What is “Unworking?”

You’re born, you suffer, you die. Isn’t that how the saying goes?

Of course, most of us have some great times in between. But a large part of our life is our work and a large part of our work is frustrating. If you care about what you do it’s even more so. You want to have an impact, you want the work you do to count for something but so much gets in the way that you can wonder what all that effort actually achieved?

But what if work didn’t have to be like this? What if we could bring our whole selves to our work without the organisation or the format that work typically takes getting in the way of us making our contribution?

That’s what “Unworking” — the term I’ve coined to describe how work could and should evolve — is all about.

The roots of the word lie in the educational concept of Unschooling.

“Unschooling” was first coined by the author and educational anthropologist John Holt to mean learning and teaching that does not resemble school learning and teaching. It is based on the premise that children are much better at learning than we give them credit for and that they don’t need a highly structure curriculum or even teaching let alone a school in order to learn and become valuable members of society. In fact, all of that structure and systematic schooling makes it more difficult for them to learn.

The basis of unschooling is that children learn the most and develop in to the most balanced, healthy adults when they have as much freedom to explore the world in their own way as we can bear to give them. Unschooled children often don’t look like they are being educated because they spend a lot of time doing things we don’t associate with education — playing, sleeping, gaming, hanging out, watching TV and YouTube. But their innate curiosity as children means they will explore, absorb, become fascinated by a whole range of aspects of life which provide them with everything they need as adults. In addition because they’ve been self-directing their learning they have a deeper understanding of themselves and what makes them tick, what they’re interested in, how to learn and their value in society. Because they’re not set apart in school they are educated in the world that they will later inhabit as adults.

The role of parents is to create an environment rich in learning opportunities, to be present for their children as partners and facilitators and to, other than that, get out of the way of their children’s learning. 

I believe we can apply the same lens to work. By unpicking how we think about work and getting back to some pure principles we arrive at a basic premise — we work because our society functions best when we all contribute to that society, when we all put in in some way, sharing the jobs that need to be done for us to survive and live good, full, enjoyable lives. Work therefore has meaning — it’s for a purpose — and that feels good.

Unworking is about figuring out how to make that contribution in the most effective way with as much freedom as possible and with as few barriers to making that contribution as possible. Just as unschooling may not look like education when you expect education to look like school, unworking may not look like work when you’re used to work looking like a job. People may be reading a novel, going to the cinema in the middle of the day, chatting with colleagues over coffee, sorting out a problem with their kids, fixing up the garden, sleeping in, staring at the ceiling, going to a conference, researching something seemingly off topic but one way or another all of that enhances their contribution to society.

If we can get away from the idea that work only happens within the 4 walls of the office or, more importantly, that work only happens when it requires us to marginalise some other aspect of our life, we can really start constructing a way to work that is integrated with our lives and ourselves.

The role of Leaders is to create an environment where people can do their best work and then, basically, get out of the way.

The very idea that work should feel so different to the rest of our lives is problematic for me. Why shouldn’t work and the rest of your life be almost indistinguishable? Some of what you do in your life you get paid for and some of it you don’t. The proportion will be different for each person ad how much they get paid for the bits they get paid for will be different for each person. But there’s not reason that the bits you don’t get paid for have less value in terms of contribution to society. 

Unworking also starts with the premise that people are much more motivated, passionate, dedicated, hardworking and responsible than we give them credit for and that, actually the workplace and all of the industrial age rules about how people need work to be structured, get in the way of their innate desire to contribute and do their best. Work actually makes it more difficult for them to work.

I don’t think the result of unworking is that everyone becomes a lazy bum who expects to do nothing but go to the cinema and sleep in every day. I believe that when we truly unwork we will be MORE motivated to make our contribution, be able to put more of ourselves in to that contribution, find a way to contribute that really feeds our soul and enhances our mental health and solve may of the biggest issues in our world together — climate change, disenfranchisement, inequality, poverty, maybe even war.

I want us to find ways to unwork because I think it will enhance our experience of life and, actually change the world. I think we NEED to because of the price we currently pay in terms of our physical and mental health as a result of the long hours, the commuting, the stress, the constant changing of goal posts, the challenging workplace relationships, the parent-child dynamic, the day to day frustrations of work and the pressure to take more and more on as you advance in your career. It’s not sustainable. If we expect to be MORE productive we have to think again about how we work and go right back to basics.

But I also think we have little choice. The world is changing so fast that I believe work will be almost unrecognisable in 20–50 years. More technology will mean there simply isn’t enough work to go around if we stick with our conventional ideas about what work looks like. If it has to be a full time job climbing the career ladder for life I don’t think we’ll be able to provide enough of those jobs to enough people. So we will have a choice of having massive poverty and unemployment, people not only costing the state billions every year but people who are unable to meet that innate human desire to contribute. That leads to crime, more mental illness, more disengagement, poverty…I could do on.

I hope we look back at how we work today in, say 20 years, and think “why on earth did we think that was OK?! What madness…but we all thought it was normal!”.

But for a peaceful revolution to happen rather than a very painful readjustment once the unsustainablity of the status quo becomes very stark, requires some early adopters, people to lead the way. Leaders. People who are willing to go first and start constructing an unworking life, an unworking community, an unworking movement.

Just as we’ve seen a massive growth in entrepreneurialism over the last few decades with more and more people setting up their own business, or joining a smaller ground breaking company or going freelance, I think we’ll start seeing a growing unworking movement as more and more people stip away the constraints of industrial age ways of working and reinvent the flavour of work as part of life.

You can listen to Blaire’s podcast about Unworking and the 5 criteria for an unworking life on iTunes or on her website

In March 2018 Blaire will sell her house and take her family on the ultimate Unworking adventure around Europe in a campervan. You can follow her Unworking journey on the Punks in Suits Facebook page.