Is work the most important thing in our lives?

When I was little I wanted to be a professional basketball player. My backup plan was to be an accountant, mostly because I liked math and thought my Aunt, who was an accountant, was cool. It seems bizarre reflecting back on this that I had such a decisive answer to “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

As a child, one can ignore the world’s obsession with work and getting a job, but it is always looming around every activity. For every child playing on the playground, there is an adult nearby trying to assess each child’s confidence, curiosity and interests to assess what they might do when they grow up or how their confidence might translate into getting accepted into top schools and companies.

As that child grows up, they are expected to become responsible for those same worries, reshaping their personalities away from their natural curiosities towards becoming “employable.”

I might have already triggered some uncomfortable emotions in you and I want to ask you to come with me on a journey. I’m going to argue that those emotions you are feeling are because of deep beliefs we have about work that have existed for a long time, but no longer suit what we are trying to achieve through work.

I do not want to argue against work, but I do want to argue that we tend to take work too seriously, that is has become too central to our culture, our conversations and the manner in which we live life. I want to walk you through ten key points which highlight the hidden suffering and the enormous human potential we repress by having an overly simple model of work and the beliefs that are attached to it.

Why do I care?

I believe the stakes are enormous and I think many are blind to the tremendous suffering caused by work. As someone that writes about work for the past five years, I have been in the unique position of having weekly conversations with people who share their suffering with me. They share their anxiety, discomfort and shame with me and in some cases, haven’t told anyone else in their life about these emotions.

If you dig beneath the surface, you start to see that some people are losign their lives because of work. In 2013, an intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch died after working 72 hours and having a seizure in the shower. Yet, everyone involved in the case was hesitant to blame work for this outcome. Here is the coroner:

He was a young man living life to the full and he was clearly enjoying his time in London and, whilst it’s possible that fatigue brought about the fatal seizure, it is also possible that it just happened. And it is something that does just happen.

It takes an extreme degree of mental gymnastics to completely absolve work of all responsibility. Why are we so scared of blaming work for suffering, even a little?

In Japan, there is no pretending. There is a well known work for death from overwork — karoshi. In 2015, there were 1,456 cases in Japan files dainst employers that referenced “karoshi.”

While it is clear that we should not want work to kill people, it is less clear the destructive damage that our modern conception of work has on our world and on the average “worker”.

Our modern conception of work is based on a flawed conception that work is and can be a full-time job that is stable, provides meaning, community, purpose, comfort, pays for your healthcare and retirement.

If this conception of work applied to everyone, perhaps it might be a great thing. For everyone unable to secure such magical employment, they are left to deal with the unintended consequences of our unquestioned faith in work.

“Work is the master of the modern world.”

This quote from Andy Beckett captures today’s reality.

Work is our master and to question work is akin to admitting insanity.

Nonetheless, I’ve spent my whole career secretly trying to avoid or limit work. While most Americans do not take all of their vacation days, I was negotiating with employers to take extra days, to work remotely, to take time off unpaid.

A couple years ago, I finally realized I should stop playing the full-time employment game and create my own game. I took the leap to freelancing. Others told me I was courageous. “Wow, that’s risky,” they said. To me it seemed the only way to live a life I was proud of and yes, one with less work.

Alas, one of my goals was to work less, and likely make less.

When I tell people this, they do not believe me. Surely there is a better long term plan?! You’ll make more money down the road right? This is some temporarily fit of insanity! Right?!

Over the past year, I’ve experimented with long stretches of what I will call “non-work” — extended travel, time with my grandmother and fun creative projects like this very article.

“I wish I could do that”

Perhaps you can, but first you will need to grapple with our culture’s deep obsession with work how that impacts your own relationship to work.

I want to argue three things before offering some hope for the future (and I am optimistic!)

  1. Our conception of work causes immense suffering in the world
  2. Some people have interesting work, but many do not
  3. Work undermines community, pride & stability of our culture

#1 Our modern conception of work causes immense suffering in the world

We ignore more than half our country.

Only 155 million people, or less than half, are classified as “employed.” Approximately 38% of Americans have coveted full-time jobs. Yet, most of the discussion about public policy, the American dream and success in life are framed around the full-time job (and one with good benefits to boot!):

BLS and Other Sources, 2018 (all approximates)

There is a bunch of data manipulation that happens to determine who is part of the potential workforce, but the total “participation rate” is a good start to look at long-term trends in employment. Despite increases in the participation rate from the 1960’s to about 1990 (due to increasing numbers of women in the workforce), the participation rate has been decreasing for about 30 years:

Source: BLS

If we double-clickon “prime-age” workers, we see that it has been increasing since the recession in 2008, but there appears to be a hard cap around 80% of prime-age workers.

Source: BLS

Again, a lot of the increases here are due to women entering the workforce and the discrepancy between this chart and the previous one is an increase in mostly the number of elderly population as well as the number of people on disability. Hidden by this increase is a steady decrease in the number of men in the workforce. This is driven by a number of reasons:

Economists have struggled to explain these long-term trends with any sort of single bullet explanation, but they show no signs of slowing down. With so much focus in public policy and the general conception of the “American Dream” centered around the full-time job, we avoid stepping into the messiness of the reality of employment.

When we position work as a way to extract meaning, we make people feel worse

Hate your job? Just try to find something you are more passionate about. Quit your job. Move to a different company. Invest in a personal development retreat. Read this e-book.

Heck, even take a year off. As long as you can sell that year off as “work” on yourself — a personal growth and a journey that made you more valuable to workers — then it works. Just get back to work.

The roots of looking to work with such profundity comes from the Protestant view of work as a “calling.” Philosopher Andrew Taggart details this philosophy:

The “Protestant view of work” is based on the idea that work is just about the best sort of thing that one can do with one’s life. Protestants describe work as a “calling,” a harmony between the individual’s work, whatever this might be, and the divine purpose.

The desperate search for meaning is perhaps a side effect of our modern culture. The German philosopher Eric Fromm, reflecting on the increased individuality of modern society, notes that it came with a trade-off:

Modern man, freed from the bonds of pre-individualistic society, which simultaneously gave him security and limited him, has not gained freedom in the positive sense of the realization of his individual self; that is, the expression of his intellectual, emotional and sensuous potentialities. Freedom, though it has brought him independence and rationality, has made him isolated and, thereby, anxious and powerless.

While finding meaning at work sounds great in theory, it is likely only achievable for a small minority and for the rest, it creates an incurable anxiety or emptiness from the fact that many jobs are “bullshit jobs” and that a lot of jobs and work exist mostly to fulfill our ideal of employment for all.

The people who love work are “educated” and working more

Overall, people are experiencing more “leisure” than in the past. However, it is not distributed equally. Economists Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst showed that there has been a steady increase in the amount of time people spend in leisure:

However, they showed that the amount of leisure among the “highly-educated” has actually gone down!

The more surprising discovery, however, is a corresponding leisure gap has opened up between the highly-educated and less-educated. Low-educated men saw their leisure hours grow to 39.1 hours in 2003–2007, from 36.6 hours in 1985. Highly-educated men saw their leisure hours shrink to 33.2 hours from 34.4 hours. (Mr. Hurst says that education levels are a “proxy” for incomes, since they tend to correspond).

A similar pattern emerged for women. Low-educated women saw their leisure time grow to 35.2 hours a week from 35 hours. High-educated women saw their leisure time decrease to 30.3 hours from 32.2 hours. Educated women, in other words, had the largest decline in leisure time of the four groups.”

Future of work though leader Jacob Morgan shares a common refrain in the public discussion about work.

work is life and life is work. We spend a majority of our adult lives working, which means what you do is not just a job, or a career–it’s a part of you.

This quote is the scary realization of an idea put forth by German Philosopher Josef Pieper called “total work” which is the “process by which human beings are transformed into workers and nothing else.” (HT: Taggart who helped popularize this idea and has a compelling newsletter on total work).

While meaning, purpose and fulfillment from work sounds like a great idea, it has the unintended side effect of calling more attention to the fact that many jobs suck, millions of people struggle to meet their basic needs and many more lack the stability to quit jobs that lack meaning.

I may seem that the antidote to work that sucks is making it “meaningful” — but I will argue that’s a false dichotomy. The opposite of meaningless work may seem like it should be meaningful work — but that devalues the work and lives of too many people.

In fact, we find that the people that work the most have the most education.

Work has been transformed into something that the well-off and well-educated use as ways to express themselves and create meaning for themselves. However, in assuming this is how everyone should do it, they likely lead to a destruction of meaning for the broader society.

There is immense shame tied with not having a job

Being unemployed or laid off has been linked to adverse health effects, loss of relationships and even in extreme cases, suicide.

Harvard Business Review reinforces the shame of being unemployed but does not question our obsession with work. Instead, they recommend “pushing yourself physically,” followed by making ”“10 networking calls a day”

This shame may be justified. Research from the University of Stirling found that becoming unemployed can lead people to “become less friendly, less hard-working, and less open to new experiences.”


#2 Some people have interesting work, but many do not

We have 9.5 million people deemed the “working poor”

In a country where politicians talk about the importance of work, there is a disconnect between the effort people are willing to give and our collective ability to meet their needs. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, 9.5 million people are classified as “working poor.”

In 1996, bipartisan welfare reform was passed that tied many benefits to having a job. While having some initial benefits, the World Economic Forum declares:

The new work requirements haven’t reduced the number or percentage of Americans in poverty. They’ve just moved poor people from being unemployed and impoverished to being employed and impoverished

Reforms like this may work if people were interested in working. However, a study from the American Enterprise Institute showed that of 15.3 million people in poverty, less than 10% were looking for work and could not find it:

Perhaps the non-working poor have no interest in giving up time with their family or other activities to become merely “working poor” and spend less time with their family. If work is so important, perhaps we should think about eliminating the absurdity of the idea of “working poor” rather than merely getting more people to work.

Our “middle class” jobs that help people build a sustainable life are disappearing

This extensive (and well worth reading) post on “technological employment” talks about the long-run trends in our economy around jobs and employment. In the post he quotes economist David Autor, who notes that our economy is bifurcating into good jobs and low-paid ones:

“…computerization of “routine” job tasks may lead to the simultaneous growth of high-education, high-wage jobs at one end and low-education, low-wage jobs at the other end, both at the expense of middle-wage, middle education jobs”

This is a global trend:

This trend is not going away with increased use technology, but it will lead to two profound questions:

  1. Is it really worth it to have millions of people in low-paid work for the sake of having job?
  2. Why don’t we value the emotional labor of some people (retail, artists, cashiers, restaurants) while simultaneously valuing the emotional labor of others highly (coaches, therapists, consultants)

The “future of work” is great for some, but mostly a misnomer for the destruction of good jobs

I am one of the lucky people operating within the context of a talent ecosystem where I have some market power and control over the work I do. However, the data shows that the current realization of the “future of work” is mostly people struggling to make ends meet and companies exploiting their current workforce and magically transforming stable jobs to lower-paid contractor jobs without benefits.

Since 2005, the labor force has grown by about 9 million people and all of that growth has been created in in “alternative work arrangements.” These are not freelancers like myself — they are people who are being fired and re-hired by their employees or just can’t get hired as a full-time employee.

Source: Politico

The story of Diana Borland brings this trend alive:

The representative told them it wouldn’t be a big change, since the contractor, Nuance Communications, would rehire them all for the exact same position and the same hourly pay. There would just be a different name on their paychecks.

Borland soon learned that this wasn’t quite true. Nuance would pay her the same hourly rate — but for only the first three months. After that, she’d be paid according to her production, 6 cents for each line she transcribed. If she and her co-workers passed up the new offer, they couldn’t collect unemployment insurance, so Borland took the deal. But after the three-month transition period, her pay fell off a cliff. As a UPMC employee, she had earned $19 per hour, enough to support a solidly middle-class life. Her first paycheck at the per-line rate worked out to just $6.36 per hour — below the minimum wage.

I thought they made a mistake,” she said. “But when I asked the company, they said, ‘That’s your paycheck.’


#3 Work undermines, pride, community & stability of our culture

We only value that which can be quantified in GDP

If a parent decides to stay at home with their children and raise them, there is no impact on GDP. If they decide to work and pay for daycare, GDP goes up, unemployment rates go down and the economy is doing “better.”

With our absolute belief in work, we are making value judgement about what work is valued. With our unquestioned belief in work as the absolute aim of all adults, we are explicitly saying that someone that wants to stay at home and raise their kids is less valuable than someone who works. No one actually holds this belief, but we reinforce it by failing to question our conception of “work.”

In 1996, both political parties arrived on a comprehensive welfare reform package that tied many more benefits to having a job. As we showed before the reform did a fantastic job of moving unemployed people in poverty to employed people in poverty. It also led to an increase in the number of employed single mothers. Given that benefits are tied to working this is an expected reaction, but is this good for society? Who is watching the kids?

Andrea Komlosy recently published a book looking at the last 1000 years of work. Her research found that before our modern version of work, we did value that effort at home as work:

“One particularly startling aspect is that before 1750 women had more status than they did in the following two centuries. Their housework and caring for the family was seen in the context of a wider contribution to the household, while a man would contribute through his artisan job. “Each contribution [to the household] was valuable,” says Prof Komlosy.”

Today’s conversation talks about how we can “value” work at home in the context of “work” — which is headed in the wrong direction. It seeks to place a value in money on something that cannot be valued.

Work reinforces an obsession with education (see: degrees) and reinforces class divides

All work is not created nor valued equally. A family member of mine once applied for a job and was told that given their past experience, impressive resume and cover letter, that they were “clearly the best candidate for the job.” However, they could not hire her. She lacked a degree. I’m still angry about this not because of the policy, but because the policy signals that some people matter less than others.

The way we pay people reflects this trend. Adjusted for inflation, the median earnings of non-college graduates has fallen over the last 50+ years:

A counterargument could be that companies are paying for skills and that college graduates are clearly more skilled than non-graduates. This argument doesn’t hold water.

HBS and Accenture recently published research showing that there is a massive “credentials gap” in our current economy. This means that the percentage of job postings requiring a degree is much much higher than the actual makeup of the workforce holding those current jobs.

This chart shows the drastic disparity.

Our modern conception of work says that the most valued work is the kind that results at the end of a four-year college degree.

This obsession is no better shown than the recent report published by Georgetown University. Rather than look inward at the rising cost of college (tuition and fees alone just topped $50,000 a year this year at Georgetown), the university takes the bold stand of instead trying to simplify the value of education down to one metric: salary:

“In order to be educationally adequate, a post secondary program must provide its graduates with economic self-sufficiency. We propose that, to be recognized as leading to such self-sufficiency, a program must leave its graduates earning more than $35,000 per year ten years after they have completed it.”

Later in the report, we are given a history lesson (un-ironically it seems) about how education has led to inequality:

T. H. Marshall foresaw the growing contradiction between education as an equalizer and education as a source of inequality. This contradiction has only become more pronounced over time, with the strengthening of the sequential alignment between access to higher education, choice of field of study, occupational choice, and individual earnings

Yet, in this entire report, there is no question about the question of the disappearance of good jobs for most without degrees nor the unintended side effects of tying educational success to employment and salary.

Less than 7% of the population has access to benefits like paid maternity leave.

The people that are most fervent supporters of things like paternity leave, sick pay and generous healthcare benefits get them. Netflix offers 52 weeks paid paternity leave to their employees. They employ slightly over 5,000 employees.

Most people? Don’t have them. Pew estimated that only 14% of workers have access to things like paid family leave. Remember, this is 14% of the employed or approximately 21 million people.

Our modern conception of work says that we should solve our societal problems through work. That works for a small minority with good employment and good jobs, but for millions, stable employment and benefits are disappearing. We need to question our deep attachment to work and think about how our beliefs may in fact improve our own lives while also leading to instability, insecurity, and shame for many more.


To Conclude: Is Post-Work Possible?

I stumbled upon this article on the idea of “post-work” and the author interviews two self-proclaimed “post-workists” — it appears that people have no idea what to do with their time but work:

The first:

There’s no boundary between my time off and on. I’m always doing admin, or marking, or writing something. I’m working the equivalent of two jobs.” Later in our interview, which took place in a cafe, among other customers working on laptops — a ubiquitous modern example of leisure’s colonisation by work — she said knowingly but wearily: “Post-work is a lot of work.

..and the second:

James Smith was the only post-workist I met who had decided to do less work.“I have one weekday off, and cram everything into the other days.

So there it is — our future conception of work — the four-day work-week.

We can do better…



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