WE WOULD PREFER NOT TO – ON NOT WORKING
Bartleby lives! Herman Melville might be best known for his extremely big book about an extremely big whale, but it’s his 1853 short story Bartleby, The Scrivener that speaks most powerfully to our present moment. At its heart, the story is a tale of existential refusal, about the revolutionary power of saying no. Or, as Bartleby puts it whenever he is asked to complete one of the many boring clerical tasks that make up his job ... “I would prefer not to.”
Over the last couple of years Bartleby has acquired a slightly unlikely cultural afterlife. In the last few months alone, I’ve seen good Bartleby t-shirts, bad Bartleby t-shirts, Bartleby mugs (hard to have an opinion about a mug), Bartleby baseball caps (all baseball caps are bad by default) and enough Bartleby memes to last me a lifetime (and I say that as someone who is pretty much the perfect audience for Bartleby memes).
Now, there is a chance I might just be seeing these things because the all-knowing algorithm has figured out that I spend much of my working life thinking and writing about the future of work. And there’s probably some truth in that. But there is also a wider context; namely that we are living through a period in which our attitudes to work – how we work, where we work, and crucially, how much we work – are shifting rapidly.
Decades of stagnant wages, COVID19, the spiralling cost of living, an entire generation locked out of home ownership and riven with economic, social and psychological instability has prompted a rethink. The question seems to ask itself: why exactly am I giving up most of my waking hours, doing work that is often deeply unrewarding, all for the dubious pleasure of giving 75% of my meagre wage to a landlord who happens to own a flat or ten in East London that they paid five quid for at some point in the mid 1980s?
This was never supposed to be the deal. Regardless of one’s stance on capitalism, the basic gambit was always something like: give us your labour and your time, and in exchange you get a stake in the system. Perhaps not a fair stake, but a stake nonetheless. But these days, that seems like a cruel joke. Talk to most people under forty, who have spent their entire adult lives watching the economy limp on from crisis to crisis while asset holders and rentiers cash in on a system designed, maintained and calibrated for their benefit, and the picture you get is all together grimmer. For them, the next few decades are characterised by an increasingly fragile social safety net, widening inequality, climate breakdown and a retirement that, rather than just being impoverished, will more than likely never happen at all.
Is it any wonder then, that rather than take their place as cheerful serfs in the new techno-feudal platform dystopia while those in power continue to give capitalism the full Weekend at Bernie’s treatment, people are increasingly looking for a new settlement? If anything, it would be stranger if this wasn’t happening. Because for an increasing number of people, the picture is clear ... this isn’t acceptable. This is no way to live.
How this manifests in practice is rather more complex. Some, especially in the United States, will point to something called ‘the great resignation’, a recent phenomenon where at one point up to four million workers were quitting their jobs each month. Others will point to increased union activity in industries and companies that were long thought to be impervious to collective action, notably Amazon and Starbucks. While across Europe, Four Day Week initiatives and advocacy have proliferated, culminating in the world’s biggest trial, taking in thousands of workers across every facet of the economy, which began in the UK in June of this year.
And this is no longer a minority concern. Public support for a Four Day Week without loss of pay is high and rising, across all demographics and age groups, and even, to a surprising extent, across party political affiliations. To some, this level of support falls into the no shit Sherlock category, after all, who wouldn’t, want to be paid the same amount of money for working fewer hours? But you’d be surprised. Because for a vocal minority, often in positions of influence and power, these type of ideas make them very angry indeed.
Some seem to think that the five day week is some sort of naturally occurring, God-given phenomena, that it would be an act of revolutionary metaphysical violence to go meddling with it. This is characteristic of the conservative psyche, which above all else, is a psyche obsessed with naturalisation. However things are now, right this instant, is how they should always be. Little heed is paid to the fact that people said the same when we collectively struggled to get the six day week, and then again when we collectively struggled to get the weekend, and so on and so on for every liberty and benefit we now take as standard. In centuries gone by, these same people would have been up in arms about every single gesture of progress, doom-mongering about how it will kill the economy and drive the country to rack and ruin. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now.
Talk to those who object to shortening the working week at any length and they soon start to give themselves away, revealing what is really driving their visceral objections. Ask them how they would spend an extra day off and they will reel off a range of pro-social activities, from community work, gardening, spending time with family, or simply taking care of their physical and mental health. But ask them how they think other people would use an extra day off, and they seem entirely sure that they would fritter it away playing computer games and eating vast quantities of Wotsits ( neither of which I object to, for the record )
Then they will tell you that it isn’t as simple as all that, and that for many people work is a source of pride and dignity, a good thing in and of itself. But ask them if, on that basis, we should all go back to working seven days, in order to reap more of those supposed benefits, and they soon abandon that line of thinking. Similarly, they are unlikely to concede that the retired population live lives that are entirely stripped of meaning as a result of not working. Or the idle rich for that matter. Or that many of the things that clearly are valuable about work; comradery, the pleasure of completing a task, a sense of contribution, are also abundantly available outside of the wage labour relationship, or at least should be in a society that was in anyway healthy. That’s before we even consider the fact that the most common jobs in this country, by some distance, are minimum wage service jobs, which for the millions forced into them by necessity, are anything other than a source of great meaning. Scratch the surface and its always the same old idea; the protestant work ethic, know your place, do your work, earn your spot in heaven, and don’t bother us too much while you are at it.
And that’s before we even start to get into what the research tells us about the benefits of working fewer hours, even a summary of which would run to hundreds of pages. But think of it like this; pick what matters to you, and it’s likely that a shorter working week might have something to offer. Concerned about the mental health crisis? You should be. It’s spiralling out of control and survey after survey shows overwork to be a massive contributor. Concerned about physical wellbeing? You should be. Britain is sicker than ever and yet taking historically low levels of sick leave. Our work culture is making us unwell and then forcing us to work through it regardless. Gender equality? Well, a shorter working week offers more flexibility in sharing the burden of domestic labour and has been a feminist demand for decades. The Climate Crisis? Recent research has shown that a four-day week could reduce the UK's carbon footprint by 127 million tonnes per year, which is the equivalent of taking 27 million cars off the road. And there’s even something in it for capital, in the form of better staff satisfaction, retention, increased productivity and reduced costs (a Henley Business School study in 2021 estimated that UK businesses would save a combined £104 billion per year by moving to a Four Day Week).
So what’s stopping us? There are societal and economic forces that benefit from having a population entirely reliant on exhausting, low wage work, who will resist any increase in labour power at every turn. But that has always been the case, so in some sense, it is baked in. It’s beyond, or beneath, that where things get messier. Have we reached a point as a society where we are collectively unable to imagine that things might ever actually improve, that a better world is possible instead of just an endless road of managed decline? Have decades of degradation and fear warped us to such an extent that even the idea of progress is best met with the self-protective reflex of cynicism and derision?
That’s probably part of it, depressingly. But maybe there is also something deeper at play. Something ontological, for want of a less wanky word. Because beneath all of the research, the data, the policy frameworks and the trials, there is the fundamental question of how we want to live, a question of our relationship to freedom itself. What would it really mean to make choices about how we spend our (possibly) only life, but to make them unencumbered by the burden of necessity? Frightening probably. It would frighten me, that’s for sure. Because living this way, under this system, has done a really good job of alienating me from the reality of my own desires. I don’t know what I want, I don’t know how I would spend my time untethered from the need to sell my labour in exchange for the basic necessities of life. Maybe I’d find God? Or maybe I’d just eat loads and loads of Wotsits?
The whole point is that I don’t know. But that I’d like the chance to find out. After all, what else is there to do with a life?