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Surprise! People Don't Like Working


Here’s a depressing thought: maybe our default condition as humans is to be unhappy. Unemployment understandably breeds despondency, but the only thing we like less than working is lying sick in bed, according to a new study. Bill-paying, house-cleaning, queueing, and even dealing with the tedium of personal paperwork were all preferable to doing one’s job. The WSJ reports:

The researchers collected data by sending [users of an app called Mappiness] random electronic reminders, asking what they were doing and how happy and relaxed they felt at that moment. The average respondent, using a series of menus and swipe commands, checked in with 60 responses. Only answers given within an hour of the reminder were included. […]

The findings aren’t incompatible with the notion that having a meaningful job contributes to one’s well-being and sense of self, Mr. Bryson pointed out. “Although work can be beneficial, it can also stress you out and make you worried and anxious,” he said. “That’s why we normally have to be paid to work in the first place, because in the moment, we’d rather actually be doing anything else.”

This survey is by no means the definitive resource for understanding the happiness of our nation’s workers, but it rings an alarm bell nonetheless. Most people spend the majority of their waking hours working; making those hours less stressful and more gratifying ought to be a priority, for the sake of our collective mental health.

The blue model economy of the 20th century worked, but its big, bureaucratic companies with strict hierarchies were somewhat dehumanizing. That way of organizing how we work is giving way to a more distributed service-based economy. Twenty-first century technology is enabling a move to a new kind of economy, where the basic cost of doing business is reduced. People can now run businesses without a storefront and communicate easily with clients all over the world without massive travel fees or multiple offices. And services, unlike goods, are less costly to store and ship.

This new economy will bring with it changes that could improve our collective attitude toward work: smaller companies, more self-run businesses, more flexible schedules, and greater individual agency. By promoting policies like telework and encouraging more entrepreneurship, we can hasten this shift and create happier workers.

[Abandoned office image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • Corlyss

    “Unemployment understandably breeds despondency”

    Not having money to pay for the things we need and want causes despondency. I doubt seriously that people care very much about where the money comes from. We can see this anecdotally from the powerful evidence that welfare and disability payments have exploded. Why work when someone will give you money for free in return for filing a few papers?

    I was highly skeptical of WRM’s quaint view of the place gainful employment holds in the human psyche, which was discussed at length a few weeks ago. I thought it was based solely on the presence of middle class virtues that are fast disappearing from the landscape as religion, traditional families, and strong male role models become obsolete “life style” choices that few choose. Then I stumbled upon the Nicholas Eberstadt article below. If anything blows a hole in both WRM’s conception of work and indeed the picture of post-WW2 halcyon days, it’s this. We’ve been living with the creeping pathology of the permanent underclass for much much longer than even Charles Murray had thought.

    • Thirdsyphon

      I disagree. I think the desire to do good, useful work and draw meaning from it is intrinsic to human nature itself. The artifacts left behind by our ancestors from every culture, every era, and every region of the globe shine with the unmistakable pride of the men and women who crafted them.

      We’re a social species, and we instinctively want to make a contribution to our society. If human nature was as grim as you claim it is, if we were all just bitter wretches grudgingly doing as little work as possible to survive and our loftiest aspiration was to do nothing at all, then we’d still be living in caves.

    • Jim__L

      35% of the male population out of work??

      This is a recipe for disaster. A single rabble-rouser, who can hold out hope to these men that their problems could be solved by some malignant means, could destroy the country.

      • Corlyss

        All the romantic fantasizing about what work OUGHT to mean to humans doesn’t deal rationally with the numbers of people who don’t have it and don’t appear to want it either. I recall a British critic of their nanny state remarking that there were people who went on welfare as soon as Blair took office and hadn’t worked since. That as 1997. Their kids and grandkids are now on welfare too.

        I understand what EU analysts mean when they talk about “structural unemployment,” i.e., the Europeans are so terrified of inflation that they will pay generation after generation not to work in order to control labor costs. If working is such a great asset to the human psyche, there’s entire swathes of European population that are being denied work’s salutary aspects, not to mention the money they might be making in excess of generous welfare payments and subsidies. I will wait here patiently for signs of their rising up to demand their birthright.

        • Jim__L

          Look at the neighborhoods where unemployment is rife, and tell me that the residents aren’t aware, on some level, that their life is not all it ought to be.

  • USNK2

    I don’t know whether to re-read “Bartleby the Scrivener” or EM Forster’s “The Machine Stops” to get even more despondent than this post.
    Without work, one loses human collaboration, a schedule, feeling useful, and, having worked for several large manufacturers, when they were still manufacturers, it is very gratifying to know you are working to add value and sustain an economy where others also have jobs.
    Walt Kowalski in “Gran Torino” expressed that last point very well, though not in those words.

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