What Comes After Work? Creativity or Vegetation?


Industriousness has served as America’s unofficial religion since its founding. The sanctity and preeminence of work lie at the heart of the country’s politics, economics, and social interactions. What might happen if work goes away?

This is from an interesting (if extremely long) article in the Atlantic, with very cool photos from a post-work future museum.

It starts with the kind of will-technology-make-human-workers-obsolete discussion we’ve seen before but goes on to an intelligent exploration of the post-work future, what challenges our work-obsessed society will face should we reach such a point, and how we might “recover” from it.

New Escapologist, like the “post-workists” mentioned in the article, is occasionally seen by its critics as insensitive for rooting for a world without employment in that so many people wouldn’t know what to do in such a world; that without being forced into a labour market through fear of poverty or complete loss of social status, we’d all just drift around aimlessly, occasionally stopping to puzzle over the “clunk” sound our heads make when they bump into each other.

My feeling is that New Escapologist has more respect for people’s agency than the critic who accuses us of insensitivity: we believe people will find ways to fill the gap left by the removal of work. The people of history had quite full lives before being corralled and morally-blackmailed into joining to the workforce during the Reformation and one way or another we’ll relearn how to occupy ourselves when the Protestant work ethic is more widely accepted as obsolete.

Alas, a study referred to by the Atlantic suggests that most Americans, when freed one way or another from the workforce, fill their time with television, browsing the Internet and sleep. Aside from this data, immersive video gaming is offered as as a genuine suggestion. So maybe it’s true. Maybe the critics are right and the majority of us is genuinely unable to occupy ourselves in a worthwhile fashion without being cattle-prodded into an office or a factory each morning.

To the non-working public I say this: are you going to prove right these patronizing naysayers or are you going to prove right New Escapologist and the post-workists, who have respect for your imagination, agency and willpower?

Post-workists are certainly right about some important things. Paid labor does not always map to social good. Raising children and caring for the sick is essential work, and these jobs are compensated poorly or not at all. In a post-work society […] people might spend more time caring for their families and neighbors; pride could come from our relationships rather than from our careers.

The post-work proponents acknowledge that, even in the best post-work scenarios, pride and jealousy will persevere, because reputation will always be scarce, even in an economy of abundance. But with the right government provisions, they believe, the end of wage labor will allow for a golden age of well-being. [Post-workist writer] Hunnicutt said he thinks colleges 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.”

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Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at www.wringham.co.uk/about.

2 Responses to “What Comes After Work? Creativity or Vegetation?”

  1. JAL says:

    When I read the title, I was thinking of something else, which may be relevant to the discussion. While it is true that many Americans spend their free time watching TV, browsing the net and sleeping, this may be because they are too burnt out from their work day to do much else. I often have big plans for my free time, I’m going to write that novel! I’m going to start a business! I’m going to dig an underground tunnel! But when I get home, I’m pooped. I might get a few chores done, put the kids to bed, clean up a bit, and call it a day. In a post-work society, maybe I would write that novel AND watch some TV. I might start a business during the time that I am now currently working for someone else’s business. Just a thought.

  2. Oh, certainly. That’s a big part of why we set up NE in the first place. I’m no stranger to that experience. The idea of a properly full life outside of a full-time day job is a joke. A day’s work leaves you completely drained in terms of creativity, willpower and all the rest of it. Doesn’t matter how many hours you spend outside of work, the sheer misery of it and the fact that your best hours are spent on the job, completely saps you. No argument there.

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