“Immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous” What we can learn from the old greats

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Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 09.20.00In 1932, philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote an essay titled In Praise of Idleness. He was writing at a time when only the most affluent in society had the opportunity for leisure time while the poor laboured away in dirty, dangerous and dull work. Today, the situation is quite the opposite: for the first time in history, the most skilled, highest earners in society are working the longest hours. But why is it that those who can afford the most leisure are now taking the least?

It turns out we still have much to learn from the old greats such as Russell and Keynes. Both had distinct yet complementary philosophies on the meaning of work that may help us understand why affluent knowledge workers, with above average pay cheques and already high standards of living, are slaving away to the point of burnout.

The first message is that as a society, we have had a vested interest in seeing work as virtuous. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the virtues of work were extolled by the affluent, upper classes who, according to Russell, preached ‘the dignity of labour [to the poor], while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect.’ The dignity of labour ‘kept adults from drink and children from mischief,’ by distracting them with 15-hour work days. This ideology was reinforced by religious beliefs that the poor were far more likely to go to heaven than the rich, thus their gratification was coming, just posthumously. So what does this mean for today? According to Keynes, despite entire populations moving into higher skill, higher paid work, ‘we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.’ We ascribe status now to those who make valuable contributions to the success of organisations and our ‘busyness’ has become a proxy for that level of contribution. Perhaps then, if we are to resolve the challenge of long working hours, burnout and stress, we need to remind ourselves of the meaning of work, its role in our own lives and in society as a whole. Now that we don’t need work to prevent us all from becoming delinquent on gin and to get into the afterlife, maybe we can reassess how we spend our time?

A second message from the works of the old greats is that how we spend our leisure time is also a point of contention. Both Keynes and Russell stressed the importance of leisure time in pursuing academic and creative interests. According to Russell, the small leisure class in previous centuries ‘cultivated the arts and discovered sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies, and refined social relations […] without the leisure class, man would never have emerged from barbarism.’ Today, we might argue that these activities take place within institutions such as universities, businesses and NGOs. However, Russell warned that when ‘studies are organised […] the man who thinks of some original line of research is likely to be discouraged,’ making it an inadequate substitute for real leisure time.

While our context has changed markedly since the 18th and 19th Centuries, perhaps there is still something to take from this. How can we liberate people to pursue their passions, experiment and innovate under the necessary pre-condition of ‘no required output’? Some companies such as Google and 3G have attempted this with their ‘20% time to play’ rule, allowing employees to spend the equivalent of one day a week following up on an idea they have had on the understanding that it may come to nothing. But maybe, instead of creating rules around when and how much work time people can spend in liberated, free-thinking, we need to accept the fact that people need to be absent, disconnected and unrestricted if we want them to come up with new ideas. In short, we need to acknowledge the value of leisure time and ensure that work does not encroach. Likewise, we need to reserve energy as well as time for the pursuit of leisure or else, according to Russell, ‘pleasures […] become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on [… as a result of our] active energies being fully taken up with work.’

Keynes predicted that we would all be working three-hour days by now. We’ve perhaps ended up closer to Russell’s depiction of ‘a large percentage of the population idle, because we can dispense with their labour by making the others overwork.’ We simultaneously have people working extended hours and persistent unemployment. Could our ineffectiveness at addressing the skills mismatches behind this phenomenon be in part because we can make the skilled overwork? Both Keynes and Russell expected it to take some time to transition into a society that can accept and create value through extended leisure, without blindly pursuing more and more work as an end in itself. But perhaps it’s worth remembering Russell’s departing line: ‘there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.’


Keynes, John Maynard. “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren”. (1930): n. pag. Print.

Russell, Bertrand. “In Praise Of Idleness”. (1932): n. pag. Print.












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