My book club met this weekend to discuss Celeste Headlee’s Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving. Great book. As you can imagine, I recommend it, and I’m on the same page with her almost completely. Where I think she doesn’t go far enough is (not unexpectedly) in buying into the concept of work-life balance, so that where she thinks we need to scale back doing work in our jobs, I also think we need to scale back doing not-job work in our lives.
One thing I appreciate most about Headlee is how she historicizes and deconstructs the philosophical mess we’ve gotten ourselves into – thinking that leisure is unworthy if not immoral, that we must work all the time, and that busyness is the ultimate marker of status.
“We have been deluded by the forces of economics and religion to believe that the purpose of life is hard work,” she writes. We have the Protestant reformation to thank for the equation of industriousness with virtue. “Idle hands are the Devil’s work,” and all. Industrial capitalism reinforced the notion that time = money, making us hyperconscious of the “opportunity cost” of leisure and social time. The early 21st century obsession with productivity and optimization (thanks, Big Data) has taken over our jobs as well as infecting our personal lives. The crazy thing is that given how productivity is rising, we needn’t have pushed so hard: we could have had a standard of living equal to our grandparents in a fraction of the hours we work now. But we wanted more stuff. Not to mention, we were producing more stuff, and a whole industry sprang up to convince us we wanted – nay, needed – all this stuff.
To this let me add there’s our obsession with growth and the “American Dream”: among other things, the idea that my kids should do “better” than I have. If they don’t that’s my fault as a parent, or it must mean our society is in trouble.
So we’d best keep grinding. We’re working more hours. We take fewer vacations. We stopped taking breaks at work and going out for lunch, instead gobbling down a few bites at our desk, multitasking. We answer emails on the weekend and work at night after the kids go down, and even on vacation (when we dare to take it). Our time is contaminated with our jobs even when we’re not at them.
Is this what we want? What we need? I’ve probably done slightly “better” than my parents. From being a super-achiever in school, I went to a fancier college, and after some peripatetic years and switchbacks, I’ve landed at a fancy-pants consultancy making more bank (though not consultant-level bank) than my parents ever did. Although I believe I live reasonably modestly, I know where my income falls on the curve – and it’s pretty far to the right. I think back to my grandparents. My dad did “better” than his dad, a blue-collar son of immigrants: Dad went to college, had a career as a military officer, and retired into a series of organizational management roles. My mom’s parents were solidly middle-class: a bank manager and a homemaker who became a librarian when the kids were grown. They had a lovely house that was by no means grand, in a lovely town; two cars; one television; and no dishwasher, microwave, or of course, computers. Then again, they had friends and parties and bridge clubs, things notably absent from my day-to-day life.
But then I think of my own kids: what would it take for them to do “better” than me? And would I want them to? I shudder to think. I seriously question whether my cohort of uberachievers, stressed and divorced and burnt out and overcompensating and unconnected, is worthy of emulation. Fortunately (?) neither of my bairns seems inclined to pursue the overachiever path, or to embrace workism. They’re not especially interested in college. I’m nervous about this, but who’s to say they’re not onto something?
Here’s the thing. Maybe our kids could do better than we do, maybe our standards of living could keep rising, if we could keep pushing harder and harder to be more productive (as workers, as parents, and so on). But it’s sure starting to seem like we’ve pushed ourselves to the brink of our capabilities as humans, that we so have exhausted ourselves with working, and stripped away so much of the fluff of humanity, that any further “gains” will come at the cost of more burnout, more anxiety and depression, more addiction.
Those rising standards are just about to drown us all.