It is, perhaps, the paradox of our times: We are not happy when we work, and we are not happy when we don’t. Let’s just say we get used to both productivity and lassitude in equal measures.
We are, apparently, happiest (spoiler alert) when we do precisely as we please, which roughly breaks down as follows: Labouring a little bit, playing a little bit, goofing off a little bit, and sleeping. . .well, a lot.
Apparently, there’s actual research that backs me up and, in so doing, makes me feel far less guilty than I have for most of my adult life for the gazillion hours I have wasted in patently trivial pursuits.
Consider this month’s cover story in the Atlantic magazine (a certain tonic if anyone needed one at this time of the year, in this time of man and woman kind). In his piece, entitled, “A World Without Work”, writer Derek Thompson declares: “Futurists and science-fiction writers have at times looked forward to machines’ workplace takeover with a kind of giddy excitement, imagining the banishment of drudgery and its replacement by expansive leisure and almost limitless personal freedom.”
And, he says, “Make no mistake: if the capabilities of computers continue to multiply while the price of computing continues to decline, that will mean a great many of life’s necessities and luxuries will become ever cheaper, and it will mean great wealth – at least when aggregated up to the level of the national economy.”
But, then, of course, what do we mere humans do with ourselves? If we are, indeed, the demi-gods who invented machines to replace ourselves, to which plain of existence do we retire? Re-runs of “Happy Days?” Existentially, does this mean that God, itself, is officially dead?
Not necessarily. Says Mr. Thompson:
“One of the first things we might expect to see in a period of technological displacement is the diminishment of human labor as a driver of economic growth. In fact, signs that this is happening have been present for quite some time. The share of U.S. economic output that’s paid out in wages fell steadily in the 1980s, reversed some of its losses in the ’90s, and then continued falling after 2000, accelerating during the Great Recession. It now stands at its lowest level since the government started keeping track in the mid‑20th century.”
Moreover, he observes, “A number of theories have been advanced to explain this phenomenon, including globalization and its accompanying loss of bargaining power for some workers. But Loukas Karabarbounis and Brent Neiman, economists at the University of Chicago, have estimated that almost half of the decline is the result of businesses’ replacing workers with computers and software. In 1964, the nation’s most valuable company, AT&T, was worth $267 billion in today’s dollars and employed 758,611 people. Today’s telecommunications giant, Google, is worth $370 billion but has only about 55,000 employees – less than a tenth the size of AT&T’s workforce in its heyday.”
On the other hand, he concludes with some reason, people stripped of their workaday drudgery will find more creative pursuits to fill their time and what remains of their bank accounts.
We shall, in due course, become artists and artisans, tradesmen and craftspeople. We might even dance around the May pole, whenever winter decides to relinquish its icy grip, and plant food in the empty parking garages and vacant spaces where people once congregated to build their fateful remnant of civilization.
We may not be entirely happy with our new lot.
But, given our track record, I’m pretty sure we’ll get used to it.