A Fallacy of Full-Time Work

Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and Karl Marx are just three of the many well known thinkers who have questioned the age old concept, that we still cling to, of spending the majority of our conscious lives, particularly our youth, doing the same job for at least five days a week. The fallacy that exists is the idea that full-time work is an intrinsically good thing, in and of itself, for every single person. The sad consequence of this fallacy is the unnecessary pain; judgment and self-hatred caused to those that do not align with this view.

Vincent Van Gogh: ‘The Red Vineyards near Arles’

When a child is born we wish for nothing but their prosperity, health and happiness. We acknowledge that each human being is multi-faceted and unique whilst also being a social creature. So why do we assume their character will seamlessly fit into a particular society’s narrowly conceived idea of ‘work’?

How we earn our living will have one of the greatest impacts on our mental and physical long-term well-being. Many studies, such as those by the economist Richard Layard, have shown that the relation between happiness and monetary income plateaus at a relatively modest amount of around £20,000 — 25,000 a year or less. This means that, generally speaking, what you earn above this amount has no impact on your long-term happiness or well-being. This sum is more than sufficient to cover the costs of a comfortable, but modest, lifestyle in most parts of the world. What has the greatest impact on our long-term happiness is the level of daily stress or anxiety we cope with, the depth of our relationships, the time we have to pursue a range of activities that utilise different aspects of our personality and how well our daily activities fulfilled our creative, social and individual needs. It is very unlikely that doing the same job every day for decades, in an environment that might be stress inducing for a myriad of different reasons, whilst demanding a great deal of our time, for the main reason of a monthly wage, will meet these needs for the majority of people.

In and of it’s self, there is no problem with this concept of full-time work when someone chooses to spend their life this way. This maybe because they enjoy their job and the lifestyle it offers. Yet, because our environment is imposed upon us at birth, it is only a rare few who are lucky enough to be fulfilled doing something they can be paid to do when employment within a culture is so narrowly defined. And whilst billions of people have to work in unrewarding and/or demanding jobs just to survive, there are millions who do the same to amass pots of money never spent, or to pay for goods they don’t need, at great emotional and mental cost.

If we knew ourselves better we might understand the multi-faceted and personal reasons that motivate us to work long hours in jobs we dislike or crave more money than is likely to make us happy. For example, we might desire the respect of others because we have neglected our own self-worth, we might be distracting ourselves from difficult relationships or emotions we find painful to acknowledge, or it might be due to fear; of what might happen in the future, of other people’s opinions, of what life might be like outside the safety of our daily routine. Contemplating this may in turn have a slow but imperative effect on the cultural view of ‘work’ whereby three or four day weeks become more socially acceptable and governments devise policy to ensure that employment pays sufficiently. Furthermore, if people worked less then more people should be employed; thereby reducing unemployment and combating the future rise of automated work. There is also the possible benefits of reducing the levels of chronic stress and anxiety in society, improving sleep, giving parents more time to be with their children and therefore lifting, no matter how slightly, the physical and mental health of society if this idea is fully embraced.

This, of course, requires countries like the UK to radically change their attitude towards the purpose of work and the economy, not least in relation to measuring economic growth and what we value. Yet, once a society is economically developed to a certain level it is more than possible to meet the basic needs of food, water, warmth and shelter for every individual if the system wishes to achieve this. So what is needed most of all is a change in mind-set; to know that work does not have to be something we are paid for and that we can live comfortably on three or four days of paid work a week if society supports people in re-aligning our desires with what is more likely to maximise our happiness.