A world with much less work
from The Guardian’s A Long Read 26i18
In 1979, Bernard Lefkowitz, then a well-known American journalist, published Breaktime: Living Without Work in a Nine to Five World, a book based on interviews with 100 people who had given up their jobs. He found a former architect who tinkered with houseboats and bartered; an ex-reporter who canned his own tomatoes and listened to a lot of opera; and a former cleaner who enjoyed lie-ins and a sundeck overlooking the Pacific. Many of the interviewees were living in California, and despite moments of drift and doubt, they reported new feelings of “wholeness” and “openness to experience”.
By the end of the 70s, it was possible to believe that the relatively recent supremacy of work might be coming to an end in the more comfortable parts of the west. Labour-saving computer technologies were becoming widely available for the first time. Frequent strikes provided highly public examples of work routines being interrupted and challenged. And crucially, wages were high enough, for most people, to make working less a practical possibility.
Instead, the work ideology was reimposed. During the 80s, the aggressively pro-business governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan strengthened the power of employers, and used welfare cuts and moralistic rhetoric to create a much harsher environment for people without jobs. David Graeber, who is an anarchist as well as an anthropologist, argues that these policies were motivated by a desire for social control. After the political turbulence of the 60s and 70s, he says, “Conservatives freaked out at the prospect of everyone becoming hippies and abandoning work. They thought: ‘What will become of the social order?’”
It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but Hunnicutt, who has studied the ebb and flow of work in the west for almost 50 years, says Graeber has a point: “I do think there is a fear of freedom – a fear among the powerful that people might find something better to do than create profits for capitalism.”