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?