A Living, Or A Life?

The pandemic has put this question before us: do we want to make a living, or do we want to have a life? More than a year of not working or working from home has made many of us realize just how empty and meaningless our daily jobs are...


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Image by stevedimatteo - source: Pixabay

Keynes, the famous economist, predicted that technological advances would lead to increased productivity, which in turn would lead to shorter workweeks. This would free workers to pursue the things they find meaningful, like spending time with their families, engage more with their hobbies or travel the world. In his 1930 essay "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren" Keynes talked about the possibility of a fifteen-hour week for workers. Although he thought that even less hours would be made possible by labor saving technologies, he believed, as I do, that people would always want to do some work, to make themselves useful for their societies:

For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich to-day, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter-to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!
source: Yale University - Department of Economics

"The old Adam" in the above quote refers to the Biblical Adam who disobeyed God's orders, and is Keynes' way of saying that we will rebel against the zero-hour week... Keynes was right of course; labor saving technology should do what it says, it should save labor and enable all of us to work less and live more. Instead we've been embroiled in a "cult of work" or "workism", the idea that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one's identity and life's purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work. Once again America is the shining example of this unhealthy development, it's the home of "homo industrious" where the myth of the meritocracy, the belief that hard work always guarantees upward mobility, has found its strongest foothold.

It's not just America though; anywhere in the developed world it's normal to ask "what do you do for a living?" when meeting someone for the first time. Our jobs have become a core part of our identities. The pandemic, with more than a year of not having a job, or working from home has forced us to question this. Stripped bare from the coffee breaks and the social contacts with our co-workers, many among us have come to realize how empty and meaningless to us the actual work is. Two thirds of Americans who lost their jobs during the pandemic are considering to not return to their old workplace, even if that's possible. The lack of government assistance with child care prevents many women to return to their professional lifes at all. And there are even millions who consider moving, now that they've found out that they can perform their tasks from anywhere in the world. In summary, there's a large reconsidering of the balance between work and life going on. Do we live to work, or work to live? What's more important: making a living, or having a life?


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