Back in 1930, John Maynard Keynes, the father of modern economics, predicted that by early 21st century, with productivity continuing to rise in the manner that it in fact has, we’d all be working at most 15 hours per week.
The fact that this has not happened is not due to a failure of economics, but a failure of culture: we now live in an age of abundance, but cultural inertia insists that jobs continue to be the center of our lives. The vast majority of us need to work (even if no jobs are available), and we need to work full time, because that’s the only way to make enough money to live in comfort.
But imagine what could happen if the 9 to 5 (or 6 or 7) grind were reduced by half or more. Imagine how much art, how much service to the community, how much inventiveness could emerge when human energy is untethered.
I say “could happen” because certainly that’s not even usually what does happen when someone no longer needs to hold down a job. The result is just as often idleness drifting towards depression, meaninglessness, and alcoholism.
It’s not enough that we be freed from intrusive labor. Most of us also need guidance, need social support, need options to lead us to figure out and become addicted to what I just called a passion project. We suffer from what Frithjof Bergmann calls “the poverty of desire;” our appetite needs to be whetted, our interests need to be aroused and honed. A great musician doesn’t start out wanting to practice for hours per day; that proclivity is built gradually.
Many New Work projects have involved helping people figure out “what they really want,” and fortunately for all of us, when people are really given the opportunity and space to explore themselves, they very often find that they want to be of service to others. Most people don’t want to write symphonies; they want to change the world for the better.
We need a new culture based on the recognition of these facts of human nature and our new situation of abundance. We need a culture that provides support for meaningful work, and we want the kind of culture that will come out of people working passionately at what they love. We need to de-couple the idea of work from the idea of a job: work can be caring for people in your community, enhancing your environment, creating things that you and others want and need. If such a “passion” generates income as well, great, but we need a culture that provides alternate ways of providing for one’s basic needs, so that we can all pursue work that will give our lives purpose rather than just doing whatever will pay the most.
We are not proposing a life of austerity, but we do need a culture with a different attitude towards material stuff. We need a culture that encourages us to reflect on what we really need, what we really want, what portion of our collected stuff is life-enhancing, and what is just so much clutter.
New Work does not require that everyone love each other, that we reject private ownership, that we vilify any political group, or that we adhere to any particular set of values. The changes in cultural attitudes towards work and subsistence that we propose are less radical, and more achievable, but will still have profound consequences.