Part of the Future of Work issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
Laurel Coates had been working for two years at a grocery store in Oakland, California, when the pandemic began. She took voluntary medical leave out of concern for vulnerable relatives and received unemployment insurance payments.
She was in good financial shape, but she eventually found that she missed the work. “I need the social interaction,” she said recently. “I was creating projects at home. I was just finding myself reading the news, and my anxiety level was getting crazy.”
A year later, after vaccines became widely available, she returned to the job. “Going back to work helped my mental state, seeing my friends and even customers,” she said. Now, she works 30 hours a week and takes satisfaction in writing a perfect produce order, the soothing task of stacking apples, and the help she can offer. “It’s pretty simple,” she said of her job. “You’re able to have these little interactions with people, and help them find their little jar of chili flakes.”
We often begin to understand things only after they break down. Your furnace fails, or your marriage does, and you suddenly have to address elementary questions. This is why, in addition to being a worldwide catastrophe, the pandemic has been a large-scale philosophical experiment. It shook up our lives and forced us to ask why we travel, why we go to school, why we touch each other.
American working life suffered its greatest breakdown since at least the Great Depression. Now, offices are reopening even as quit rates are near record highs and millions of workers remain out of the labor force. But the questions raised by mass layoffs, remote work, and the risks borne by front-line workers remain unsettled: What good is work? How should it fit into our lives?
There is a surprising skepticism toward work in the US today — surprising because Americans have for centuries valued hard work and identified themselves with their jobs. From Ben Franklin’s “time is money” to pre-pandemic hustle culture, Americans have viewed work as essential to human value. Now, the “antiwork” movement — most visible on the r/antiwork and r/workreform Reddit forums, where people discuss abstruse Marxist philosophy and celebrate workers who tell off their petty bosses — has grown more prominent as the labor market churns. Some opinion-makers are staking claim to “anti-ambition,” a cold-eyed view of work as little more than an economic transaction: no more doing what you love, no more turning work into a religion.
I find this skepticism encouraging. For years, I have written about the bad bargain work has become in the United States, with workers often enduring insecurity, crummy wages, and burnout. Alongside writers like David Graeber, Miya Tokumitsu, and Jenny Odell, I have argued that work is so miserable, we ought to reimagine our society so that we can live decent lives while doing as little of it as possible — ideally, none at all.
But when I listen to Coates talk about her job, or when I consider work’s role in my own life, I think there’s something about it that’s worth saving: the social, psychological, and moral structure that, at its best, work can provide us.
An automated, post-work utopia is worth striving toward. There’s no telling, however, when such a dream might be realized; we currently have neither the civic institutions nor the cultural values to have a leisure society. And in the meantime, most adults, myself included, have to earn money and depend on others’ labor.
Many critics of American work culture are not in a position to change federal or corporate policy. They can, however, provide the vision and energy to push for change. To do so, they will need to reckon with what people get out of their work, figure out ways to preserve the good while eliminating the bad, and ultimately envision a society in which people can get those benefits, both material and moral, by other means.
Coates’s coworker Joey Fry has worked for the grocery chain for 20 years. “I always thought about my job as just money and separated it from a passion,” he told me. His true passion is making ceramic art. He works 35 hours a week at the store and earns “just barely enough” to support himself.
Money is the most obvious thing people want from work, and so higher wages must be at the center of any effort to make work better, with some sort of basic income a feature of the postwork world. People, however, also work in pursuit of more abstract goods, such as meaning or purpose. That is not just a luxury for elite workers. Although workers without a college degree put more importance on salary and security when making career decisions than workers with degrees do, as the sociologist Erin Cech has found, there is no difference in the value workers place on finding meaningful work.
Stocking shelves may not be Fry’s passion, but over the course of our conversation, he kept bringing up social and ethical aspects of his job at the grocery store. “There has to be some integrity behind my job,” he said. “I find it there.” He enjoys the physical nature of the work, and he likes the fact that he works in his neighborhood. “I want to go to work, doing something that’s good for the community, providing food,” he said.
Covid-19 posed a moral challenge to Fry. When the pandemic arrived and shelves emptied of toilet paper and pasta, Fry, who is 39, stayed on the job out of a sense of duty. “A lot of my coworkers chose to not work,” he said. “I just didn’t feel like I had any good reason not to.” He noted that he could have made more money on unemployment. “But I thought I would get bored, and I thought it was the right thing to do,” Fry said. The store was “struggling,” he added. “I felt like they needed me there.”
Work is a social arrangement. It mediates countless relationships, both casual and intimate. Go to the tailor often enough, and you’ll become part of each other’s lives, sharing jokes and complaints about the weather or, where I live, the Dallas Cowboys. I still miss the regulars at the restaurant where I worked many years ago. Even at a workplace with high employee turnover, Fry has made friendships that have lasted for two decades. Or as Coates put it, “We all have our work wives.” Sometimes, a coworker becomes your actual wife. One of mine did.
The tight weave between work and society is why it’s so worrisome that customers’ angry outbursts at retail, restaurant, and airline workers have become more common lately. Both Coates and Fry said that customers not masking — even in an area like the East Bay, where vaccination and masking rates were high — were a source of stress.
Still, not even a pandemic can erase societal goodwill altogether. Fry said some customers expressed genuine appreciation for his work. “There was a super sweet couple,” he recalled, “that stopped by every morning and thanked every single person who worked there.”
Even as the antiwork counterculture grows, so do calls to “get back to work.” Conservative politicians have been saying this all along, but now President Joe Biden has joined the chorus, saying in his State of the Union address this year, “It’s time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again.”
Looming large in such arguments are the supposed perils of idleness. The political economist Nicholas Eberstadt told the Wall Street Journal’s Mene Ukueberuwa in January that working-age adults who chose to stay out of the workforce were inviting a “fundamentally degrading” purposelessness into their lives. Out-of-work men, Eberstadt’s research suggests, spend their time not in contributing to their communities but in front of screens: watching TV, playing video games. “By and large,” Eberstadt said, “nonworking men don’t ‘do’ civil society.” Work is their main link to it, and when it’s severed, they become more isolated and despondent.
I have to admit, I know firsthand what Eberstadt is talking about. After I burned out and quit my dream job as a college professor in Pennsylvania, I followed my wife’s career to Texas and decided I would try freelance writing. The work felt very lonely. She went off to work, and I stayed home, ostensibly to write, with nothing to anchor my time. Ideas and words — and thus money, too — came to me slowly. I spent a lot of time lying on the couch. I was the sort of person Eberstadt is talking about. Even as I was writing about the problem with relying on work for your life’s meaning, it became clear I needed a job.
After a year and a half, I returned to a familiar place: the classroom. I’m now a part-time writing instructor at the nearest university, a 30-minute walk from my house. The 10 or 12 hours a week I spend on teaching don’t earn me much money, and they cause me mild stress during grading periods, but I also get back many intangible benefits. Students are counting on me to show up at a specific place and time and teach them. That schedule gives shape to my days. In class, I exercise skills I spent decades building. When I go to meetings of my program, I feel like I am part of a worthy enterprise. I’ve made friends with a few colleagues. I can walk across campus and know I belong there. And if anyone asks what work I do, I have a straightforward answer.
Coates’s anxiety and my boredom pose a challenge to antiwork advocates. True, with less work, everyone would be free to structure their lives however they wanted, but in fact, few people are good at that. I certainly am not. I’m much less happy in summers, when I don’t have the routine and obligation of classes to focus my time and effort.
One reason work has so much power to shape our lives is that adults lack alternative social structures. Work is just the default mode of engaging with society for anyone who’s out of school, especially if they are not caring for young children. This helps explain why, prior to the pandemic, many retirees who didn’t need the money went back to work anyway. Habits of social engagement built up over decades do not disappear on your 65th birthday.
The antiwork vision may seem far-fetched, but it has never really been given a chance. Early in the pandemic, some people glimpsed a postwork society because the $600-a-week unemployment supplements meant they could support their families without work. Because everything else shut down, however, there were limited opportunities to create new institutions that could order our time and effort. It’s no surprise, then, that 70 percent of remote workers reported working on the weekends in 2020, or that 45 percent reported working more than they did before. What else was there to do?
It’s true that work can contribute the structure and resources people need to live satisfying lives. But how big a role does work need to play? Can’t we get what we need from work without it dominating our lives?
If the most obvious benefit of work is money, then the most obvious cost is time. Or, to put it another way, work costs us our lives. This is why work that feels pointless or pays too little is such an insult. “We tend to speak of our having a limited amount of time,” writes Oliver Burkeman in his book, 4,000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. “But it might make more sense … to say that we are a limited amount of time.” If our lives are time, then understanding how the costs and benefits of work play out over time is the key to figuring out how work ought to fit into our lives.
Some of the goods of work increase with the length of the workday. Most notably, this is true of earnings for most workers. But with most other goods, you don’t get more as you work more. In fact, many of the social and psychological benefits come from having a job rather than putting in long hours. That is, you have an answer to the “What do you do?” question even if you only work a few hours a week. You don’t get a better answer with more hours. You don’t get more of the feeling that people are counting on you, that you are contributing to society. You probably don’t make more friends.
And at some point, you stop getting the benefit of a schedule to your time, because you have less and less time when you aren’t at work. Your productivity slows, too, past 40 or 50 hours a week. Meanwhile, stress rises with time spent working. A Korean study found that younger workers’ risk of stress, depression, and suicidal thoughts dramatically increased when they worked longer than a standard schedule.
For workers to reap the social, moral, and even spiritual goods US culture promises them, and to avoid the drawbacks, they certainly should be able to cap their hours at 40 per week, and ideally would be working somewhat fewer. That isn’t realistic for many people unless wages increase accordingly. For this reason, shorter-hours policies — like California Democratic Rep. Mark Takano’s proposed four-day workweek bill, which would require overtime pay after 32 hours — need to be coupled with higher-wage policies.
Higher wages and shorter hours: The way to tame work is almost too obvious.
Yet in the context of US history, it’s revolutionary. Real wages have been flat for decades. And the standard workweek hasn’t changed in 85 years. Average working hours in the US have declined slightly since 1980, but not nearly as fast as they have in economic peer countries like Canada, France, or Japan.
We will also need policy to break the vicious cycle between work and social alternatives to it: If everyone is working, then there’s no time to build civic institutions like social clubs or activist groups, but if there are no civic institutions, you may as well keep working. As Sunday-closing laws have relaxed in the US, there is no longer any common time free from work, no period when you can count on others to be available to get together and build social connections. Free time is a human right, argues the political scientist Julie Rose. It’s a necessary condition for attaining the other rights, like freedom of association, expression, and worship, that liberal democracies are meant to guarantee. And so time away from work and weekly restrictions on commerce should be protected by law.
But policy alone will not solve the problem of work. Culture needs to change, too, and antiwork advocates can push for it to happen. They have the vision and can encourage the building of institutions that will provide an off-ramp from our total work society. We need to make time away from work appealing not just as the absence of toil but as a mode of flourishing and fulfilling our human needs for camaraderie, moral growth, and purpose. That may be the only way we’ll convince people like Nicholas Eberstadt that those who opt out of the labor market, even if they aren’t caring for children or others, are making a positive, worthy choice. That will require foregrounding models of activity and civic engagement — retirees, student activists, disabled people, members of religious orders —that don’t put work at the center. If the antiwork movement can emphasize the positive appeal of not-work, then employers will feel pressure to improve work in turn, if they’re going to lure us back.
Both Laurel Coates and Joey Fry told me they wished they were paid more, but they also said they appreciated the limits on their work, and how they never have to take their work home with them. “My philosophy is, it’s okay to be a little settled,” Fry said. “I’m 70 percent happy at my job most of the time.”
And when it’s over, it’s over. A good job is one you can leave at the end of a shift and then get started doing something better.
Jonathan Malesic is the author of The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives. He is a former sushi chef and parking attendant.