It was not always this way. In 1963, the German writer Heinrich Böll published a fictional story of a visitor to a small fishing village somewhere in the West of Europe. His visitor carries with him the full conviction of the work ethic. Spotting an apparently lazy local fisherman resting in his boat, the visitor asks impatiently why the man doesn’t spend more time fishing, catching more, eventually building a lucrative multi-vessel business. With that effort, he could hope to work his way towards time away from work. It falls to the simple but not so naive fisherman to point out the irony of that recommendation. With no pressure to make something of himself, the fisherman is free — enviably so. He has what many seek: his own idle time. He has it by default. His circumstances may have been remarkably fortunate, yet Böll’s story captures a recognizable time when work was considered a necessary evil, second in value to other goods like friendship, rest and community.
It may be unrealistic to believe we could return to a world like that. And there are dangers of wishful thinking in believing such a world was ever successful in meeting the fundamental range of human needs — our emotional, material and intellectual needs. Our unqualified belief in progress especially affords it little credibility. There is nothing commendable about leaving all work to others, or in pretending that no level of work is essential to survival. Economic precariousness is not just dangerous to one’s health but also psychologically draining. (It is telling that a common perception of people out of work or down on their luck — that they are lazy — is infected with the supposed moral virtue of busyness.) In society today, we cannot forget these facts — and realize that it will be difficult to decouple ourselves from our deep socialization as useful workers.