Issue 16. October 2018

design & work

Let’s talk about work, not just the hours we spend making a living, but the hours we spend trying to be productive, the overwhelming hours of our day not spent asleep or in leisure. Are these the hours that give meaning to our lives?

In the late 40’s, the German Philosopher, Josef Pieper, fretting that Western civilization was becoming one of “total labor” —where work becomes our purpose in life, where every individual is, from birth onwards, groomed for the workforce, and every break from work is simply used to recharge for the next workday— asked:

Is it possible, from now on, to maintain and defend, or even to reconquer, the right and claims of leisure, in face of the claims of “total labor” that are invading every sphere of life? Leisure, it must be remembered, is not a Sunday afternoon idyll, but the preserve of freedom, of education and culture, and of that undiminished humanity which views the world as a whole. In other words, is it going to be possible to save men from becoming officials and functionaries and “workers” to the exclusion of all else? Can that possibly be done, and if so in what circumstances?

Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, 1952

One has to wonder — in an age in which we live in fear that robots may take our jobs, our collective imagination only able to muster frenzied alarm at the prospect of being unemployed— whether we are too late in indulging these questions. Whether the preserve of “undiminished humanity which views the world as a whole” is just, at this point, too far out of reach.


For most of us, a paying job is still utterly essential — as masses of unemployed people know all too well. But in our economic system, most of us inevitably see our work as a means to something else: it makes a living, but it doesn’t make a life.

Gary Gutting, What Work Is Really For, 2012

Efficiency was meant to lead to a shorter workday, but, in the final two decades of the twentieth century, the average American added a hundred and sixty-four hours of work in the course of a year; that’s a whole extra month’s time, but not, typically, a month’s worth of either happiness minutes or civic participation. Eating dinner standing up while nursing a baby, making a phone call to the office, and supervising a third grader’s homework is not, I don’t think, the hope of democracy.

Jill Lepore, Not So Fast, The New Yorker, 2009

There’s something missing: the question of whether the American system, by its nature, resists the possibility of too much leisure, even if that’s what people actually want, and even if they have the means to achieve it. In other words, the long hours may be neither the product of what we really want nor the oppression of workers by the ruling class, the old Marxist theory. They may be the byproduct of systems and institutions that have taken on lives of their own and serve no one’s interests. That can happen if some industries have simply become giant make-work projects that trap everyone within them.

Tim Wu, You Really Don't Need to Work So Much, The New Yorker, 2015

system goals

There is every reason to believe that the steady growth of organized labor in the first half of 1950 will continue along the same trend in the second half of the century…
It’s a good bet, too, that by the end of the century many government plans now avoided as forms of socialism will be accepted as commonplace. Who in 1900 thought that by mid-century there would be government-regulated pensions and a work week limited to 40 hours? A minimum wage, child labor curbs and unemployment compensation?
So tell your children not to be surprised if the year 2000 finds 35 or even a 20-hour work week fixed by law.

How Experts Think We'll Live in 2000 A.D., Robesonian, 2018

Economic activities and retirement decisions of older persons in Europe occupy much of the political debate surrounding pension reforms. The focus is to increase the number of years in the labour force of current and future cohorts of workers, given higher life expectancy, in order to provide adequate resources for retirement.

Survey of Health, Aging, and Retirement in Europe [PDF], 2012

A break in one’s work, whether of an hour, a day or a week, is still part of the world of work. It is a link in the chain of utilitarian functions. The pause is made for the sake of work and in order to work, and a man is not only refreshed from work but for work. Leisure is an altogether different matter...

Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, 1952

The experiment poses an important existential question about how a government views work. If a city government or business prizes lower expenses over increased well-being for workers, as he says Gothenburg will likely do, that sends an entirely different message than if it were the reverse.

Chris Weller, Sweden’s 6-hour workday experiment, Business Insider, 2017

systemic failure

After World War II, Americans were told that if they worked hard and played by the rules, a technological utopia was just over the horizon. Somewhere along the way, this most American of promises was twisted into a joke about silly, entitled Spaniards and the lazy, crepe-munching French. Progress became a function of working more, not less.

Matt Novak, The Late Great American Promise of Less Work, Paleofuture, 2014

We don’t know if people will be able to see their lives as meaningful without work. Even if automation provides people with the opportunity to find purpose elsewhere, it’s not clear whether we’ll be ready or able to conceive of a life of meaning which is totally disconnected from work.

Matthew Beard, With robots, is a life without work one we'd want to live?, 2016

Starting after the second world war, a whole host of factors, like rising GDP, rising educational attainment, and rising life-span, forced the industrialized world to grapple with something new: free time. Lots and lots of free time. The amount of unstructured time among the educated population ballooned, accounting for billions of hours a year. And what did we do with that time? Mostly, we watched TV.

Clay Shirky, Gin, Television, and Cognitive Surplus, 2008


Above all, [mankind in the Time of Leisure] will have time to explore and to develop himself— and his opportunity will not be gained, as was the leisure of the ancient Greeks, by being erected on the backs of slaves. The new Age of Leisure will rise on the backs of machines, not of other men. Among the many evils of scarcity which can now be abandoned, indeed is man’s inhumanity to man.

Ernest Havemann, The Task Ahead: How to Take Life Easy, Life, 1964

As one of the nation’s most prolific conservative voices on Twitter, he already had posted hundreds of times this morning — as he ate breakfast, as he chatted with his wife, even as he slept — and would post hundreds of times more before night fell.
The key to this frenetic pace was technology allowing Twitter users to post automatically from queues of pre-written tweets that can be delivered at a nearly constant, round-the-clock pace that no human alone could match.

Craig Timberg, As a conservative Twitter user sleeps, his account is hard at work, Washington Post, 2017

The results of the trial released so far are encouraging. Nurses working shorter hours took less sick days, felt healthier and were more productive. They also said they were 20 per cent happier on average and had more energy at work and in their spare time. This allowed them to arrange 85 per cent more physical activities with elderly residents, the study found.

What happened when Sweden tried six-hour working days, The Independant, 2017

Just in case you weren't jealous enough of the French already, what with their effortless style, lovely accents and collective will to calorie control, they have now just banned bosses from bothering them once the working day is done... Now employers' federations and unions have signed a new, legally binding labour agreement that will require employers to make sure staff ‘disconnect’ outside of working hours.

Lucy Mangan, When the French clock off at 6pm, they really mean it, The Guardian, 2014

[Post-Workist, Benjamin] Hunnicutt said he thinks colleges [in the post-work world] could reemerge as cultural centers rather than job-prep institutions. The word “school”, he pointed out, comes from skholē, the Greek word for “leisure.” “We used to teach people to be free,” he said. “Now we teach them to work."

Derek Thompson, A World Without Work, The Atlantic, 2015