The art of not working at work

Something that would have surprised Taylor is that slacking is not always the product of discontent, but also of having too few tasks to fill the hours. According to repeated surveys by, not having “enough work to do” is the most common reason for slacking off at work. The service sector offers new types of work in which periods of downtime are long and tougher to eliminate than on the assembly line: A florist watching over an empty flower shop, a logistics manager who did all his work between 2 and 3 p.m., and a bank clerk responsible for a not-so-popular insurance program are some examples of employees I talked with who never actively strived to work less. Like the civil servant of Menden, they offered their services, but when the flow of assignments petered out, they did not shout it from the rooftops.

Many would say that the underworked should talk to their bosses, but that doesn’t always help. I spoke with a Swedish bank clerk who said he was only doing 15 minutes’ worth of work a day. He asked his manager for more responsibilities, to no avail, then told his boss of his idleness. Did he get more to do? Barely. When I spoke with him, he was working three-hour days—there were laws that barred any workday shorter than that—and his intervention only added another 15 minutes to his workload.

There’s a widely held belief that more work always exists for those who want it. But is that true? Everywhere we look, technology is replacing human labor. In OECD countries, productivity has more than doubled since the ’70s. Yet there has been no perceptible movement to reduce workers’ hours in relation to this increased productivity; instead, the virtues of “creating jobs” are trumpeted by both Democrats and Republicans. The project of job creation hasn’t been a complete failure, but the fact of unemployment still looms.