Would a Work-Free World Be So Bad?
Fears of civilization-wide idleness are based too much on the downsides of being unemployed in a society premised on the concept of employment.
People have speculated for centuries about a future without work, and today is no different, with academics, writers, and activists once again warning that technology is replacing human workers. Some imagine that the coming work-free world will be defined by inequality: A few wealthy people will own all the capital, and the masses will struggle in an impoverished wasteland.
A different, less paranoid, and not mutually exclusive prediction holds that the future will be a wasteland of a different sort, one characterized by purposelessness: Without jobs to give their lives meaning, people will simply become lazy and depressed. Indeed, today’s unemployed don’t seem to be having a great time. One Gallup poll found that 20 percent of Americans who have been unemployed for at least a year report having depression, double the rate for working Americans. Also, some research suggests that the explanation for rising rates of mortality, mental-health problems, and addiction among poorly-educated, middle-aged people is a shortage of well-paid jobs. Another study shows that people are often happier at work than in their free time. Perhaps this is why many worry about the agonizing dullness of a jobless future.
But it doesn’t necessarily follow from findings like these that a world without work would be filled with malaise. Such visions are based on the downsides of being unemployed in a society built on the concept of employment. In the absence of work, a society designed with other ends in mind could yield strikingly different circumstances for the future of labor and leisure. Today, the virtue of work may be a bit overblown. “Many jobs are boring, degrading, unhealthy, and a squandering of human potential,” says John Danaher, a lecturer at the National University of Ireland in Galway who has written about a world without work. “Global surveys find that the vast majority of people are unhappy at work.”
These days, because leisure time is relatively scarce for most workers, people use their free time to counterbalance the intellectual and emotional demands of their jobs. “When I come home from a hard day’s work, I often feel tired,” Danaher says, adding, “In a world in which I don’t have to work, I might feel rather different”—perhaps different enough to throw himself into a hobby or a passion project with the intensity usually reserved for professional matters.
Having a job can provide a measure of financial stability, but in addition to stressing over how to cover life’s necessities, today’s jobless are frequently made to feel like social outcasts. “People who avoid work are viewed as parasites and leeches,” Danaher says. Perhaps as a result of this cultural attitude, for most people, self-esteem and identity are tied up intricately with their job, or lack of job.
Plus, in many modern-day societies, unemployment can also be downright boring. American towns and cities aren’t really built for lots of free time: Public spaces tend to be small islands in seas of private property, and there aren’t many places without entry fees where adults can meet new people or come up with ways to entertain one another.
The roots of this boredom may run even deeper. Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College who studies the concept of play, thinks that if work disappeared tomorrow, people might be at a loss for things to do, growing bored and depressed because they have forgotten how to play. “We teach children a distinction between play and work,” Gray explains. “Work is something that you don’t want to do but you have to do.” He says this training, which starts in school, eventually “drills the play” out of many children, who grow up to be adults who are aimless when presented with free time.
“Sometimes people retire from their work, and they don’t know what to do,” Gray says. “They’ve lost the ability to create their own activities.” It’s a problem that never seems to plague young children. “There are no three-year-olds that are going to be lazy and depressed because they don’t have a structured activity,” he says.
But need it be this way? Work-free societies are more than just a thought experiment—they’ve existed throughout human history. Consider hunter-gatherers, who have no bosses, paychecks, or eight-hour workdays. Ten thousand years ago, all humans were hunter-gatherers, and some still are. Daniel Everett, an anthropologist at Bentley University, in Massachusetts, studied a group of hunter-gathers in the Amazon called the Pirahã for years. According to Everett, while some might consider hunting and gathering work, hunter-gatherers don’t. “They think of it as fun,” he says. “They don’t have a concept of work the way we do.”
“It’s a pretty laid-back life most of the time,” Everett says. He described a typical day for the Pirahã: A man might get up, spend a few hours canoeing and fishing, have a barbecue, go for a swim, bring fish back to his family, and play until the evening. Such subsistence living is surely not without its own set of worries, but the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins argued in a 1968 essay that hunter-gathers belonged to “the original affluent society,” seeing as they only “worked” a few hours a day; Everett estimates that Pirahã adults on average work about 20 hours a week (not to mention without bosses peering over their shoulders). Meanwhile, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average employed American with children works about nine hours a day.
Does this leisurely life lead to the depression and purposelessness seen among so many of today’s unemployed? “I’ve never seen anything remotely like depression there, except people who are physically ill,” Everett says. “They have a blast. They play all the time.” While many may consider work a staple of human life, work as it exists today is a relatively new invention in the course of thousands of years of human culture. “We think it’s bad to just sit around with nothing to do,” says Everett. “For the Pirahã, it’s quite a desirable state.”
Gray likens these aspects of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to the carefree adventures of many children in developed countries, who at some point in life are expected to put away childish things. But that hasn’t always been the case. According to Gary Cross’s 1990 book A Social History of Leisure Since 1600, free time in the U.S. looked quite different before the 18th and 19th centuries. Farmers—which was a fair way to describe a huge number of Americans at that time—mixed work and play in their daily lives. There were no managers or overseers, so they would switch fluidly between working, taking breaks, joining in neighborhood games, playing pranks, and spending time with family and friends. Not to mention festivals and other gatherings: France, for instance, had 84 holidays a year in 1700, and weather kept them from farming another 80 or so days a year.
This all changed, writes Cross, during the Industrial Revolution, which replaced farms with factories and farmers with employees. Factory owners created a more rigidly scheduled environment that clearly divided work from play. Meanwhile, clocks—which were becoming widespread at that time—began to give life a quicker pace, and religious leaders, who traditionally endorsed most festivities, started associating leisure with sin and tried to replace rowdy festivals with sermons.
As workers started moving into cities, families no longer spent their days together on the farm. Instead, men worked in factories, women stayed home or worked in factories, and children went to school, stayed home, or worked in factories too. During the workday, families became physically separated, which affected the way people entertained themselves: Adults stopped playing “childish” games and sports, and the streets were mostly wiped clean of fun, as middle- and upper-class families found working-class activities like cockfighting and dice games distasteful. Many such diversions were soon outlawed.
With workers’ old outlets for play having disappeared in a haze of factory smoke, many of them turned to new, more urban ones. Bars became a refuge where tired workers drank and watched live shows with singing and dancing. If free time means beer and TV to a lot of Americans, this might be why.
At times, developed societies have, for a privileged few, produced lifestyles that were nearly as play-filled as hunter-gatherers’. Throughout history, aristocrats who earned their income simply by owning land spent only a tiny portion of their time minding financial exigencies. According to Randolph Trumbach, a professor of history at Baruch College, 18th-century English aristocrats spent their days visiting friends, eating elaborate meals, hosting salons, hunting, writing letters, fishing, and going to church. They also spent a good deal of time participating in politics, without pay. Their children would learn to dance, play instruments, speak foreign languages, and read Latin. Russian nobles frequently became intellectuals, writers, and artists. “As a 17th-century aristocrat said, ‘We sit down to eat and rise up to play, for what is a gentleman but his pleasure?’” Trumbach says.
It’s unlikely that a world without work would be abundant enough to provide everyone with such lavish lifestyles. But Gray insists that injecting any amount of additional play into people’s lives would be a good thing, because, contrary to that 17th-century aristocrat, play is about more than pleasure. Through play, Gray says, children (as well as adults) learn how to strategize, create new mental connections, express their creativity, cooperate, overcome narcissism, and get along with other people. “Male mammals typically have difficulty living in close proximity to each other,” he says, and play’s harmony-promoting properties may explain why it came to be so central to hunter-gatherer societies. While most of today’s adults may have forgotten how to play, Gray doesn’t believe it’s an unrecoverable skill: It’s not uncommon, he says, for grandparents to re-learn the concept of play after spending time with their young grandchildren.
When people ponder the nature of a world without work, they often transpose present-day assumptions about labor and leisure onto a future where they might no longer apply; if automation does end up rendering a good portion of human labor unnecessary, such a society might exist on completely different terms than societies do today.
So what might a work-free U.S. look like? Gray has some ideas. School, for one thing, would be very different. “I think our system of schooling would completely fall by the wayside,” says Gray. “The primary purpose of the educational system is to teach people to work. I don’t think anybody would want to put our kids through what we put our kids through now.” Instead, Gray suggests that teachers could build lessons around what students are most curious about. Or, perhaps, formal schooling would disappear altogether.
Trumbach, meanwhile, wonders if schooling would become more about teaching children to be leaders, rather than workers, through subjects like philosophy and rhetoric. He also thinks that people might participate in political and public life more, like aristocrats of yore. “If greater numbers of people were using their leisure to run the country, that would give people a sense of purpose,” says Trumbach.
Social life might look a lot different too. Since the Industrial Revolution, mothers, fathers, and children have spent most of their waking hours apart. In a work-free world, people of different ages might come together again. “We would become much less isolated from each other,” Gray imagines, perhaps a little optimistically. “When a mom is having a baby, everybody in the neighborhood would want to help that mom.” Researchers have found that having close relationships is the number-one predictor of happiness, and the social connections that a work-free world might enable could well displace the aimlessness that so many futurists predict.
In general, without work, Gray thinks people would be more likely to pursue their passions, get involved in the arts, and visit friends. Perhaps leisure would cease to be about unwinding after a period of hard work, and would instead become a more colorful, varied thing. “We wouldn’t have to be as self-oriented as we think we have to be now,” he says. “I believe we would become more human.”