Womankind 6: Mona Lisa

A life not defined by work

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by Alecia Simmonds on November 29, 2015

Australians, we like to tell ourselves, are a laid-back, easy-going people whose home is girt by beach. We chuck sickies, down tinnies from the esky, and ‘get maggot’ after work. In fact, we barely even acknowledge that we work. When we imagine the typical Strayan, they’re either at the beach with the kids or gazing wistfully into the red dust from a bush-cottage verandah. Strayans, John Howard famously told us, are “relaxed and comfortable”.

Except of course we’re not. And figures everywhere prove this: a 2013 OECD report found that more than 14 per cent of Australian workers put in more than 50 hours a week, which is way above the OECD average of 9 per cent. An Australia Institute study found that Australians work the longest hours in the developed world with an average of 1,855 hours at work each year, which is 200 hours more than employees of other countries. Some 11 per cent of Australians took no annual leave in 2014, according to a study by a leading travel website. And, unsurprisingly, numerous studies have found that we’re pretty anxious as a result, with Australia ranking as either the second or third most stressed-out country in the world, alongside America and Japan.

The typical Australian is less a beach-loving larrikin than a conformist workaholic sitting in the lonely gloaming of a computer screen late at night suffering hypertension. And you don’t need figures to realise this. When was the last time you met someone who didn’t rush straight into talking about their job, or who was introduced in a way that managed to avoid their work status? How many friends do you have who aren’t constantly ‘busy, busy’, who don’t work overtime, or who take off every weekend? How often does a conversation with a stranger resemble anything more than a recitation of resumes?

Work has cannibalised our lives, our conversations, our very selves. Every now and then, usually around election time, governments acknowledge this when they discuss the ‘work/life balance’. The solutions are always asinine: meditate, do lunchtime yoga, eat chia seeds, or work flexibly – particularly if you’re a woman.

I would like to propose something a little more radical.

Three words: Just. Do. Less.

I think we need to assert our right to sloth, to play, to sociability, to pleasure, to creativity and to time that is marked not by the ticking of a clock but by the rising and setting of the sun. We are more interesting than our labour and our identities are richer than our work status. How anaemic, brittle and thin humanity starts to look when being productive becomes our primary purpose. Rather than begging companies and governments for flexible work practices so that we can work at home as well as in the office, we need to resist work itself.

Lest you find this argument a touch extremist, let me tell you that work has not always been such a big part of who we are. In fact, you can trace our gradual obsession with productive labour by examining the changing meaning of the word ‘sloth’ over the centuries. According to academic Rebecca de Young, sloth originally meant being lazy in your devotional work to God – which also included community service and charity. During the Reformation in the 13th century, the concept of religious devotional work was extended to apply to all forms of labour and to this extent diligence became a sign of our love of God. (The word diligence comes from the Latin diligere, meaning ‘to esteem or love’.) The harder you work, she says, the more you prove that you love God. Eventually, sloth became stripped of its spiritual dimensions and with “the secularisation of sloth” came the “spiritualisation of work”. By the 20th century, work supplanted religion as the source of individual identity. It assumed a divine status, associated with redemption and vocation (a spiritual calling). This is why we talk about ‘feeling guilty’ when we take an afternoon off work.

But it’s the Industrial Revolution that marks the moment when work consolidated its conquest over sloth and play. A mass market of commodities created new desires that in turn created indebtedness which then created more of a need to work. Today this takes the form of working two jobs to pay off the pool that you never get to swim in because you’re too busy working two jobs. The 19th century also marks the moment when work became moralised by the rising middle classes: it was a sign of your respectability and capacity to self-govern, while not working was a mark of deviancy or corruption. The ability to govern the self gave you the right to govern others. Unlike the indolent ruling classes and the itinerant working classes, the middle classes were industrious. Their private capacity for labour gave them a political capacity for government (or so they argued).

Today, I think the problem is not just that work continues to be associated with morality (which is how we get victim-blaming terms like ‘dole bludger’) but that work has conquered every aspect of our lives. And nowhere is this more obvious than when we talk about a work/life balance. ‘Life’, you would think, could mean many things: writing a novel, getting lost on a bushwalk, sipping tea with friends, travelling, creating beauty through art – the list is infinite. Yet here it is narrowed down to mean unpaid care-work. And as such it is feminised – when we say ‘life’ we mean picking up the kids after school or performing a thousand forms of private labour without which the public world of work couldn’t function. ‘Life’ has come to stand in for a lack of freely accessible childcare options and affordable aged care. It carries the burden of a malfunctioning state. When we talk about the work/life balance, what we actually mean is the balance that women have to strike between paid work and unpaid work so the state can spend less on caring industries. It also means that those women who opt for ‘flexible work arrangements’ often just end up turning their lounge rooms into offices.

In the rare moments that work/life balance is used to signify time for relaxation and leisure, then the framework remains one of productivity. We need to allow workers to take time off so that their mental health doesn’t suffer, so that their productivity at work doesn’t decrease so that the profits of the company don’t go down. It’s not the worker that is the concern here. It’s the corporation.

I remember first being confronted by our obsession with work when I returned home to Australia after living in Paris for three years. As much as I am loath to confirm the sepia-tinted Amélie stereotypes of romance and scooters and crème brulée, some of it is true – in particular the healthy disrespect that the French show towards work. When the government tried to increase the minimum age of retirement from 60 to 62 there were riots, upturned cars, and the country was brought to a standstill. The French take five weeks holiday per year and the 35-hour work week, although contentious, still largely stands for those in the public service. But on an everyday level, if you were to while away an afternoon nibbling fromage and sipping vin rouge with your French friends I reckon you’d probably notice something quite startling: they rarely discuss their work. In fact, to do so is considered a bit vulgar, insofar as you are potentially asserting status. I was chastised when I complained about French libraries or even grocery stores not opening on Sundays (“Pfft, Alecia, the workers need to take a break too!”) and I also came to love the fact that a sunny day often meant calling in sick and devoting the day to hedonism. Having liberated the conversation from the tedium of work, my French friends would discuss poems that they were writing, they’d debate readings of Baudelaire, they’d argue about politics, they’d attend protests and we’d all spend a long time musing upon the pleasures of food. French protest culture is about protecting these delights; it is about claiming their right to a life that is not defined by work.

The great tragedy for Australians is that this used to be us. In 1856, following a strike by stonemasons in Melbourne, we introduced an eight-hour day, and we were the first country in the world to do so. The 24-hour day, it was argued, was divided into three lots of eight hours: one for work, one for leisure and one for sleep. By the 20th century, thanks to a strong union movement, we had a global reputation for being a ‘workingman’s paradise’.

And it’s from this history that we get all of our most beloved national stereotypes about being relaxed and easygoing. The good news is that if we’re to believe the cliché about all stereotypes containing an element of truth, then we still believe in a world outside of work, even if we don’t practise it. The challenge is to start living it and living life again, and by that I mean a life abundant with small pleasures and grand curiosities; a life of joyful sloth and playful laziness. A life liberated from the tyranny of work.

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