"I am a man of leisure," says the guy sitting next to me.
We are at a job interview. The irony is not lost on this guy, whose name is Steve. Nice to meet you, Steve, I say; you are the first person I have met since coming to New York. Steve wears his thick shiny black hair long and in a pony tail. He has on wire-rimmed glasses, and a Fu Manchu goatee that he pulls off because he's Chinese. He looks like a Beatnik poet who is Chinese.
Steve and I are in our mid-twenties. We have assembled with a group of other guys of the same age in a waiting room on an upper floor of an office building somewhere in Manhattan. Outside you can hear the pitter patter of rain, which splatters against the panes. Some of us are still hung-over from the turn of the millennium celebrations. It's January of 2000. We all have answered the ad put in the paper by this temp agency which provides work to catering companies in the NYC area. I happen to own a tux and to have brought it with me to New York, so I get the job. Steve doesn't, so instead he gets a part-time gig at a Soho bar, where he drinks more Guinness than he sells and is proud about it.
After the interview Steve and I went out for drinks, and thereafter hung out some. He was well-traveled and cultured and such a great conversationalist he could make a street lamp blush in broad daylight. We took long subway rides, met girls, saw plays, smoked cigarettes, played cards. We visited book stores and strolled on the Upper West Side discussing our favorite poets. I who don't have an appreciation for much poetry like it when I was with Steve. Because I liked him and I liked what we were doing, being men of leisure.
Ever since then a man of leisure is what I've been, even when working 12 hour days. Because you see, being a person of leisure isn't about your circumstances. It's a mindset. It's in how you move, because you're never rushed. And never bored. You are either born the leisurely sort or you are not. Sure being of independent means helps. But I doubt whether it can be fully taught. And it's certainly not taught at school. But being a person of leisure is something you may want to learn. Because you could have a lot more time on your hands and soon.
There is a great article on the subject in this month's issue of The Atlantic. It's not specifically on leisure. Quite the opposite. Written by Derek Thompson and entitled "A World Without Work" it's about the much-heralded, hotly-debated and ambivalently-awaited end of work as we know it, which is coming soon. And you know what less work means. More leisure for those that care to partake. It's one option at least. There's also the TV.
Because in case you haven't noticed, machines are making workers obsolete. Businesses are replacing employees with computers and software. Nine-to-fivers, once such an emblem of America, are becoming a thing of the past. The share of prime-age men (25-54 years old) who are neither working nor looking for work has doubled since the late 70s. And since the turn of the century, more recent college grads are "underemployed," a phrase used to denote jobs that historically haven't required a degree - like waiting tables, bartending, and managing a restaurant, all of which I did in or after finishing college. While more people are attending college, the real wages of college grads have fallen by nearly 10 percent since 2000. And if that's not enough good news, more preparation is required for a lower starting wage.
Oxford University has forecasted recently that machines might be able to perform half of all U.S. jobs in the next two decades. Even jobs which are deemed least likely to be "computerisable," like psychologists, are not immune: Research suggests people are more honest when they believe they are confessing their troubles to a computer, because there is no moral judgement from your OS. So soon we might kiss goodbye to shrinks. Is that a good thing?
Good or bad, like other jobs, such as drivers (replaceable by self-operating cars) and deliverers (replaced by drones) psychologists seem to be going the way of the horse. And the most common jobs like sales, service and office work, are highly susceptible to automation. As automatons replace tellers and cashiers, even concierges (thanks Air BNB), there will be less work to go around. Like there is for the horse, an animal that flourished in the age of farming and fighting, but when tractors rolled onto farms in the early 20th century, and tanks replaced beasts on the battlefield, the horse population underwent a steep decline, falling nearly 90 percent by the McCarthy era. Some people like horse meat. I hear it's gamey.
How should one feel about a world without work? What exactly is work? For starters, it's a four-letter word. But if you want an exact definition, use Peter Frase, who is a respected author on the subject. He says work is the means by which the economy produces goods, the means by which people earn income, and an activity that lends meaning or purpose to many people's lives. But let's face it, most jobs are boring, repetitive and not challenging.
Some "post-workists," a group to which Frase himself belongs, welcome the end of labor. America has an irrational belief in work for work's sake, they say. Yet 70 percent of Americans don't feel engaged by their current job. Any video game that involved doing what a cashier does, scanning and sliding and packaging items, would be deemed mindless and undignified, and yet there are about 3 million Americans who do this for 40 hours a week and call it a living.
The very things that are necessary for well-being - things like purpose, meaning, identity, fulfillment, creativity and autonomy - are absent in the average job. And the jobs that are meaningful, like raising children, and caring for the sick and elderly, are generally underpaid. In a future society these "post-workers" see community cohesion developing as people spend more time helping family and neighbors, either for free, as favors or in exchange for similar kindnesses. The result is pride and stability and possibly a "golden age of well-being."
Thompson points out that the word school after all derives from the Greek word meaning leisure. How we have strayed from the spirit of education and its result, occupation! Where once we taught people to be free, now we have made education compulsory and teach them to pursue a line of work whose mindless monotony resembles less life's dream and more paid slavery.
But do not fear, for more free time is near. The problem is, most don't know what to do with recreation, since we have been conditioned from early youth to sit at a cramped desk performing grudge work for the majority of the day. When men are out of work, how do they spend their time? The author notes that the "lion's share" of it goes to watching TV, browsing the Web, and sleeping. Sounds like somebody's depressed. And retired seniors spend about 50 hours watching TV each week - that is when they're not in stuffy casinos pumping slots to swallow their loose change and life savings. Any world where this is fun sure is f@@!d up!
In today's America, the unemployed typically suffer from social isolation and identity crises. They have lost the very thing (a job) most seem to need to recover from the emotional trauma of losing a job. People crave a routine, an absorbing distraction and a daily purpose, all of which work provides. But there are better ways to pass one's time.
Not if you ask most Americans, who work more today than 30 years ago. And yet while at work people often wish they could be someplace else. Watch the movie Office Space again if you need this fact reinforced. I just think back to my days as a teacher or doctor. So why not quit? Because it is at the office, where we feel bored and miserable, that we actually feel less anxiety than when not on the clock. It's called "the paradox of work": most people are happier complaining about their jobs than enjoying free time.
Why? Because culture has conditioned Americans to feel guilty when not productive. Call it the Puritan work ethic, who knows. But we must ask ourselves, is what we do at work really being productive, in the sense of producing a good or service that is essential or even beneficial? Serve up junk food, manufacture another type of cereal or video game or app or toy that vie for more of our already strung-out attentions in this information-saturated, hyper-distracted consumerist nightmare of an age. Can you tell I feel strongly about this subject? Or, make paper!
Is what you do for work really necessary, or would the world be better off without your good and service, the world including the one who provides such good or service, I mean you. Unless your job is to provide food (either for thought or for the tummy) then probably not - to the first question.
Over the past century people have spent more time at work in front of screens. But as computers take over work, the pendulum will swing back away from software to hardware, to things, and people, and relationships. In a world where robots do most of the work, humans can be free to play, draw and even talk to each other again, face to face.
Perhaps decades from now modern living will strike us as curiously backward, an aberration, with its "religious devotion to overwork in a time of prosperity, its attenuations of family in service to job opportunity, its conflation of income with self-worth."
The goal should always be to pursue a calling not merely for pay or status, but for the inherent benefit of the work itself. Even if work never disappears but only diminishes, more leisure time should be greeted with open arms, since the necessity of salaried jobs and the time commitment they require so stringently prevents a person from immersing himself in pastimes we so enjoy. It's time to truly live.
Because you see, in a world without work, we can all be free like my friend Steve to be gentlepersons of leisure, which is defined as "a person of independent means or whose time is free from obligations to others."
Don't be concerned if being leisurely is not so leisurely at first. Why should it come naturally, considering how we were raised. Maybe schools will start teaching their students how to go out and have a good time. To frolic and play and laugh until the tears stain our face. And discuss poetry. And maybe drink some Guinness. But only if you're old enough.
This pint is for you Steve. After I finish I think I'll go plant something.