Should we work?
The answer to this question for most of our human history has been obvious. Survival required it. But slowly, the life of leisure has become possible for a greater number of people.
The problem with possibilities is that they always create the dilemma of choice.
The Rise of the Life of Leisure
Up until 500 years ago, only a rare few (I need to find estimates) among the estimated 107 billion humans that have lived, had the an economic option of not working to survive. Even then, I suspect, most of those people were in a social position that required it. The leader of a people group might have enough wealth to avoid working, but what would happen to the group, or them, if they stopped leading?
In the past few hundred years, the concept of a life of leisure has become increasingly feasible for some individuals. Technological innovation has allowed us to produce more and create impact at a larger scale. Financial innovation has allowed us to distance ourselves from the spikes of seasons. Legal and government innovations have allowed us more stability and predictability.
By combining all of these improvements, it has became possible for a self-made laborer to produce enough wealth as to stop working at some point in their life and live off of the fruits of their past labor. They could then spend their days as they please, pursuing hobbies, enjoying social time, or working for the joy of it rather than as a necessity.
Over the past hundred or so years that concept went from an idea for the few to something common in leading nations. In 1935, 80 years ago, the U.S. government took strides to make it more common by implementing Social Security. The concept in the United States is almost a given for many now. It isn’t as much a matter of ‘if’, as of ‘when’. But even that ‘when’ is becoming earlier in life.
In the past 20 years, the at which retirement is becoming feasible for a large swath of the population is decreasing. High leverage industries like software are creating millionaires in their thirties and forties. Some estimate that 9% of American households have more than $1 million in wealth. An estimated 20% of self made millionaires are under the age of 50. A recommended 4% withdrawal, $1 million produces $40k per year almost indefinitely – about what the median American can live off of. Using some rough math across these three data points and we see that there are some 1-2 million Americans that could stop working before their 50th birthday. A big increase in the feasibility of the life of leisure.
Thus the question – should we work?
The Change For An Individual
For the individual of means, should they consider the life of leisure? Is there something in us that inherently needs to work? What do they give up by leaving the world of the working? Can we handle those adjustments?
In my experience talking with those that have retired, they miss parts of it. They miss the camaraderie, challenges and feeling of value creation. But those can be replaced in the life of leisure. Look at Benjamin Franklin who knew he’d earned enough money to live comfortably and spent his time engaging in scientific research, politics and social engagements – finding camaraderie & challenge while creating lasting value.
For every Franklin there is a someone that spends their nest egg sustaining their ability to watch sunsets, tv and the bob at the end of a fishing line. A life of leisure in the fullest sense of the word.
Then again, there are millionaires that want to be decamillionaires and keep working just as hard as before. Weather to sustain their increased standard of living, pad their accounts or through some Puritan work effort that finds no need to slow down. The life of leisure isn’t for everyone.
The Change For A Nation
Thinking on the larger scale, what will we do as this trend continues? Where should we be pointing our nation? What will we do when we reach the point where none of humanity needs to labor?
Our feelings towards labor, and whether it is necessary for the individual, will influence how we shape the world around us – how we treat the economy and social programs. How we set our dreams and the standards we calibrate our lives against.
Should everyone work? Is it inherently good for humans to labor? Should we find jobs for everyone, even if they aren’t needed, because work itself is good? Should we continue the WPA and build roads and tunnels and parks even when they don’t seem fully necessary, to ensure everyone has a job?
Or should no one work? If (when) we can automate our survival, should we spend our energy elsewhere? Should we stop chasing progress and reap the fruits of our hard work? Should the government implement the leisurely life – enacting programs that start at the ends and work their way towards the middle – encouraging retirement for the old, subsidizing it for the jobless, enforcing it for the criminal?
Should we work? How does our answer to that question affect the plans we have for our own lives and the world we shape around us?
Perhaps we spend too much of our time considering details of the above applications to life without adequately diving in to this mid-level worldview question and adequately forming an opinion. Perhaps there is value in answering it.