If you're like most employed Americans, you hate your job—or, at best, you're checked out at work. But as much as you might complain about the place where you spend most of your waking hours, there's a good chance you don't ever question the fundamental idea that you should be working.
A fascinating essay by U.K.-based writer Brian Dean argues that we need to reframe the idea of work itself—and maybe replace it with "antiwork" instead. He explains:
Antiwork is a moral alternative to the obsession with "jobs" that has plagued our society for too long. It’s a project to radically reframe work and leisure. It’s also a cognitive antidote to the pernicious culture of "hard work," which has taken over our minds as well as our precious time.
Work can leave us stressed, exhausted, demoralized, and often still poor. But we're still work-obsessed—especially in the U.S., where American employees work hundreds of hours more each year than the U.K. (and almost 500 hours more a year than French workers, according to ILO statistics). We humblebrag about how long we're at the office and how little sleep we're getting.
But is the idea of the virtuous "hard worker" anachronistic? Dean writes about how the concept grew in Puritan times and never really went away. Calvin denounced "lazy good-for-nothings" in the 1500s, and today, someone on welfare who doesn't try to get a job is still seen as a bad member of society.
Now, as technology makes more and more jobs unnecessary, maybe it's time for a different framing of work. Twenty years ago, Jeremy Rifkin estimated that about 75% of jobs in industrialized countries included tasks that could be at least partially automated, and as artificial intelligence and engineering improves, that number keeps getting higher.
"Society seems to be in denial over this, to a large extent," Dean says. "So, we see the persistent belief that we can achieve 'full employment.' Rifkin showed empirically that this is nonsense, unless we create a lot of make-work, i.e., work for the sake of working. And that’s what, as a society, we seem to be doing. Everywhere you look there are stupid, pointless (and probably environmentally destructive) jobs."
If we don't work, how will we pay rent? Dean supports the idea of unconditional basic income—a system in which society pays everyone enough to meet basic needs, so we can all spend our time doing something that truly fulfills us.
"Society has become wealthier and wealthier," he says. "Even by traditional measures of total wealth (e.g. GDP) one can see this. But the wealth has become more and more concentrated in the hands of a few. So, the question is primarily not about work, it’s about how you share the wealth more fairly and humanely."
"The reason that it’s no longer about work is because most of the wealth no longer comes from human labor," he adds. "But the way the problem is typically presented, you’d think idleness was the problem, and that getting people back into work was the solution. But the global economic collapse wasn’t caused by human idleness, and neither were the previous recessions."
If everyone was paid a universal basic income, that doesn't mean we'd all quit our jobs. It's just that far fewer people would actually need to work to keep the economy running, thanks to both technological advances and other improvements in efficiency and productivity.
"It isn't to say that there's no need for human labor—obviously there is," says Dean. "But if you look at the figures for human labor requirements to, say, produce food for a society, you can see what a staggering effect advancements have had—they've reduced work requirements to a tiny fraction of previous eras."
Others argue that eliminating tax loopholes for the rich could help fund a universal basic income. And though the idea may be theoretical in most countries now, a few places, like Switzerland, are considering actually putting it in place, with a yearly income of 30,000 Swiss francs guaranteed just for being alive.
Dean hopes that more people will start to question the way society frames the idea of work. "Antiwork is my way of facing up to a huge social obstacle to change," he says. "That obstacle is the way work—and, in particular, 'full employment'—is morally framed as inherently virtuous and necessary. This is a moral argument which usually isn’t questioned or investigated. It’s just taken for granted."