Embracing Leisure

When we work ourselves to exhaustion, it's not surprising we don't have much productive capacity left.

Photo by Getty Images/erhui1979.

“I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached.”

There’s a lot packed into that sentence, which is as relevant today as when it was written 86 years ago. It comes from Bertrand Russell’s 1932 essay, "In Praise of Idleness." In it he urged us to realize we have been duped into working more than we have to. Rather we should work no more than four hours a day, and spend the rest of our time embracing leisure and “idleness”.

But first things first: is there really too much work done in the world? Given what we hear from politicians and economists, it seems like there’s not enough work being done. Economic growth is our society’s overriding imperative. Unemployment is the enemy. “Jobs, jobs, jobs” is the mantra.

But if you step back and put our present condition into historical perspective, things start to look a little different. It could be said that there are two distinct periods in economic history: the phase from the dawn of time until about 1650; and the phase from 1650 until now. In the former, nothing changed for centuries at a time. Our ancestors lived an existence barely above subsistence in conditions we’d consider tantamount to crippling poverty. They had to toil in order to survive.

Any innovations or improvements in productivity typically translated into increases in population, and these extra people sucked up all the additional goods, leaving everyone in basically the same state. In fact, according to Max Roser, economist at the University of Oxford and founder of Our World in Data, people living in England in 1270 had the same average income as people living in England in 1650: a paltry $1,700 per annum in today’s money. As Russell pointed out, any surplus that was generated was funneled to the elites—the warriors, priests and land owners—eventually enabling small segment of population to flourish (and work less) at the expense of the masses.

6/20/2019 3:46:30 AM

Does this mean we should overlook the fact Bertrand Russell was a Eugenicist who wanted to issue color coded procreation tickets to keep the masses from procreating with his darling elites? Sounds like another plan to convince everyone to do nothing with their lives, so the elites can cash in all the winnings.

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