“I haven’t worked my whole life to pay for somebody else,” said the woman in line at the antique store ahead of my husband. At the mention of the sales tax she owed, she began to complain about “moochers.” The next day, we walked past a car with a bumper sticker that professed the same sentiment. Behind us, I could hear another shopper tell the car owner how much she liked the sticker.
Separating people into makers and takers is well-worn rhetoric—predominantly among pro-business pundits and policymakers. The distinction is so culturally engrained that even many of those sympathetic to a strong social safety net are happy to make it contingent on work. Afterall, in the US, it was Democrats who passed “welfare reform” in the 1990s.
Americans love people who work.
Except when they’re organizing for better working conditions. Or when they’re immigrants. Or when they need accommodations for a disability or chronic illness. Or ask for a flexible schedule. Or, god forbid, request a living wage.
When workers get needy or demanding, many of us are happy to label them as takers, too.
My good lords, I must bring to your attention a grave issue that requires our utmost concern. You see, my fellow land-owning gentry, it seems that the invention of mechanized industry, the rise of “capitalism,” and the impact of the recent plague have brought upon us a wave of moral degradation and irredeemable sloth — specifically, nobody wants to be a serf anymore.
This newfound modicum of control the peasant class has over their lives has brought us to a dark new reality in which the serfs have become so lazy that they’ll no longer toil without pay on land they do not own yet can never leave, and instead leach upon the system by searching out more equitable work.— “Nobody Wants to be a Serf Anymore” by Andrew Singleton in McSweeney’s
In the United States, the best someone who doesn’t work can hope for is to be forgotten.
Worse, they become the object of public derision. And worst of all, they can end up completely cut off from social relations and public services.
At this moment of collective hand-wringing about the problems with work today, we can’t seem to decide whether we want people to suck it up and deal with harmful working conditions or whether we hope work—presumably our work—gets a little easier and the rewards a little more concrete.
This might come as a surprise, but there are many more people working today than is required to maintain our standard of living in the United States. Some 37-40% of workers surveyed in the UK were convinced that their jobs contribute absolutely nothing to their places of employment or society at large.
“According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don’t really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens.”— David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory
Instead of our work creating needed value for our communities, our work fuels our economic obsession with growth through consumption.
For many of us, the part we play in the economy is this: we work to shop.
And the work we do provides the means for others to shop.
Yet, we lack the imagination to envision caring for a significant portion of the population who just doesn’t need to work. What’s more, that lack of imagination also contributes to our inability to change how we work and how we manage those who work for us.
I don’t believe we can have a constructive conversation about creating more sustainable work practices without first learning to value those who don’t work.
Speculative fiction writer Becky Chambers tackles this subject in A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, the second of the two Monk & Robot novellas.
Dex is a “tea monk” going through a bit of an existential crisis when they meet up with a robot in the middle of an uninhabited wilderness. That robot is named Mosscap, and it’s the first robot to interact with humans in hundreds of years after its kind achieved sapience and peaced out of human society.
As a monk, Dex works in service of Allalae, the god of small comforts. They find the work profoundly meaningful, but they’re burnt out. Unfortunately, they have a hard time extending the philosophy of their service to themself.
Dex tells Mosscap:
“I say it out loud, all the fucking time. You don’t have to have a reason to be tired. You don’t have to earn rest or comfort. You’re allowed to just be. I say that wherever I go. … But I don’t feel like it’s true, for me. I feel like it’s true for everyone else but not me. I feel like I have to do more than that. Like I have a responsibility to do more than that.”
Like a good robot life coach, Mosscap simply asks, “Why?”
Dex explains that they’ve benefited from others’ care, attention, and labor to be able to do the work they do with such skill.
They feel a responsibility to keep doing it—never “running off into the woods” for a break.
And at that point, Dex says to Mosscap, “[It] doesn’t sit right with me, not at all. I’d just be a leech if I did that.”
Mosscap is puzzled. It wasn’t that much earlier that Dex had explained how humans’ moneyless system of exchange worked and how no one deserved to go without simply because they had the “wrong number next to their name.”
So Mosscap asks, “What’s wrong with being a leech?”
Dex explains that “leech” is a metaphor, a word for someone who benefits from but doesn’t contribute to society. It’s clear that Mosscap is caught off guard. Dex has been kind and accepting as long as the two have been traveling together.
Mosscap challenges the metaphor. “You’re basing that shorthand off of the human relationship to leeches, not the entire experience of being a leech,” it says. “They’re as vital a part of their ecosystem as anything else.”
Dex responds as if Mosscap is overthinking things. And then Mosscap delivers a profound, if low-key, line:
“All parasites have value, Sibling Dex. Not to their hosts, perhaps, but you could say the same about a predator and a prey animal. They all give back—not to the individual but to the ecosystem at large.”
All parasites have value.
Our inability to accept that is one of the reasons we have such a hard time inventing a better system to meet our needs than getting as many people as possible into jobs. It’s why, even as individuals, we have a hard time going slower, taking a rest, or asking for what we need at work.
We’re too afraid to be labeled a “leech” to take our own needs seriously.
“I would like, then, to end by putting in a good word for the non-industrious poor,” writes David Graeber as he concludes Debt: The First 5,000 Years. He acknowledges that the US has a certain respect for the industrious poor—those who work hard and try to raise themselves out of poverty. But those who don’t work are the scapegoat of everyone to the right of AOC.
The institution of work is an unassailable good, a responsibility so naturalized as to be unquestionable. As if paid labor is the only way to contribute to one’s community. As if simply being weren’t enough.
“At least they aren’t hurting anyone. Insofar as the time they are taking off from work is being spent with friends and family, enjoying and caring for those they love, they’re probably improving the world more than we acknowledge. Maybe we should think of them as pioneers of a new economic order that would not share our current one’s penchant for self-annihilation.”
Forward-thinking personal growth experts like to remind us that we shouldn’t derive our self-worth from our professional achievements. We’re worthy no matter our title, salary, or accolades. And I think the vast majority of us would sign off on these beliefs.
But like Dex says, “I don’t feel like it’s true, for me. I feel like it’s true for everyone else but not me. I feel like I have to do more than that. Like I have a responsibility to do more than that.”
Our Immunity to Change
Dex has what psychologist Robert Kegan and education researcher Lisa Laskow Lahey have called an “immunity to change.” It seems that Dex’s existential crisis may be rooted in a conflict between their sincere beliefs in the necessity of small comforts and their personal narrative around hard work denoting value and belonging. Kegan and Lahey’s framework sees this kind of conflict—between a stated desire and a “big assumption”—as the obstacle to change. Until one can accept that the assumption is untrue, it’s difficult to act on the desire for change.
When Mosscap reminds Dex that “all parasites have value,” it attempts to show the assumption is false. It asks Dex to question how they assign value to themself and others. Mosscap knows that Dex won’t be able to do what’s needed to recover from burnout without accepting their value independent of their service.
We have the same problem—not only on an individual level but on a cultural one. We can’t recover from our broken employment systems and unsustainable working conditions until we accept that all members of our community have value. We need a new cultural and personal narrative about the “non-industrious poor,” the “leeches,” and anyone who doesn’t work, whether work is available to them or not.
James Boggs offered just such a narrative in his book, The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook. Boggs proposes a Declaration of Human Rights fit for our Age of Abundance. Even in 1964, Boggs recognized how much the need for work had decreased thanks to technological advances. He writes, “We must accept the plain fact that we are moving towards an automated society and act on the basis of this fact.” Even in the 60s, this wasn’t a new idea, of course—Keynes had predicted a dramatically shorter workweek for future workers back in 1930.
Boggs argues that the very first right in this declaration must be that everyone has “a right to a full life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, whether he is working or not.” And even more forcefully, he continues, “The question of the right to a full life has to be divorced completely from the question of work.”
Our immunity to change concerning work stems from our lack of imagination about the fundamental nature of work.
Our big assumption is that work is how we contribute to society. That work is a prerequisite for belonging. And that it’s through work that we justify our access to the services we have access to. We assume, uncritically, that work is what we do in exchange for the privilege of a life with relatively few discomforts. But what happens when we make life a right rather than a privilege contingent upon work?
We can’t change—that is, adopt more sustainable work practices, take more time off, hold stronger boundaries, find our own pace, accept more help—until we wrestle with this underlying belief. And that means deconstructing how assumptions about how the prevailing work ethic applies to us—even if, like Dex, we know intellectually, passionately even, how it applies to others.
We all have value.
We all contribute. We all give back—if not through paid work, then as part of the human ecosystem.