Peter from Office Space (Picture from Rotten Tomatoes)
What happens when all we live to work. Let’s take a look at two shows that poke fun at the white-collar office worker. In the movie, Office Space, the main character, Peter, is disillusioned with the “rat race” of office life. His work is repetitive and unimportant, and therefore, he feels that his life is also repetitive and unimportant. His life is centered on his job. He lives to work, and because he does not have the right job, he is unhappy. The “happy ending” of the movie is not that Peter eventually learns that there is more to life than work and his identity is not wrapped up in his job. The happy ending is that he eventually finds a job that has the things he likes, being outdoors and working with his hands.
Jim from The Office (Picture from http://theoffice.wikia.com/wiki/Jim_Halpert)
In the television show, The Office (U.S. version), one of the characters, Jim, is apathetic about his job at a paper company, Dunder Mifflin. Jim has hobbies, like cycling and playing guitar, but we get the impression that he generally considers his job boring and one of those necessary evils of life (his views change as the series progresses). Dwight, on the other hand, approaches his job at Dunder Mifflin with enthusiasm, showing up early, leaving late, and always trying to be a team player. He also happens to live and work on beet farm, of which he is equally enthusiastic.
Both Office Space and The Office are written so that we relate to Peter and Jim. They represent the angst that most white-collar workers feel, even if we cannot put our finger on exactly what that angst is. Peter wants to be outside. Jim plays music. But are cubicles and paper-pushing really the problem?
Perhaps the problem has to do with how we prioritize our lives. Our Western culture has bought into the idea that productivity is the highest good, and therefore work should be an end in itself. Productivity is certainly one of many signs of a good employee or a well-run business, but it is not an end in itself. Being productive should not be the end-all-be-all of life. To live for productivity is hollow and dehumanizing. Machines are fine-tuned to be optimally productive. People strive for something more, and productivity helps us get there.
What is leisure?
In pre-modern times, people whose lives were centered on work were called slaves or laborers. They put in twelve or fourteen-hour days and spent their non-working time resting and recuperating so that they can work the next day. Their value is in their productivity. This is contrasted to the aristocracy. They engaged in leisure activities, but these activities are not what we think of when we think of “leisure” today. The aristocracy considered leisure activities important for cultural enrichment. Those that used their freedom to engage in diversions or hedonism were considered slothful.
Leisure, in the classical sense of the term, is different from restful activities to help recuperate from a long day or mindless activities to cope with the mental tedium of repetitive, labor-intensive work. Leisure activities consisted of the higher pursuits, like education, art, music, and sport. It is no accident that the word we use for “school” comes from the Latin translation of the Greek word for leisure. Leisure activities often consisted of difficult things that required hard work to master, but these activities were personally enriching and culturally significant. They often involved creating or writing things that have aesthetic appeal and are good in and of themselves.
The Industrial Revolution
This two class system was turned on its head with the advance of the Industrial Revolution. Industrialization, over the course of one hundred years, took menial, repetitive, undignified work and automated it. It also meant that people did not have to work as many hours, allowing all people to have a life that consisted of rest (including sleeping, eating, and bodily care), non-work, and work time. The non-work time was to be a time for leisure pursuits so that all men may cultivate a virtuous character and engage in culture-making. This resulted in more people getting an education and engage in the arts and sciences.
But something happened that caused people to lose track of those priorities. Mortimer Adler, an early-twentieth century scholar, points out that while the Industrial Revolution did much to dignify work and rid of us a labor/aristocracy class system, it also skewed our understanding of work, leisure, and recreation.
Adler lists four negative consequences of the Industrial Revolution that contribute to our malaise:
- The Industrial Revolution eliminated the value of individual craftsmanship. Things that used to be made by artisans and craftsmen, like shoes, clothes, candles, or food, were easily produced in the factory setting, thus trivializing certain kinds of work.
- The Industrial Revolution changed our priorities such that producing more and more goods became the purpose of all of our efforts. Adler says that we ought to regard the increase in productivity only as a means and not as an end.
- As a result, people now think free time should be used only for recreation (or recuperation) in order to get back to work and produce more. It is no longer a time to engage in those things that are edifying and that often bring people joy. Instead, it is spent engaging in diversions which are not ultimately fulfilling.
- Classical, or liberal, education was replaced with training for the job so that a person can become a productive member of society. This perpetuated a kind of empty meaning to education that goes something like this: “Go to school and make good grades, so you can go to a good college, so you can get a good job, so you can be a productive member of society.”
By placing an emphasis on productivity, people live to work, and therefore, their free time is spent on things that are not tiring, but also not particularly enriching. This leads to a kind of boredom that philosopher-types like to call hyper-boredom. You get the sense of this hyper-boredom when you watch Peter in Office Space. However, hyper-boredom is more than “being in a funk” or not finding the right job. It is a malaise that is best described as operating as though everything was ultimately meaningless.
Why is a proper view of leisure important? Adler summarizes the classical concept of leisure as “consisting in all those activities by which the individual grows morally, intellectually, and spiritually, through which he attains personal excellence and also performs his moral and political duty.” Essentially, it is the things people love to do and would do whether they were paid or not.
Leisure is not the same has having nothing to do or “killing time” and it is not a diversion to cope with life. Adler points out that, based on the classical concept of leisure, the good life depends on labor, but it consists of leisure.
A couple of caveats are in order, though. First, some people are blessed to be able to do the leisure activities that they love as their full-time job. Adler, a college professor, considered his job both work and leisure. But, as anyone who has ever been a full-time teacher, writer, or artist knows, there is still a labor aspect to their leisure activity. Most people do not consider grading papers, filling out tax forms, or making sales pitches leisure activities. These things tend to be compulsory, making them work rather than leisure.
Second, this is not to say productivity is bad. It is good to be productive as part of pursuing excellence in work. However, orienting your life around productivity is to enslave yourself. Recall that in The Office, Jim was apathetic about work, but Dwight was not. Their characters are meant to be comic foils of each other, but as always, comedy is funny because it contains elements of truth. Dwight had a beet farm, a leisure activity, while Jim had diversions. Jim’s character started to change when he engaged in a meaningful relationship.
We often think that our leisure, or non-work time, is unimportant, but in reality, it is very important. A proper view of leisure helps us orient our lives in a way that acknowledges the reality of having to earn a living to survive but that we crave more than merely survival and consumerism.