I mentioned last week that I’d started reading James Suzman’s Work: A History Of How We Spend Our Time, and this week I’d like to talk a bit about the stuff it’s made me think about, and gather your thoughts on some of it too, if any of you would like to share them with me. Firstly, a quick potted history of Suzman’s main arguments so far – essentially, he outlines the idea that the concept of “work,” which has become the deciding factor in how we conceptualise and value ourselves as people, is a relatively recent idea that’s alien to our evolutionary biology, and to the way we functioned socially and culturally for the vast majority of our existence. Modern economics is founded on the principle of scarcity – the idea that we have limitless desires and needs, and limited resources to fulfil them, so the concept of “work” is about proving and demonstrating our right to access those limited resources through the expending, generating or transforming of energy. Conversely, the way we functioned for the first few hundred thousand years of our existence was founded on the principle of abundance – that our needs and desires were limited, and the resources available were more than enough to fulfil them, so we rarely expended our energy on anything more than the fulfilling of our immediate needs, or those of our friends and families.
All this is relatively obvious, and it’s hardly revelatory that the way our societies and cultures work today is radically different to the way they worked before we started farms or built villages, but the way Suzman goes through the history of what the concept of “work” must have meant to us on a purely ideological level is really interesting, and it’s a really fascinating book, I highly recommend it to anyone who’s curious about this kind of thing.
Anyway, this has got me thinking about how we conceptualise work these days. The essential metric by which we measure people’s worth and value and significance is the work they do, with industriousness being considered a virtue and idleness being considered a vice. The more money somebody makes, the more they are considered to be “worth” something, although those who are perceived to have not “worked hard” to earn their money, be they rich or poor, are also automatically considered to be “worth” less on a human level. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that basic calculation, but I think it creates damaging attitudes around what one’s “work” actually is, and should be. Young people are being steered towards careers that prioritise economic growth over emotional or spiritual growth, with the news this week that the government are planning to limit student numbers on lower-earning arts and humanities degrees, a move which not only stigmatises any career decision not based on economics, but also conveniently ignores quite how many billions the arts sector actually contributes.
My own personal attitude to work is a funny one – I’m a sort of idle workaholic. On a day-to-day basis, my working schedule looks a lot like idleness to my friends with regular 9-to-5 jobs, because I spend a lot of time pottering, thinking, often just procrastinating and wasting time, and tend to get my “work” done in concentrated bursts of energy lasting a couple of hours, after I realise how much of the working day I’ve already wasted. My old housemates used to make fun of me when I would moan about having to do 4 full days’ work in a certain week, saying it was a good thing I didn’t have a “regular” job, as anyone I worked with would hate my built-in resistance to just having to do something at a particular time rather than when I felt like it (indeed, back when I had jobs in more corporate contexts, I was very bad at understanding that my time might possibly be owed to anyone other than myself, and I think often frustrated my colleagues by just not being able to get my head round that). On the other hand, I am very bad at actively choosing to not work – I’ve gone five years without going on a holiday of any kind before, and until last year I never, ever gave myself days off. Any given day, be it a weekend, a bank holiday, whatever, was fair game for me to find pockets of it to get work done. Essentially, my days always contained big stretches of idle down-time, but nearly every single day of my life was a “working day,” with no boundaries drawn between my “working life” and my “free time.”
All this brings me to the phrase “work-life balance,” which is a phrase I have always felt really confused by, as it seems odd to me that we must conceptualise our “work” as being a separate thing from our “life.” One of the central struggles of all of our lives is maintaining a decent “work-life balance,” finding the right equilibrium between what we do for a living, and what we like to do culturally and socially. I’ve always wondered why these need to be two different things, and Suzman’s book has really got me pondering on the fundamentals of this. Why can’t our leisure time be part of our work – time spent thinking, reflecting, resting, playing, why can’t this time feed into the things we do that we call “work” that are essentially about economic activity? Why can’t our work be part of our leisure? The things we put our energy into to prove our worth, why can’t elements of those things be the things that feed us emotionally and socially and spiritually, why are we always having to draw a line between the two and maintain some sort of “balance” between them?
It’s easy for all this to just sound like I’m saying “Why doesn’t everyone just do a job they love?” but I don’t think that’s what I’m getting at – I like being a comedian, but I frequently have to do things for money that I don’t feel excited by or inspired by or particularly want to do, but my feelings about the concept of a “work/life balance” are more about an ideological mindset than an actual theory about what we could or should do in order to “make a living.” I think what I’m really trying to say is more fundamental than that – it’s more like “Could there be a world in which we didn’t measure people’s worth by the work they do full stop? And the way we let people think about what they were going to do with their life was more attuned to their individual human qualities, than to the concept of what they were going to contribute economically?” We live in a society that is so rigid in how it functions and how it treats people that really getting to grips with that question, and pondering alternatives, feels sort of impossible, but these aren’t new thoughts or questions. I’ll finish with one of my favourite quotes, from R. Buckminster Fuller:
“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – I’m gonna plug my own show if that’s ok, as this is the last week I can do it. I’m doing a work-in-progress at the Bill Murray next Wednesday, come along if you like! It looks like it might sell out, so do book a ticket if you’re planning on coming.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – I saw Liz Kingsman’s rightly-hyped One-Woman Show at the Soho this week and it’s fantastic, try to go in January if there are any tickets left. Without spoilers, there’s a bit where an odd woman pops up unexpectedly that really got me.
Book Of The Week – Work by James Suzman, obvs.
Film Of The Week – Well I did go and see the new Bond movie this week, and it’s actually really good, but it’s not my film of the week because I also watched Taika Waititi’s Boy and it’s a stone-cold masterpiece. His best work, for sure.
Album Of The Week – I’m gonna have two here, because on Friday Elton John released his new album The Lockdown Sessions and Nick Cave released his new compilation B-Sides And Rarities Part II and they’re both great in different ways. One has duets with Miley Cyrus, Stevie Wonder, Stevie Nicks, Dua Lipa and Lil Nas X on it, and the other has a depressing spoken word piece over some spooky ambient music about guns and God and flies. I’ll leave it up to you to guess which is which.
That’s all for this week! As ever, if you wanted to send this newsletter to a friend or encourage someone to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it. Take care of yourselves, and see you next time,
PS Here’s a picture of me being shot through the head by a laser, killing me instantly, sadly.