the majority of misery in my life. I find nearly everything I do outside of work to be more pleasant than work. This list includes exercise, taking care of young nephews, helping my elderly (and sometimes difficult) mother, and home maintenance. When I clean my house, for example, I’m doing it for myself, because I want to. It doesn’t feel like work. Work is boring, tiring, and humiliating, and we all know it — we just don’t talk about it in polite company.
Fact 2) I will still be very busy when I’m no longer working. I’ll expend plenty of energy. This expenditure, no matter what the destination, will be called play.
Fact 3) The lack of work in my life does not make me a so-called Taker. I’ve done enough work for The Man, i.e. corporations, to purchase my freedom, given my modest levels of consumption.
Fact 4) I don’t value all of the additional things that I would otherwise be able to purchase if I had decided to keep working. Summer homes, sports cars, bleeding edge gadgetry, physical media, fast vacations, major home renovations. All of these things I will not be purchasing lowers my footprint on the planet, reduces waste, and makes for a more sustainable lifestyle.
Fact 5) Work for the sake of work, which enables mindless consumption (buying stuff for the sake of buying stuff) is actively harmful for the world. That orange-pastic thing being assembled in the lead image isn’t going to be hung on museum walls for all eternity. Those things are going to end up somewhere else, maybe garbage island, maybe fill underneath your next house.
Our culture holds folks that work fifty, sixty hours a week or more in high esteem — regardless of the function. People say things like “Oh, my friend Andrew is an investment banker. He puts in 60 hours a week and still finds time to exercise. Really amazing guy.” The tone of the commentary is close to awestruck.
But no one heaps equivalent praise on someone who isn’t working. You’ll never hear “Oh my friend Todd spent most of last week on a graphic-novel binge, trying to catch up on everything Gaiman’s ever been involved with. What a smart dude!”
As a culture, we assume the guy who’s working is simply better than the guy who isn’t.
I want to change that assumption. I value guys like Todd over guys like Andrew every day of the week. Being that work is intrinsically tied to production, and most production is actively harmful for the world, I propose we do as little of it as possible. Before valuing work, I want to know what that work is for.
Are you working to cure cancer? Ok, cool. I can get behind that.
On the flip side, are you working to figure out how to change the laws to allow additional strip mining of coal from mountaintops? Or increase per-capita consumption of fast food?
Let’s just say I wouldn’t mind if your job went away. All work isn’t created equal and it’s time we stopped pretending that it’s all good.
I value work insofar as it provides a) the means for me to live and b) a path to buy my own freedom.
**Thanks to Bob Black’s Abolition of Work