Post-work post

Almost exactly six years ago, I quit my day job to make a go of it as a professional writer. I hoped that my savings would keep me afloat long enough for me to get a toe-hold and start supporting myself through what I wanted to do. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t happen, and I wound up day jobbing again four years later (and four years poorer, too).

Looking back, this wasn’t a regretful experience by any means — but neither is it one I’d casually recommend, or even recommend at all. I had both plenty of free time and my most productive period ever, but output alone doesn’t lead to income, and the increasing sense of money being an issue wasn’t fun. I wrote a novel that was published by a small US press, but it didn’t sell much before the publishers closed their doors (due to financial miscalculations, as it happens), leaving my work in a rights limbo it didn’t really seem worthwhile rescuing it from. I still haven’t.

There was a sweet spot in there where I was working well and enjoying life, but the problems that inevitably arose from not being materially successful meant that, come the end, returning writing to the status of optimistic hobby and myself to regular employment was almost a relief, if a disappointing one. Two years later, I’m basically living hand-to-mouth, doing a job that just about pays enough (well, not really) while allowing me enough time to chase the writing dream.

ANYWAY. Today, I found myself reading Andy Beckett’s long-form article in The Guardian, Post-work: the radical idea of a world without jobs, and I was struck by a point made about how workers reported struggling to make rewarding use of their free time. In the late 70s, a famous experiment that I’d never heard of gave magical electronic devices called “pagers” to roughly eighty workers across various strata of employment, which over the space of a week frequently but randomly interrogated them about their activities and feelings at the time of contact:

The experiment found that people reported “many more positive feelings at work than in leisure”. At work, they were regularly in a state the psychologists called “flow” – “enjoying the moment” by using their knowledge and abilities to the full, while also “learning new skills and increasing self-esteem”. Away from work, “flow” rarely occurred. The employees mainly chose “to watch TV, try to sleep, [and] in general vegetate, even though they [did] not enjoy doing these things”. US workers, the psychologists concluded, had an “inability to organise [their] psychic energy in unstructured free time”.

They quizzed a fairly tiny sample size over a fairly microscopic period of time, so, pinch of salt. Yet my experience of working independence echoed this, to an extent. My first year was basically wasted, at least in terms of creative productivity. Away from the structure that a typical working lifestyle imposed, I wasn’t good at managing myself and my activities. However, I improved: my second year was six times better. Flow. So when I look at that quote, what I think is, “If you give those workers more opportunity to learn how to enjoy independent activities, maybe they will.”

It took me a long time to figure out how to be effective, but once I did, life was great. My output increased and, because I was spending so much time writing, my quality of output did too. The problem, of course, was that I couldn’t manage to create a self-sustaining situation out of what I was doing, and that took its toll. I certainly gained from the overall experience, but by the time I packed it in my productivity had dropped back to the level of that first rough year all over again.

For reasons such as this, the idea of a post-work society (or interim systems like a universal basic income) appeal to me quite strongly. Not because I dream of lying around doing nothing much –that’s often called a holiday, and most people agree that there comes a time when you’re ready for your holidays to end — but because there’s something I’ve become pretty good at doing and I’d like to be able to devote more time to it than I can. The fact this sounds almost criminally selfish even to me shows just how ingrained the “moral” norm of conventional work is, I guess.

One of that article’s well-informed quotees notes that journalists, academics, artists and the like are more easily drawn to the idea of a world without conventional work because their lifestyles would demand much less adaptation than everyone else’s would. Fair point, and there are other issues about UBI that make it sound like nothing but prohibitively expensive wishful thinking.

But there’s a weird imbalance in the assumptions we’re making as a society, especially when many of today’s employment options offer little to no rewards beyond the capacity to maintain a shelter for the things you need, sometimes not even that. Is there no responsibility on the part of employers to help satisfy the other needs of people who spend years of their lives contributing to their project? Is the only possible functioning society one where the majority of jobs have to feel like work, and our interests must be hobbies, if we find time to even conceive of them at all?

Or is that just culturally expensive limited thinking?


Joey Freedom and Free Health For All

Recently, someone named Joe Walsh Freedom had a thing to say about basic human rights:

In a way, I agree. I think healthcare is something that people in a position of power or authority should consider it their default ethical duty to provide, rather than something which those who are not must demand, or have protected from loss. So too daily food, so too a roof. I don’t really understand why a social leader wouldn’t actively want to bestow such things on everyone they could, seems to me that people would love them for it. So, obviously, I don’t really agree with Joe Freedom, whoever he is (probably an American and maybe a comedian, judging by the name).

I genuinely don’t think a job is a right, though — but this is all down to something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If people have the base essentials like health, food and shelter, which only the deliberately short-sighted would consider a bad thing, they have a platform from which to build better lives. When people aren’t forced to compromise to survive, find themselves making bad (or even terrible) decisions to survive, there will inevitably be positive knock-on effects for the society they inhabit. If there are negatives waiting in the wings, I’m not sure what they are.

This is why I think that Basic Income is the way forward: not because it’s freemoney for freeloaders, but because it ensures a survival baseline for all (indirectly including all the commercial providers of those essential resources — see? not a communist right here). Now I recognise that some people in such a system could be satisfied with “merely” surviving, but I don’t think it would be many. If our drive to survive stops being a necessity, we may discover that it was actually just Our Drive — and find it starts pushing us to pursue more valuable activities, things that might benefit more than just our individual lives.

For many people that will mean performing jobs, just like it does now, although suddenly they’d be able to pay for more than medicine, breakfast and rent with their paychecks. For others, well, who knows what they’d do to earn more than the minimum? I guess I should concede the possibility that some might persist in resorting to anti-social measures even in the face of a little unconditional generosity from the state, but I suspect that it won’t be a high percentage.

I think the counter-arguments of people like Joey Freedom boil down to the perspective that these are “Gateway Rights”, and once people have their foot in that door they’ll demand more and more. First it will be Free Netflix, then the right to recreational drugs, a new car every year, and gimme gimme gimme. Eventually we’ll all want to blight the planet or murder with impunity — you know, the kind of perks that only the rich and powerful currently get access to. [/satire]

I don’t think that’s how it would go down. I think Joey Freedom’s perspective is a bit depressing, it doesn’t credit humanity with very much, and isn’t even funny.

He’s not a very good comedian.

One of those ‘issue’ pieces which stupid writers post on their blogs to ruin their reputation in public

I saw a couple of pieces circulating via The Guardian this week about cultural appropriation in fiction. First writer gives a keynote speech and says, more or less, “Hope that concept dies soon, because it’s offensive to me”. Second writer says, more or less, “Hope that writer dies soon, because she’s as offensive to me as cultural appropriation is” (I exaggerate… slightly).

I found both perspectives unhelpful, though the first writer’s sense of absolutism struck me as closer to useful than the second one’s – but then it would, wouldn’t it? Why would I want to accept being restricted to only writing about over-weight hairy-white middle-aged males from a patriarchal society which thinks it’s better than everyone else’s (I exaggerate… slightly) simply because that’s what I am? And if, for example, I write a story about a self-harming woman (which I’m not) or a young Native American (which I’m not) of course I don’t want to see myself as a bad person for doing so… but actually I’m in denial, and a horrible cultural appropriator. Damn.

Well, neither writer was convincing to me. Both take provocative stances to make a point, one not valuable, one not well made. The first argument dismisses or plays upon presumed failures of judgement pro and con, but says little about what a writer entering (for them) “alien territory” should do to be effective in their goal. The second argument equates to a call for protective segregation while laying the fault with other writers, instead of a culture in publishing that may well disadvantage some people’s voices in favour of others, which I didn’t find very helpful.

Fortunately, this morning I read an article called Representing My Equals by Nisi Shawl. Click.

Note: if you really want to read them, the Guardian articles I mentioned at the beginning are these: A and B. And there’s an overview here: C. But if I were you, I’d ignore them and click on the picture.

EDIT: since this post, I’ve also read this piece by Jim C. Hines, which goes a long way to underscoring just how misjudged Lionel Shriver’s speech was (not much point in skipping names now, really). It also includes a handful of really good links at the bottom, including this one.

EDITedit: The Guardian continues adding to this discussion in useful ways.