If you’re living in a capitalist society, having money is great! Money gets you space to live! Money gets you food to eat! And if you ever think of something else you want, money lets you buy it! Right now! Wham!
Hooray for money!
Except that the actual process of getting money can be pretty miserable.
Most people get money by finding a job. At the job, somebody will tell them what to do. They do it, they get paid.
The pay, in the United States, tends to be quite low. Working forty hours a week for fifty two weeks a year, the US minimum wage would net you less than twenty thousand dollars. Even if the US minimum wage were lavishly raised to $15 an hour, you’d still only get about thirty thousand dollars a year.
To keep the US economy going, we’ve relied on desperation. If people had other options, they wouldn’t do dangerous, difficult, or demeaning work for so little pay.
Until recently, though, most people felt like they didn’t have other options. And so they took terrible jobs, hoping to scrape by.
Now, things are looking different.
In the US, lots of people chose not to re-enter the post-pandemic labor force. Among people who did return to work, huge numbers have been quitting.
In China, many young people are advocating for cheaper ways of living. Instead of working long hours at an odious job in order to have enough money to buy fancy things, maybe it’d be better to work less and take joy in simpler pleasures. Of course, this is a rather anti-progress sentiment, so references to the “tang ping” or “lie flat” movement have been deleted from the Chinese internet to quell the ideology.
Even among people who are lucky enough to be paid for doing something fun – and, honestly, among the professional classes, a lot of work is fun, lots of tricksy little puzzles to solve – there’s often an imbalance between how much time we spend working and how much time we spend on family or other sources of lasting joy. This is, roughly, the main argument in the essay by New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo, “Even With a Dream Job, You Can Still Be Anti-Work.”
There are lots of ways to find fulfillment in life. And, yes, work can definitely provide that satisfying sensation of having done something worthwhile with your time! Especially if you’re lucky enough to be paid for doing something you love. My spouse loves to teach. Manjoo loves to research big ideas. I love to write!
But the work that many people find themselves doing – trading away their time so that they’ll have enough money to meet their needs – doesn’t feel rewarding. And even a good job can suck up too much time. Caretaking, conversation, art, travel, philosophy, religious practice – these are also excellent avenues to a fulfilling life, except that they don’t draw a salary. Most people aren’t lucky enough to be able to use their time in those ways.
So: work can feel lousy for the people doing the work.
And it gets worse. Because there’s another big problem with work: in a capitalist society, much work makes the world worse.
In the US, for instance, our recent economic miracles are advertising companies: Google and Facebook. Their founders have become absurdly rich; a huge number of people have found well-paying, intellectually-stimulating jobs working for these companies. But their money comes from hurting people! Our world would be better off if all those people’s work wasn’t being done.
Very occasionally, advertising benefits a person. An ad might make you aware of something that improves your life! Maybe you’ve always wanted a little automated rake that cleans your cat’s litter box. (I saw an ad for one of those on the YMCA television while I was lifting weights.)
Or maybe you’d like to go out for Indian food, but hadn’t realized there was an Indian restaurant in your home town. Good thing you saw their ad!
But more often, advertising harms us. An effective advertisement instills a sense of absence that some company’s product can supposedly fill. Huge amounts of money are spent creating and distributing ads for beer, for cruise ships, for fast food.
Which people, exactly, do we suppose are unaware of the existence of beer? And would the newfound knowledge help them?
Especially in the face of climate change, our society will have to change. In some fields – manufacturing, advertising, drilling – we need for people to work less. We need for less stuff to be made, used briefly, and shunted off to landfills. The work makes our planet less hospitable.
I used to do biomedical research. I stopped; it seemed that if I did my job well, I too would help wreck our planet. New discoveries are much more likely to yield slight, expensive extensions to the ends of wealthy people’s lives, rather than any additional happiness for the majority of our population.
We already spend inordinate amounts of money on frantic efforts to extend the end of life, even though studies have shown that “the less money spent in this time period, the better the death experience is for the patient.”
This sort of work is good for the economy. But it’s bad for people. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where everyone thought that the latter mattered more?