Posts Tagged ‘The Right to Be Lazy’

How much do we really need to work?

July 13, 2012

The Greater Rochester Russell Set had a round-table discussion of Bertrand Russell’s 1932 essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” in which, among other things, Russell contended that a four-hour work day would be sufficient to produce everything that people need—provided that you eliminate work to produce munitions, useless luxuries and status symbols, and to support an idle rich class.

I have come across the four-hour work day many times over the course of my life.  It could well be true.  A certain irreducible minimum of work is needed, but no advanced country has ever collapsed as a result of reducing the work week or the work day, that I know of.

But I wonder whether the argument for the four-hour work day has any empirical basis.  Are there any communities, utopian or otherwise, that adopted a four-hour work day?

I suppose the so-called “primitive” people would be an example.  One of the complaints of white European conquerors was that native Americans and Africans were lazy; that is, they were satisfied with what to a European appeared to be bare subsistence, and were unwilling to work for wages or raise cash crops to get anything more.  A common solution was to impose taxes, which they had to earn money to pay.

I’m re-reading Eric Foner’s great historical work, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, which says that the goal of many of the Northerners was something called “compulsory free labor.”   They thought that the freed slaves should continue to work on the plantations and pick cotton, but what the slaves wanted was to own their own land, grow their own food and sell crops only to buy what they could not provide for themselves.  Many of the white people, Northerners and Southerners, thought that was proof that Negroes were “lazy”; they didn’t want to work for other people.

People differ on what counts as work and what doesn’t.  Thomas Geohegan, in his book about German social democracy, wrote that the average German does much less paid work than the average American (and also, by the way, about half as much as the average Greek), but the German spends much more time doing chores—cooking, cleaning, laundry, ironing, etc.—which, however, are not thought of as work.

As for myself, I like being retired, and being able to choose for myself what I do and don’t do.  I enjoy my web log, but I would hate blogging for money and always having to worry about how many views I get.   It would be hard to go back to working for a boss.  I know this is a privilege, and I know that most people aren’t so lucky.

Click on In Praise of Idleness for a link to Bertrand Russell’s 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness”

Click on The Right to Be Lazy for a link to an 1883 pamphlet by Paul Lafargue, Karl Marx’s son-in-law, which anticipates Russell’s argument.

Click on It’s the 21st century: why are we working so hard? for thoughts of a contemporary writer in The Guardian. [Added 7/14/12]

Click on America’s Misguided Culture of Overwork for an interview with Thomas Geohegan on work in Germany and the United States.

Click on Are the Greeks the Hardest Workers in Europe? for the figures on Greek and German hours worked.