Thoughts & Things

Why are we working so much?

October 31, 2020

For so many people life means only work. The entire meaning of their life and identity comes from work. In this devotion to work,  man is unique because man is the only working animal while all others loaf.  The story of civilization is the story of work becoming a major component of human life. Now the question is are we working too much? Does our approach to work needs a  relook?  Is work the ends and means of life?

Living  under  the  clock

For the member of hunter-gatherer society,  work was mainly for food and once that was done, he had all the time to rest.  When he moved to agriculture society, his needs moved beyond daily food and he found that if he works more, he can perhaps store food and settle at one place besides getting some free time. It also meant the slow ending of nomadic life. As man moved to the industrial and technological age,  we have made our lives more complex and added more comforts and desires. We found that accumulation and consumption are joyful things which can bring more happiness.  However, unlimited desires also meant more work. People realised that if you work more you can amass more wealth which can even be handed over to the next generations.  (  something  which  other  animals  cannot do) . As we moved to the industrial age, we also find the increased role of time in life. We started measuring time and started doing everything according to time. American writer and historian  Lewis  Mumford in his book, Technics and  Civilization shows how clock made us into timekeepers and then time-savers and now time-servers. He adds,  “ moment to moment it turns out is not God’s conception, or nature’s. It is man conversing with himself about and through a piece of machinery he created .”  Words such as speed,  deadlines, targets, hurry and fast became part of our everyday lexicon. It became almost a sin to do anything slowly. ( In many of our schools we will find an extreme version of this where the slow learners are a pitiable community.  Speed of doing anything is priced higher than doing it correctly.  Most of us fail to understand that what is important is learning rather than how fast or how slow it happens ) Modern-day capitalism designed various systems to keep people hooked to work. Every single minute counted. The advent of mobile phones ensured that none could switch off from the constant watch of one’s employer. Even weekends or holidays do not make a difference for so many people working in such firms.  So many employers do not understand that their employees have got a family and they may need some time of their own. Time is money became an important slogan.  Several innovations and discoveries were aimed at reducing our time for various tasks.  

One idea was that when we make our life more efficient,  we will get more time for leisure activities. The idea of leisure was always there.  Plato told,”  But the  Gods taking pity on mankind, born to work laid down the succession of recurring feasts to restore them from their fatigue.  One of the slogans of the French revolution was eight hours sleep, eight-hour work and eight hours to do whatever they like. There was this sense that leisure too was a  fundamental right of human beings.   However, as we introspect, what happened to so many people were something different.  We started working more and more and filling all our free time with more work and finally work was everything. In fact, the wealthy started working more and more. Where have all the free time which was supposed to be there gone?  What is our attitude to leisure? 

Reclaiming   leisure  for everyone

Bertrand Russel  wrote, “To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization, and at present, very few people have reached this level.” The excessive focus on work comes from the notion that the goal of life is to accumulate and consume everything.  On the other hand, when we approach life as an opportunity to experience the whole focus on work changes. As we have seen already,  we expect that a person with so much wealth should ideally have so much free time or control over his time. However,  what we see around us is that most of the wealthy class chases more work and consider that we should never have unused time. As only an unoccupied space in a room is useful, only an unused time is useful as far as leisure is concerned.  A time free from the demands of work to oneself,  to one’s family, to pursue one’s interests and to experience the myriad joys of life which make life an interesting pursuit. The richness of a person is not only to be measured in the amount of wealth he has but how much time he has for himself and his loved ones. We must be knowing how much we should work to earn our livelihood and to gain sufficient time for ourselves. We have only a limited time and it will never be possible to fill it with unlimited things and wants.

We began this post with a  question. Why are we working so much? This question means different things to different people. Millions are condemned to toil so much just to live and for them, the leisure in the way we understand does not exist. The question why we are working so much does not make any sense to them because they have no choice.  Many others have no choice about their vocation but to work for their livelihood.  There is another section who are so devoted to their work and for whom work is everything. We also have a small minority who get their passion as their work and in such cases, work becomes a play akin to leisure itself. Throughout this post, our concern was why people increasingly worship work more, often forsaking the fundamental role of leisure in shaping our life and experience.  As of now, we have not yet invented anything to stay out of work and all must work in whichever way they can to earn their livelihood and to keep the planet moving. In fact,  the situation when one does not have any meaningful work to do can be unbearable for a vast majority of human beings.

It is up to us to define the delicate relationship between work and leisure and cultivate a balanced life. What humanity must understand collectively is that everyone has a fundamental right to a healthy mix of leisure and work.  It is quality leisure which often opens new vistas of life for human beings. Whether you are rich or poor, employee or employer, man or woman,   a time of one’s own is not a luxury but a necessity. The sooner we understand it, the better.   


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  • Reply
    November 2, 2020 at 9:00 pm

    Recently a saw a few films about people in the Amazon and on Papua New Guinea who still live as hunters and gatherers. They were playing with their children under a straw roof, enjoying their time together. I wonder if we should step down from ‘progress’ and regress to a point where we are happy with our family, friends, animals, maybe a garden, instead of trying to amass things/money. These people seemed to be a lot happier than most ‘rich’ people are.
    Thank you for this article. Especially in this time, lots of people find out that with lockdowns, they don’t know what to do with the void
    in their lives, where constant work used to be. You cannot watch TV forever !

    • Reply
      Boby George
      November 2, 2020 at 9:16 pm

      Thank you Ingrid for those words. I truly felt that people are overworking missing the joy of small things in life. Many are under the illusion that , after all toil they will rest and enjoy the fruits of their hard work. But in most cases it will not happen. Life does not provide such opportunities. It asks us to use every day to its fullness. By the way, you are from which part of the world ? Its no nice to connect here and nicer to know that we share many concerns .

  • Reply
    Fr. Jijo Kandamkulathy
    November 3, 2020 at 6:22 am

    The reward for working is leisure. An excess on either ways will damage the human equilibrium individually and collectively. So, today’s exploitation is to divert the attention of the worker from leisure to calculate its value in money. Show workers, more money and they will forfeit their leisure obediently. Modern exploitation is such that an employer can make people work for 18 hours in one go without complaints…. what a world!

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