IN PRAISE OF LAZINESS (PART TWO)
Welcome to the second part of my essay on the virtues of being lazy.
I think that, when you look at the contrast between work we evolved to do and how work is often structured in jobs, you get the real explanation for the sort of laziness that gets held in contempt.
Of course, nobody really idolises hard work to the point where even adopting practical labour-saving solutions is frowned upon. We can all see the benefit to be had from avoiding work that does not need doing. What we don’t like are people who do evade necessary work, the sort who could get a job if they really tried but instead remain unemployed, sponging off those who do contribute to society.
At the same time, we understand why they are reluctant to get off their backsides. After all, work sucks. Songs like ‘Manic Monday’ and ‘Tell Me Why (I Don’t Like Mondays’) are popular precisely because they tap into that widely-held feeling of “oh no, not another working week”. We love weekends, bank holidays and vacations mostly because of what we are not doing, namely working.
Our hatred at those permanently workshy characters is fuelled partly by jealousy. Lucky sods. How dare they get to avoid work when I must submit to it? We therefore organise society to punish those who refuse to work, partly as a means of correcting their behaviour but also as a deterrent intended to stop us joining them (which, secretly, most of us would prefer to do). After all, since we hate work but work is necessary, a carrot and stick approach is required to keep us turning up at our employment.
But this idea that we hate work…really it is a pernicious myth. We don’t ‘hate work’ at all. You can see this is so by looking at how people spend their time off. Very rarely do we spend it in the stereotypical way the unemployed are portrayed as living, which is ‘sitting around doing nothing’. No, we are up and about making plans for socialising, carrying out repairs or improvements to our homes, tending our gardens. We have hobbies we throw ourselves into. In fact, we often pack so much activity into our breaks we joke half-seriously that we could do with another break to recover!
No, we don’t hate work. No animal that evolved to have such a large brain, such an imaginative mind, such dexterous hands, such complex language and cooperative abilities, got that way through hating work. That would be as weird as dolphins being evolved to have streamlined bodies and flippers and yet hating water and staying away from it.
We actually enjoy working when it consists of short bursts of activity whose competent execution leads directly to reward for ourselves and our loved-ones. That scene from ‘Witness’ in which an Amish community work together to construct a barn exemplifies the sort of work we like doing; labouring as part of a family to produce something that will directly improve that family’s life. Then resting in sociable contemplation at what we have achieved.
You don’t necessarily get that kind of satisfaction from a job. Many people, I am sure, would nod in agreement with Karl Marx and his description of work in the capitalist context: “The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home”. We have had this separation of the spheres of working life and home life for so many generations that we regard it as ‘natural’, but it would never have occurred to our ancestors that any distinction between working life and family life existed, as indeed it did not in their environments.
Not only do we feel often feel we have to remove ourselves from those we care about in order to go to employment, but it also has to be said that the primary goal of a job is not to produce anything of direct value to you or anyone you could reasonably call ‘family’. No, it’s ultimately all for the purpose of enriching strangers; of meeting very abstract goals like seeing some company’s position on the FTSE or DOW JONES go up by some points. That’s not to say you get no compensation from a job. You get paid, at least. But that means you are at least one step removed from your true reward. After all, it’s not really money you want but rather what its purchasing power can provide.
And, increasingly, we use that money in order to access stuff many steps removed from anything we truly need. Tyler Durden of ‘Fight Club’ fame spoke of our condition when he said “advertising has us working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need”. That’s modern working life, isn’t it? Submitting to work you don’t enjoy because it is structured to be unlike any kind of working pattern we evolved to do; for personal goals that are a gross distortion of true values, and all ultimately for a purpose like ‘increasing the profits of corporation X’ which, frankly, most of us couldn’t care less about.
How strange it is that we fear robots taking away our jobs. Our lazy natures, our evolved love of work but certainly not in the form of jobs as they are often structured, should rejoice at the prospect of technology that eliminates jobs once and for all.
I say, liberate our lazy natures! Let us play, let us socialise, let us relax whenever we want and work as and when the mood takes us. We evolved to take things easy but also to broaden our horizons and strive for more. Properly organised, a world of advanced artificial intelligence could bring about a world of true work properly aligned with how we evolved to be.
“Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond
“Bullshit Jobs: A Theory” by David Graeber
“Why We Work” by Barry Schwartz