Idleness has long been associated with wickedness and bad character. When we are growing up, our parents tell us to work hard, to try our best, to put our backs in to whatever we are doing. Even if we don’t achieve our goals, we can escape too much criticism if, and only if, we can show that we have really tried and put in the work. ‘At least you tried’ our teachers say. The idea that idleness is bad doesn’t only apply to children, it follows us as we grow up and become adults. We can see its continued influence in political debates about social security and welfare policy. Whereas the lazy ‘benefits queens’, the ‘idle poor’ deserve nothing, the hard working poor should rightfully be given support. In his 1932 essay ‘In Praise of Idleness’ Bertrand Russell sets out to challenge the view that work is valuable, or the be all and end all of our lives.
This idea is, Russell argues, deeply harmful, even if it is difficult for those who were brought up to believe this to give it up in action.
What Is Work According to Bertrand Russell?
Bertrand Russell argues there are three types of work. First, there is the work of ‘altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter’ (p. 3). This type of work is labor proper. The second type of work consists in telling other people to do the first kind of work. In other words, management. The third type of work is advising those who do the second kind of work on how to do it. In other words, consulting.
Whereas the first type of work is generally dirty, unpleasant, and poorly paid. The second and third types of work are generally well paid, and not generally unpleasant (unless, that is, one dislikes being in charge and issuing orders).
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This raises the question, if so much of the work that gets done is unpleasant, how come we do so much of it? How did the counterintuitive idea that work is virtuous become so prevalent?
The simple answer is that, for much of human history, vast amounts of work by enormous amounts of people has been necessary to survive. Prior to the industrial revolution the task of taming nature, raising crops, building shelters, finding fuel, and making clothing took up the vast majority of most people’s days.
The only people who could avoid spending their lives in toil were the small minority of people who could either convince other people to give them what they needed to survive, or take what they needed through force and fraud. In other words, warriors and priests. The former threatened earthly harms as punishment for disobeying them, the latter celestial harms.
Over time, this view becomes internalized into our culture. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Max Weber, the father of modern sociology, argued that this is particularly the case amongst protestant groups in northern Europe. Protestants, and particularly Calvinists, placed great ethical importance on secular work, seeing success in this life as a portent of what is to come in the afterlife. This belief, in turn, influenced believers to develop successful enterprises, engage in trade, and accumulate wealth for reinvestment in productive enterprises. Leisure, in this view, is wasteful and thus to be avoided. Instead, one must spend their lives in toil to achieve salvation.
Less Work, More Play
This situation, however, is no longer inevitable. Moreover, it hasn’t been inevitable for a long time. Even as far back as 1932, prior to widespread automation, robotics, and AI; the enormous technological transformation that the industrial revolution represented was plain to see. Bertrand Russell writes:
‘Modern technique has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to not be the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community. The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need for slavery.’ (p. 5)
As evidence for this, Russell gives the fact that during the first world war enormous amounts of the population were engaged in fighting and producing war related goods (e.g. munitions). Despite subsequent negative economic effects, people were still fed and housed, showing that ‘it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world’ (p. 6).
If we can do this for war, why not for leisure? Russell argues that liberating the majority of the population from the burdens of long hours would enable them to pursue the best things in life. The first benefit Russell foresees is a resurgence in the importance given to lightheartedness and play, which has been ground out of us by the cult of hard work. The second benefit is a resurgence in pleasurable pastimes in which people participate actively, such as dancing, making music, or learning.
A world in which no one is compelled to work more than 4 hours a day would be one in which ‘every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving’ (p. 14). This, in turn, could have important political consequences, as increased leisure time will enable people to research and learn about the business of government, making them more informed voters. Most importantly, less work will give us more ‘happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia’ (p. 14).
What Happened to the 4 Hour Day?
Writing at about the same time, the new deal economist John Maynard Keynes also argued that modern technology had the potential to reduce the amount of work people needed to do. Since then, information technology and robotics have increased the efficiency of people’s labor even further. This raises the question, how come the 4 hour work day never came to fruition? What happened to the dream of working less?
The reason Russell gives is that, instead of increased efficiency leading to shorter working hours, what happens is that people still work 8 hours, but less people are employed. Those who lose their jobs are compelled to find work elsewhere. This, in turn, leads to new industries arising.
Another reason is that most people seem to have preferred greater incomes (and spending power) over greater leisure. Despite the transient popularity of anti-consumerist countercultural movements in the 60s and 70s, most people have bought more (and more expensive) stuff instead of taking up more leisure activities. Goods and services such as cars and air travel which would have been the preserve of the wealthy when Bertrand Russell was writing in 1932, are today available to a greater cross-section of the population. There are also entirely new types of goods to spend money on (e.g. computers and smartphones) which would have been unfathomable in Russell’s time.
The Refusal of Work
This desire for greater consumption and income, however, is not universal. In his book The Refusal of Work, sociologist David Frayne interviewed people who are opting to work less and live more. Some would take on intensive work for long enough to save up money, and spend it going traveling. When the money ran out, they’d find another job and start again. Others were choosing to work part time to pursue hobbies and other pursuits such as writing, or making art. Although not all of the participants were working a 4 hour day, what they had in common was their willingness to forgo income for increased leisure. Although still a minority preference, two recent cultural phenomena point to a growing desire for a better balance between work and leisure.
The Legacy of Bertrand Russell: The Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting
The first cultural phenomenon is what has been termed ‘The Great Resignation’ or ‘Big Quit’. Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic in 2020, record numbers of people have been quitting their jobs, reaching a climax during 2021. True, not all of these resignations were motivated by a desire to have more leisure. Many were motivated by poor pay and working conditions. However, many were motivated by a desire to find work that fit with people’s desire for a better work-life balance, for example remote work which enables them to reduce commuting and live where they want to live.
The second cultural phenomena is the rise of quiet quitting. Although there is some debate about how prevalent quiet quitting is, and how new the phenomenon is, Quiet quitting refers to continuing to do one’s job, but doing only the minimum required. In other words, doing one’s job mediocrely . Quiet quitters go through the motions, but are psychologically disengaged from the task at hand. They don’t volunteer for extra tasks, and don’t let on that they aren’t busy. Quiet quitting, like the great resignation, is a way of re-evaluating one’s relationship to work. It is motivated by avoiding burnout, and seeking jobs that work with people’s desire for increased work-life balance. Instead of seeing work as the only source of self-worth available to us, and consequently over-investing, quiet quitting is a way of seeing it as a means of supporting what is truly valuable: leisure time.
Although the 4 hour work day hasn’t materialized yet, there is hope for Russell’s plea for increased idleness and a renewed valuation of leisure in these two recent tendencies. Whether it will come to pass depends on those who have better bargaining positions in market economies making our leisure expectations clear, quitting jobs which leave little time for leisure, and perhaps (as a consequence) becoming content with the reduced income and consumption power that comes from increased leisure.
Russell, Bertrand. (2004) In Praise of Idleness. Routledge Classics., London.