It’s Not About Work, It’s About Autonomy

This Vox explainer gave me whiplash when after six paragraphs of examples of people rejecting the concept of work, the seventh paragraph begins “Activists are hopeful that the current pro-worker momentum can be harnessed into legislative or union-based gains.”

Anti-work does not equal pro-worker.

And Gen Z is not the first to reject work and crave autonomy.

From Samuel Johnson’s essay series “The Idler,” to R. L. Stevenson’s “Apology For Idlers,” Walter Benjamin’s flâneur, to Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness,” to Bob Black’s “The Abolition of Work,” to Joshua Glenn’s “Glossary for Idlers,” there has been an anti-work advocacy.

And, it’s not about work. It’s about autonomy.

This quote could have just as easily appeared in 1980 at the height of stagflation and punk’s “no future” mantra –

“Many zoomers entered the workforce during the pandemic-affected economy, amid years of stagnant wages and, more recently, rising inflation. ‘My dad got a job straight out of high school, saved up, and bought a house in his 20s,’ said Anne Dakota, a 21-year-old receptionist from Asheville, North Carolina, who earns minimum wage. ‘I don’t even think that’s possible for me, at least with the current money I make.'”

In 1980 I sure as hell didn’t believe I would have a life-time job, a pension, or even social security. Since then I’ve seen the economy crater a few times, pensions are (mostly) a thing of the past, unions have been gutted, and every year there are those in power attempting to remove what little social safety net we have left in the US.

And for this quote, I call bullshit —

“For decades, if not centuries, this was not the case. Work has been — and continues to be — a major aspect of the American identity. ‘Most people identify themselves as workers,’ said Damaske. ‘It’s an identity that adults willingly take on.'”

Do they, though? Do they willingly take on their identity of worker? What is the alternative they might choose? Inheriter? Houseless? Mmmmm, I’m running out of ideas here. What other identity can you choose besides a worker? Stay-at-home parent (supported by a worker)?

In his introduction to Idler’s Glossary, Mark Kingwell writes —

 “A slacker is not a true idler because he is engaged in the project of avoiding work, and as long as that remains the case, work’s dominion remains unchallenged …

The “genius of idling is not its avoidance of work but rather its construction of a value system entirely independent of work.” [emphasis added]

Until we start discussing the desire people have for autonomy, instead of the desire they have for not working crummy jobs, we remain locked in the same fruitless discussion.

The Vox article goes on to explain that actually people just want fulfilling work, and are not actually, you know, anti-work.

I say that autonomy to do what you want often looks a lot like work, but the motivating purpose is different. As a first step let’s cap inheritance at say… $10 million. Ok. $20 million. That should give you a cushion to live on comfortably for your entire life if you desire. Anything more than that cannot be inherited, but goes into a giant pool to pay for education, health care, child care, whatever we need to expand the opportunities for autonomy. Who knows? That might produce a boom of entrepreneurship and artistic creation, as well as a renaissance in leisure.

“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.” – Ursula K. Le Guin

(100 Days of Blogging: Post 085 of 100)

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