How can we enforce boundaries about work when we’re taught to equate one’s productivity with one’s morality?
It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the 24. In so far as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. — Bertrand Russell, “In Praise of Idleness”
Years ago, while sitting together at a bar, a friend jokingly told me that he looks forward to hangovers because they force him to do nothing for an entire day. This was long, long before I had a child, before I understood the difference between a hangover in your 20s and a hangover in your 30s (miserable). Still, I laughed with recognition, remembering some delicious day of McDonald’s fries and a marathon of The Wire spent on my couch.
Now, as a full-time working parent, I think my friend’s hangover method of relaxation may be my last hope. Being sick is the only time I allow myself to spend a whole day at home in bed, and a hangover is an illness you can give yourself, a punishment for drinking too much, on the one hand, or a brief “staycation” that might be almost as fun as the night that preceded it, on the other.
It’s been more than 80 years since Bertrand Russell published “In Praise of Idleness,” but the American workweek continues to outpace our peers in the majority of the world’s industrialized nations. What’s more, some research suggests that the more educated you are, the more hours you’ll work. This can be spun positively when you compare your 50-hour workweek to that of the underemployed who have, since the Great Recession began in 2007, struggled to make ends meet and accrue enough hours to qualify for employee benefits. But with wage stagnation still plaguing many industries (like mine: higher education), you might just be working harder to stay where you are.
With the advent of flexible time at the office, working from home, and the technologies that make it possible to work at all hours of the day or night, on the train, on the plane, and yes, even in bed, you, like me, might be feeling the pressure to make your every waking minute “count” in terms of income or job security. How else to explain why the office manager of my department, who is paid hourly, answered the email I sent her last Sunday night less than five minutes after I sent it?
If you’re also a parent, then the rest of your “free” hours are probably spent squeezing in as many “enrichment activities” as possible to alleviate your guilt over working so much, and to keep up with the Tiger-momming Joneses of today’s competitive, middle-class parenting culture that turns even child-centered-no-screen time-Montessori-forest school minimalism into some sort of regiment that feels entirely like unpaid work, but isn’t even valued as work by dudes like this.
Also, make sure you go to the gym. No excuses, right, Maria Kang? We all have an hour a day in which to break a sweat! Who cares if that hour can only be found pre-dawn or after midnight?
No? Just me? Well, that makes sense, too: I’m exactly the kind of anxious, overachieving, insecure worrywart for whom the demands of academia, modern parenthood, and militant body policing were designed.
It’s technically summer, the season when teachers like me are supposed to recuperate from the rigors of the school year, plan for the next one, and produce some meaningful scholarship for a conference presentation or a peer-reviewed journal. I just finished up teaching an intensive 7-week first-year writing course, and now I’m staring down the creation of four syllabi for my (P.S. overloaded) fall semester, while also writing a book and attempting to lose 10 pounds. At home, my 2.5-year-old daughter waits to be potty-trained by age 3 so she doesn’t risk starting a pattern of failure and falling behind, and oh yeah, when do swimming lessons start? Did she get enough sunlight today? Did she socialize with other kids her age? Did she get read to for at least an hour? Did she get enough time to “free play” by herself without the aid of electronics?
Oh my god, America, can we please just STOP?
Netflix-and-chill. Staycationing. My friend’s hangovers. These are the signs of an overworked population in desperate need of time spent in a way my grandfather, who worked 35 hours a week as a dentist, owned a gunsmithing business, and served on seemingly every board of every organization within three counties would have called wasteful.
Russell claims that overworked people turn to passive forms of leisure simply because who has the energy to take up sculpting or grow a garden or refurbish an armoire when their minds and bodies have already given so much to paying jobs, or the job of parenting in our CPS-calling times? We now do with passive leisure what we’ve done with work: We binge. It’s a kind of protest to watch the entire fourth season of Orange is the New Black in a single gulp, but I get the appeal—excessive work will eventually force excessive stasis. (Russell also reminds us that a great deal of work goes into the creation of a movie, or a TV show, or a Pokémon app; consumption is the other necessary half of our economy.)
But how can we enforce boundaries about work—no email after 7pm, let’s say, a boundary I personally fail to maintain nearly every day of my life—when we’re taught to equate one’s productivity with one’s morality?
For example, in academia, those with tenure or on the tenure track are working in part to bridge the gaps of responsibility created by dependency on underemployed adjunct professors, deeply entrenching both populations in different forms of inequity. Adjunct professors are nearly always working beyond their pay grade because they have an emotional investment in their students, while tenured and tenure-track professors, living with an abysmal market and attacks on tenure, feel there is never enough they can do to secure their positions. Teaching is particularly ripe for burnout because we treat the teacher-student relationship as sacred, a passionate calling more than a profession.
But most people I know in other industries are also working well beyond 40 hours a week in an effort to prove they’re no bare minimum employee. For many, Meeting Expectations is the new Not Meeting Expectations.
Russell’s solution is a four-hour workday that would leave time for all to pursue interests outside of passive leisure—scientific discovery, public service, the slow, unguarded creation of art and literature, even that buzz-phrase we now call professional development, where doctors and teachers would update their knowledge and practices of their own volition in their spare time. “Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia,” Russell says. “Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle.”
I wonder what Russell would say about the world we’ve made since he published “In Praise of Idleness” in 1932. Now, it’s barely possible to keep up with the day’s violent news. The sources and expressions of this violence are complex and not always related, but people are too busy just surviving to dedicate themselves to the nuances of the destruction we’ve wrought. Who wants to spend their one free hour reading about the militarization of the American police or the Black Lives Matter movement when they’ve got a to-do list seven pages long? It’s easier to adopt an oppositional stance, one that allows us to distance ourselves from the underpinnings of violence, one that allows us to take a little less responsibility not because we’re bad people, but because we are already inundated.
The overwhelm is real. There is so very much work to do. And the stakes of our work only grow higher and reach farther into a future increasingly less predictable no matter how spotless our inboxes, how flat our stomachs, or how early our kids are potty-trained. Our individual virtue means a whole lot less when we’re collectively destroying our world, actively or passively. Yes, there is work to do. And we’re going to need energy for it.
So, in the meantime, America, take some time off and watch The Wire.
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.