Is Not Working Worse Than Working Less?

Noted sociologist Howard S. Becker

Noted sociologist Howard S. Becker

A relatively uninteresting study came out earlier this year stating that people who are over 40 are going to benefit more if they work less than 40 hours. Their ideal time is more likely to be around 25 hours a week (see the actual study here) instead of 40 and any higher than that would be even more detrimental.

But less interesting than these predictable results is this quote:

However, if working 25 hours is not possible, what’s the next best thing—a 40-hour work week or not working at all? If you guessed the former, you’re correct, according the study’s findings. However, if we’re talking working over 55 hours per week, that’s worse yet for cognitive functioning than not working at all.

How is an anti-work advocate to make sense of this?

Part of this is something developed by the sociologist Howard S. Becker called labeling theory:

social groups create deviance by making rules whose infraction creates deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labeling them as outsiders. From this point of view, deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by other of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender.’ The deviant is one to whom that label has been successfully applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label.”

In other words, society helps create deviance by labeling it.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t ever label actions or deem a given action moral or immoral but that we should be really careful of what actions we associate with either. Partly because people can think that since they do action A that has bad label B then they should act bad more generally. A similar phenomenon is known as stereotype threat.

Take for example people who do drugs or sell them to make money. I’m sure some of them are genuinely bad people who take advantage of other people’s addictions. Yet I also find it plausible that many within this subgroup there are some folks who simply have no other choice but to sell drugs to make money. These people aren’t getting involved to manipulate or harm others but simply because state-capitalism has enforced artificial barriers to competition on people.

But these people may realize, “Oh hey, I’m doing drugs and that’s associated with being bad. Other people have taken it to mean that and therefore if I want to survive I have to adopt to this mentality as well. Even if I’m not a genuinely bad person, I have to act like it because society has basically made it so that’s how I best fit in.”

What does all of this have to do with not working?

Well people who don’t work are unemployed which is a dirty enough word on its own.

As L. Susan Brown in Does Work Really Work? writes:

To answer “nothing” to the question “what do you do?” is emotionally difficult and socially unacceptable. Most unemployed people would rather answer such a question with vague replies like “I’m between contracts” or “I have a few resumes out and the prospects look promising” than admit outright that they do not work. For to not work in our society is to lack social significance — it is to be a nothing, because nothing is what you do.

There’s a stigma with being unemployed and this likely demotivates people, ironically, to work.

On the other hand, it can also motivate people to work really hard at finding work. Many people have said that “finding a job is like a job in of itself” and I have found this to be true. If it is the case though, then unemployed people (at least the ones looking for jobs which is likely many of them given our current economic realities) are hardly lazy.

But even if they were, so what? This stigma against non-work and laziness doesn’t deserve any of the merit or attention it gets in our society. Laziness can be a great way to get things done on top of a good way to get yourself together, redirect your efforts to something more meaningful or bask in whatever is happening right now. It’s a great way to help you stay present with the moment and make sure that you’re as calm as you can be in that particular time.

Being unemployed isn’t as uncommon or at least as uncommonly known about as it used to which may have helped the stigma behind it. There’s less surprise when people say they are out of work but looking for a job or just simply don’t have a job and are dealing with that. Which isn’t to say there’s no stigma or that the stigma that is there isn’t important to address.

Yet the question of “What do you do?” is still  ubiquitous and is almost always referring to “What do you do for a living” which isn’t the sum of all of our activities, last I checked. We play, we invent games with each other, we create things, we bask in the creations of others and we try to mix and match all of these things until we’ve found our solace and our joy.

When people ask us “What do we do?” they are inherently devaluing our lives, even if it may be unintentional. And I’m not suggesting we take umbrage with that, because everyone does it and there’s no real reason in getting angry at a common question that is almost never intended with any malice.

Instead, my go-to strategy with this sort of thing is always humor and absurdism. Telling people “Oh a little of this and that” or maybe “Well, I play an instrument, video games and I enjoy writing poetry from time to time. Oh! You meant what do I do for a living? Well, breathing exercises, mostly.”

I’m not the best at practicing this but I’m going to try to get better.

Because if I work hard enough at it, I’m sure my hard work will pay off.


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