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Zeeshan Aleem Headshot

The Dangers of Viewing Work as Play

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Benjamin Franklin would not be proud. The embodiment of the Protestant work ethic in Max Weber's most famous, pithy monograph, Franklin represented an attitude toward work that coupled industry with frugality, the signature sign of grace according to Calvinist doctrine. Hard work was an end in itself; prosperity was to be achieved quietly, and not spent. But things took a turn, and in the contemporary capitalist order, two exemplars of unceasing devotion to work can be found in the shared martyrdom of commercial hip hop's affluent street hustler and Wall street's investment banker, figures who glory in sacrificing themselves in pursuit of the higher cause of capital, but brandish the fruits of their labor in the most conspicuous manner possible. When Lil Wayne uttered, "Only history I know is Benjamin Franklin," through the $100,000 platinum and diamond grill covering his teeth, he was revealing an attitude toward wealth and life that the mentioned autodidact and serial inventor was likely not fond of.

Then again, these figures are only part of the iconography of today's views of work and wealth. Below the strata of the obscenely wealthy, work and wealth are perceived in different ways. Among the middle class, there it's clear that postwar materialism is no longer in vogue, that suburbia does not hold the same allure. Knowledge workers and creatives increasingly value mobility, experiential payoffs, and social media connectedness. An article in The Atlantic called "The Cheapest Generation" surveys evidence showing that Millennials are far more concerned about keeping up with the tech world than buying houses and cars, like their parents were. The motifs surrounding the hipster and Stuff White People Like demographic -- a group often accused of disguising its wealth -- suggests a longing for originality in a mass-produced world, and a greater concern with cultivating a spectacle of taste and authenticity than wealth itself. It makes sense that a generation growing up in a postindustrial world, without the same economic promise and as the preceding one, opens up new ways of interpreting status.

Despite differing attitudes toward the meaning and display of wealth, there does seem to be a consensus among the Protestants, the hustlers, the bankers and the creatives: limitless work. Today it seems that the pendulum has swung back from before regulated industrialism entrenched itself in the American economy, and the 40-hour work week seems thoroughly quaint. The most striking example of this is in the rapid corrosion of work-life separation for knowledge workers, whose work hours have increased in the past decade, and for whom technological advancement has become a means for extending office work into the domestic sphere. Email before your shower, email after dinner, email at your kid's soccer practice. I used to work at a media outlet where people were afraid to go to the bathroom without their smartphones.

Ironically, the colonization of everyday life by work is often particularly strongly felt by the underemployed and unemployed trying to break into the information economy, which is an essential part of today's economic landscape. Galvin Mueller's meditation on how reality television stages fantasies of work has much to add on this front:

The cost of the liberating autonomy of creative professions is flexibility, which goes hand in hand with precarity. As anyone who has freelanced knows, you simply cannot turn any opportunity down -- and this is the real reason why exploiting yourself on reality TV seems like a natural and obvious choice. Part of the job of the freelancer -- often most of the job -- is finding more work. What Angela McRobbie calls "enforced entrepreneurialism" of the creative career, the requirement to become image/commodity/worker-for-hire, is as obligatory as any wage labor contract.

Putatively, this shift in the length of the workday is a function of the increased palatability of American work: Sitting at a computer is less tiring and allows for more creativity than sitting in an assembly line. Google is known for promising outstanding quality of life to many of its employees, from its cafeterias to its napping pods. Alexander Kjerulf, a consultant who calls himself The Chief Happiness Officer, wrote a book called Happy Hour is 9 to 5. Ideally, the knowledge worker is able to make play out of work.

But reconceptualizing work as fulfilling doesn't alter its ultimate infringement on leisure. Enjoyable work at a desk still takes a toll on the body and the mind. The non-physical nature of labor masks the fact that on average, knowledge workers peak in productivity after their sixth hour of work. But most importantly, no matter how much you love your job, it's time that generally isn't under one's control -- time that could be spent on health, family, friends, community and doing things that can alter the conditions of society. Intellectual freedom in the workplace cannot be mistaken for freedom from the workplace. The former is too often reflected on at the expense of the latter; the former is often about the individual, while the latter has serious consequences for life outside of the individual.

The point I'm making is not original. But in the absence of a force that gives us consciousness of our status as laborers who should seek autonomy, that is, organized labor, the point can probably not be discussed enough. Ultimately, we need to have a discussion about strategies for overcoming these pressures.

This piece was originally published at The Neoprogressive, which can be followed on Facebook here.