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April 27, 2015 | by  | in Features |
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The Importance of Being Idle

Working at a commercial law firm over summer was the first time I’d ever engaged in conventional full time work. While some love to demonise the experience and the corporate world generally, I actually really liked the people and enjoyed the work. Even so, there’s no denying that firms in the corporate sector exemplify anti-idling culture. This manifested in long to very long hours for some teams, a general vibe that you should be working literally all the time, and people staying in the office after 5pm even when they didn’t really have any work to do. Ultimately I couldn’t escape the feeling that this isn’t how people should have to live.

The phenomenon of the 40-hour work week is something most of us don’t think too much about when we’re at high school and university. Rather, as teenagers/young adults we feel a palpable sense of freedom and infinite possibility. There is so much time to decide what we want to do with our lives and who we want to be and, simultaneously, lots of time to sleep in, mess around and do whatever we feel like. But eventually it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid or ignore the fact that you have to start making concrete decisions about your life and become an adult (gross). And usually this results in choosing a career and working full-time, looking back on your university years as a brief, beautiful hiatus before reality hit and you had to start being responsible.

There’s no disputing that life changes once you leave university. But fundamentally I have a problem with the idea that we have to become wage slaves in order to survive. Because working nine to five, five days a week—along with transport time, getting prepared for work etc.—is actually a lot, with the culture of busyness we live in only getting worse. And this culture of work is definitely not exclusive to corporate law or business—it is prevalent across all fields from politics and social activism to the creative industries. The only difference is that where big business demands long hours because of profit, cultural institutions require them due to chronic under-funding and under-resourcing.

Sara has been working as a freelance journalist for the last few years, since she graduated from her BA majoring in English. Although she only works 24-30 paid hours a week, the unpaid work she does often sees her working much more. Sara is lucky in that her schedule is often up to her, and that sometimes journalism is cruisy as the hours can vary quite wildly. However, she still highlights the pressure to be busy as “one of the biggest stress factors in my life.”

“I think it is my own expectations, but suspect that they have been heavily influenced by the workaholic culture that spans the globe. I’ve always been someone who hates missing opportunities,” she says. “The concept of FOMO has become a new neurosis for anyone in the digital generation, where social, occupational and creative events are paraded in front of everyone. And I think we all feel a certain pressure to be a part of as many of those events and projects as we can, even if it isn’t healthy or productive.” In her view, “working for the sake of it is definitely a part of the culture that should be stripped, but I often see my work culture moving in the opposite direction.”

Similarly, Hannah works approximately 45 hours a week as the director of an art gallery and considers it “normal to work long hours in the cultural industry”. As the sole representative of a non-profit arts organisation, she’s usually in the gallery at 9am, sometimes working until 8pm and often without a lunchbreak.

Similar to Sara, Hannah identifies the pressure to be busy as coming from both within and outside herself—“because I am at an early stage in my career whereby the more work I do now, the more I am able to say I’ve done for the space and my own development… the only expectations are my own, but they come with the anxiety that I am being constantly watched by the wider community and funders. So I am being driven by my community and a certain social fear I suppose.”

None of which is to say that we shouldn’t work at all. Doing interesting work can be immensely fulfilling and give one a purpose in life, and none of that is bad. But having to work to the point where it impacts on your health, relationships and general sense of contentment and curiosity is not only bad, but denies us the chance to be as human as we fully could be. There are a million other varied and interesting things we can do outside of our chosen vocation through which we can learn new skills and broaden our experience of the world and understanding of ourselves—exploring nature, learning bike maintenance, practicing meditation, travelling. And this is really another one of the biggest problems with traditional work—it pigeonholes us into practicing a particular set of skills when it is variety that really excites us and makes us truly active participants in our own learning and development.

This obviously goes against conventional wisdom. One of the basics of economics is that specialisation equates to efficiency and wealth. And let’s be honest—you wouldn’t want your doctor or lawyer not to be a specialist. However, the appeal of acquiring a wider range of skills, and thus experiences, is undeniable. In Heinlein Vassallo’s words:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.”

There is a difference between good idling and ennui. It is easy to feel intimidated by the sense of having too much time and not knowing what to do with ourselves. After all, the work we do is a huge part of our identity and also prevents us from thinking too much about those icky, existential questions. However, the fact that such a distinction exists suggests that idling is something which has to be learned. As Bertrand Russell said in his 1932 essay In Praise of Idleness, “The wise use of leisure… is a product of civilization and education.” Similarly, Russell advocates more active forms of leisure—obviously binge-watching Game of Thrones for days in a row is going to make you feel depressed. In contrast, actively learning new skills and producing things is how we idle intelligently.

After being a poor student for too long, the disposable income that comes along with working full time is also incredibly seductive. And that’s not entirely a bad thing. But what people often fail to realise is that money is only one form of currency. Time is also a currency—one that we trade for an income, but that we generally don’t value as much. Good idling needs a lot of time—you are not idling if you’re stressed and exhausted.

The philosophical roots of idling

This might sound like hippy ramblings, but idleness has a long and illustrious philosophical history, going back to the Roman stoic Lucius Seneca (c. 4 BC–65 AD) and his essay On the Shortness of Life. In his words, “there is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn.”

Bertrand Russell called for a four-hour workday in In Praise of Idleness. He contrasted this to the working hours typical of the industrial revolution, where people were working 12 to 15 hours a day—seen by many in the upper classes as a means of keeping the poor busy and docile. And this is still relevant today—so long as we are kept busy and tired, we also have no energy or time to actively engage in democratic society. Over time we have fought for greater rights in respect of our working lives—public holidays, sick leaves, breaks and shorter working days. Similarly, there was a time when a more idle life didn’t seem preposterous or disturbing, but inevitable.

Back in 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that we would eventually be working 15 to 20 hour weeks. The idea was that technology would advance to the extent that our basic needs would be catered for—only a fraction of the work we did previously would be necessary for us to provide for ourselves. Obviously, this hasn’t happened, arguably because the larger system of business and commerce profits from having employees work as much as possible. Similarly, this system benefits from having an over-worked populace, because when we’re tired and have no time we’re much more likely to pay for food, objects and entertainment, rather than growing or creating them ourselves.

Paul Lafargue (Karl Marx’s son-in-law) argued that three hours a day would be sufficient in his 1883 work The Right to be Lazy. Lafargue believed that the love of work, fundamental to capitalism, is a delusion—basically it’s a ploy by the powerful to make us agree to and even love our enslavement. While this appears to verge on conspiracy theory territory, there’s no doubt that our addiction to work benefits the powerful, whether it’s the owners of the companies we work for, or the ones whose products we buy—because in our time impoverished culture, we value convenience and expensive entertainment so highly. The argument is not exclusively communist—in fact it was contrary to much socialist thinking of the time, which praised the nobility of proletarian work.

A contemporary equivalent of these thinkers is the Idler Academy, one of the few modern-day organisations to encourage an idle existence. Based in London, the Academy has a shop, produces the book/magazine series The Idler, and offers seminars as well as online courses on idling and various other skills. Within this context idling is always a part of a larger vision for the good life—where one is a part of a meaningful and supportive community, active and curious in one’s learning (rather than a passive consumer of knowledge, as in much of the current university education system) and generally doing cool stuff, whether it’s learning the ukulele or discussing philosophy.

The Idler’s Guide to Survival

So how are we to navigate the world when we have an appreciation for idling and a desire to practice it, but are also confronted with practical necessity? Much like knowing how to live, there is no straightforward answer to this and yet, bar some kind of Socialist revolution in the near future, it’s a territory we’re all going to have to navigate.

Many idlers suggest making real your bucolic, Henry Miller-inspired fantasies. Buy a boat and sail around the country, mooring at whichever piece of land takes your fancy. Build a cottage in the midst of nature and forage for kawakawa, fern root and other native plants. And so on. Sounds nice, but for most people difficult to the point of unachievable, given the amount of resources it would take to achieve. At the very least, you’ll need a certain amount of money and a lot of ingenuity to get there. Thus, one of the most common themes in the idler’s guide to life is that one should reject materialism in favour of cheaper, more authentic alternatives:

  • Only buy things you will actually use.
  • Use whatever you buy for as long as you possibly can.
  • Repair rather than replace.
  • Make things rather than buying them new.
  • Purchase second-hand.

Such practices are made difficult by the fact of planned obsolescence—the fact that since the 1950s, objects have been designed to break more quickly so as to facilitate increased consumption. As a result of this, it can often be cheaper and much easier to buy new things than to repair or make them yourself. However, perceived obsolescence, that feeling that you must have new stuff, is something you do have control over. A certain financial acuity is also helpful—living frugally, saving and investing your money wisely so that you can live for as long as possible without working.

Jacob Lund Fisker of The Idler puts it thus—if you live off 50 per cent of your income and save the other 50 per cent, that’s an additional year you don’t need to work. This starts paying off even more if you learn to be happy living off 10 per cent of your income—you will then be able to abstain from working for nine years. And so on. The Idler also suggests starting your own business, an alternative that allows you to manage your own time and work for yourself, rather than for the benefit of someone else. In one respect this seems contrary to idling: starting a business is for the most part pretty stressful. But if idleness is a philosophy concerned with living an autonomous, creative existence, starting up fits comfortably into its paradigm. Regardless, these approaches all presuppose a certain level of privilege—if you’re working on minimum wage and supporting a family, they’re probably going to be outside the realms of the possible.

For those of us operating in the conventional world of work, things get a lot trickier as convention dictates we work a 40-hour week, and it can be pretty difficult to negotiate around this. I will say, however, that the first step to achieving good idling is to understand its nature. This is a philosophy with a rich theoretical underpinning, which encourages us to empower ourselves through engaging actively with the world rather than outsourcing our autonomy to our bosses, and our lives to convenience and passive entertainment. It is not something we should feel guilty for doing, but rather it is our right to experience ourselves and the world as fully as possible—something we can only achieve if we aren’t constantly stressed and busy.

As Kurt Vonnegut so eloquently put it, “We are here on earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”

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