Work as Punishment

A 3,650 word article in the New Statesman reflects on our rather unhealthy obsession with work at the expense of recreation. I wrote some notes on a few of the facts which struck me as being relevant to my cause:

Adam and Eve
Adam was punished for his disobedience by having to work hard for a living, as well as the first deadly rivalry between the farmer Cain and the herder Abel, each striving to have God favor his own produce over his brother’s.

We refer to that time as the Fall because it signalled the opposite of an ideal way of life. Work is seen as both ethic and punishment.

The workhouse
The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 embodied the view that if you made destitution unpleasant enough, with grim and regimented workhouses providing the only sustenance, only the most hopeless cases would consider it an option. Genesis gives us work as punishment and the Victorians doubled it by punishing those who couldn’t or wouldn’t work. Even today, willingness to work is the government and the corporate definition of the good citizen.

Retirement
There are many stories of how retirement kills people. Are they merely myths intended to ‘improve’ people?

Lazy cavemen
In 1974, Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins published Stone Age Economics. He proposed they did not live ‘nasty, brutish and short lives’ but were members of the ‘original affluent society’ working only so long as to get enough to eat. Spending the rest of the time daydreaming, exploring, telling stories, doing culture or just lazing.

Only when you worship the idea of accumulation and status based on wealth do you have to work hard all the time.

Today
Even the most successful people ultimately end their working lives in disappointment e.g. Julius Caesar, Margaret Thatcher. Yet we think there is something wrong when someone decides they’ve done enough and now want to actually enjoy their lives e.g. Pope Benedict XVI.

Leisure is so terrifying to our culture, we have to cut it up into small chunks of a working year and leave most of it to the very end of life.

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