Work hard, relax harder
by Paul Lewis
Were I to write about the average worker in this country, “overworked” is a term which would likely come into play with great, painful frequency. And no explanation would be necessary; the presence of overwork is as common as traffic jams, most of which are caused by people trying to get to work.
To say that we as a populace need to do some serious reflecting about how overwork affects our quality of life is a no-brainer. Therefore I heartily recommend Tom Hodgkinson’s themed, incisive essay collection How to be Idle (HarperCollins, $18.95). Broken up by hours of the day and sorted by activities one could engage in were one not nuzzling up to the corporate teat (rambling, meditating and sleeping late among them), this series of 24 meditations is a vital resource for anyone who wonders why, exactly, it has to be that way in what Hodgkinson refers to as “the ignoble world of work.”
Hodgkinson, editor of the magazine The Idler , rails against a culture wherein people choose to be defined by the work they do rather than the myriad other choices they make every day. He dismisses a society wherein wage slaves work unpaid overtime just for the chance of a possible promotion at a job they don’t enjoy anyway. It isn’t that he completely discounts the notion of work (he does edit and publish a magazine, after all, and that requires an abundance of labor), he simply espouses a comfort level in which we let our labor work for us rather than letting our work, or our employers who often do not have our own best interests at heart, run our affairs.
The dawn of the Industrial Revolution and such seemingly innocuous inventions as the light bulb made work possible at all hours of the day and night in unnatural factories and warehouses, and the Internet, phones and fax machines seemingly allow efficient communication and the saving of labor. But there’s more work and less pay for the people who actually man the trenches rather than the utopia such advances promised.
“The job was invented in order to make things easier for those at the top,” opines Hodgkinson. “The people were stripped of their independence in order to service the grand dreams of a socially aspirational mill owner who believed in hard work—for other people.”
Though humorous in tone, How to be Idle is serious business indeed, raising and answering questions about not only our work but also our fundamental approach to living our years: how this has changed throughout history and how it differs across cultural lines. Sadly, the bookstore with which I am most familiar features Hodgkinson’s tome in the humor section instead of its rightful place in sociology, cultural studies or several other sections. Harry G. Frankfurt’s excellent screed, On Bullshit, gets to perch within the philosophy section, and as entertaining and culturally incisive as it is, it’s not the sort of thing that can unburden us of our desperate baggage.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the trend, most prevalent in self-help titles, in which a popular book is followed by a workbook or journal of some nebulous purpose, the implied message being that the second title will help you implement the wisdom of the first. How to be Idle has no such tie-in item with which to milk your wallet further, but if it did, it would probably be Time Off! The Upside to Downtime by Kristine Enea and Dean LaTourrette (Leisure Team Productions, $17.95). Its contents are far too voluminous to adequately address here, but if you find yourself “between jobs” either voluntarily or otherwise, Time Off! is an invaluable reference for those who may have forgotten how to enjoy themselves, connect with their community, or find personal satisfaction at little or no cost.
From travel to romance, from school and training to, yes, rejoining the workforce on your own terms, Enea and LeTourrette do all the dirty work so you can simply kick back with a good book, which is really to whole point to being idle in the first place. You’ll learn facts such as how the work week in the United States most closely resembles that of developing countries, and you’ll marvel at the recurring and inspiring feature “Great Moments in Unemployment.”
Work isn’t going anywhere, and there will always be those people who are so driven that they work 80-hour weeks for prestige or power or wealth and who stopped listening to current music sometime in 1994 and only have passionate insight into the stock market (they must be stopped!). But these clarion volumes call to the rest of us and espouse a return of self-directed, thoughtful labor that melds with our downtime, producing a better quality of life for everyone.