A loafer’s manifesto
By Bob Jacobson
Industrious people create industry. Lazy people create civilization. –Hideo Nakamura
Hard work never killed anybody, but why take the chance? –Edgar Bergen
It only took me about two hours of membership in that not-very-exclusive club we call the American Workforce to realize that my participation would forever be grudging at best. For a long time I thought something must be wrong with me. Other people seemed to enjoy working hard, if not at a job, then at some hobby or artistic endeavor. I enjoyed nothing of the sort. I liked to loaf.
Over the years I’ve seen my friends–the same gang among whom it was once a badge of honor to work for only a few months out of each year–mature and launch seemingly satisfying careers as writers, teachers, psychologists, and computer gurus. Meanwhile I bounced in and out of the labor force, out more than in, spending every loathsome minute of “in” counting the number of pay periods left before I could afford a few months of “out.”
I now have two children and a mortgage to support, but I haven’t changed. I manage to pass myself off as a productive citizen, but I work only because I am too stupid to have figured out a way to avoid it without inflicting a guilt-inducing level of hardship on my family. In fact, I am more convinced than ever that my anti work orientation is utterly reasonable. Judge me harshly for that if you must. But at least understand how one pathetic shmuck arrived at the conclusion that idleness is a valid, perhaps even noble, lifestyle choice.
My journey began 21 years and nine months ago, when my brother’s pal Ira Handler got me my first job, busing tables at Irving’s Delicatessen in Southfield, Mich. I started after school on my 16th birthday. Part of my job was to unload the dishwasher and carry the steaming-hot dishes about 10 feet to the shelves on which they resided.
Alas, even this simple-sounding task was too much for my tender paws. I fared no better at any of the other, less painful tasks I was assigned. Bottom line: I was a bad buser. On day 2, Irving, a toxic little crust of a man with white hair and a raspy Delancey Street voice, started giving me grief. He called me “good for nothing.” But he was wrong; I knew I was good for plenty of things. It was just that none of them happened to involve wiping up pools of pastrami grease or scraping crud off a grill for less than minimum wage. I called in sick on day 3, and never went back.
Irving’s was only the first of perhaps a dozen jobs for which I have, over the years, failed to show up on day 3, give or take a couple weeks. I got through my college years hardly working at all except during the summer. That income, along with a generous National Merit Scholarship and a minor revenue-producing hobby or two, was sufficient to enable me to squeeze by.
After college, the jobs started coming and going in rapid succession. I lasted three full weeks as stock boy at a little party store called Sgt. Pepper’s. I stuck with my law-firm-messenger gig for four months, after which I was rescued by some insurance money from an apartment break-in. For a day and a half I did a plant-watering route that included a major university hospital, a vegetarian restaurant, and a porn shop. I inherited that job from a friend who was forced out for being too smelly. Too smelly to water the plants at a smut shop.
Many job fiascos later, it’s clear that work and me are a bad fit. And it’s not just jobs; I don’t even like working at leisure most of the time.
The problem is that our culture does not appreciate the things I truly enjoy most in life, such as wandering around a city aimlessly, or sitting on a comfortable piece of furniture and staring absently into space–activities, if one can call them activities, that are of absolutely no value to anybody in the world but me, unless you count their value to the people who must interact with me. Usually they get to interact with a slightly happier me when I have been allowed to be sufficiently inert.
Our society is set up in a way that tries to make us feel bad for enjoying inactivity. There is a pervasive notion that one should spend one’s precious time doing “useful” things, things that somehow benefit society, as if my personal enjoyment of life is of no value to society. Even when we are not working, we are supposed to be doing something useful, like exercising or reading poetry or learning Swedish. We slander a perfectly respectable animal species by naming a deadly sin after it. And yet the sloth has been every bit as successful as Homo sapiens from an evolutionary standpoint.
The job that finally broke the cycle for me was telepanhandling for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Granted, it was a half-time job, and it lasted only for half of each year, making it really only a quarter of a job I guess, but it was a breakthrough nonetheless. The CSO Annual Fund boiler room was populated by a fascinating mix of actors, musicians, and other weirdoes and misfits. My favorite misfit was Tom Harris, a lovable, African-American narcoleptic who worked the phone clad in threadbare, mismatched suits and wide polyester ties. Tom was brilliant, possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of classical music. But as a fundraiser he was totally inept. He would fall asleep in mid-pitch.
I, on the other hand, turned out to be pretty good at cajoling Chitown’s cultural elite into whipping out their Visa card in the name of the Three B’s. It was a nice ride for a while, but the thought eventually sank in that I had spent the last three years kissing rich people’s butts for a living. Thus my seasons of symphonic solicitation came to an end.
By then I had figured out that I could get people to pay me for writing. The thing about writing for money is that there is an inverse relationship between compensation and enjoyment–the more interesting the work, the less you get paid. Earning a living writing fun, creative stuff is quite rare. I could support myself because I was willing to write, for example, a blistering overview of the wood pallet industry, and instructor’s guides for a number of courses on restaurant management. That willingness allowed me to avoid actual employment for another five years or so, and while writing freelance actually does entail a certain amount of labor, it still beats the hell out of having a job.
I actually believe that many more Americans than let on secretly share my distaste for work. They can sense that the American Dream of getting so rich they no longer have to work is a hallucination. It is almost impossible to achieve it through hard work alone. They believe instead in a version of the Dream that requires outsmarting work by going for the big kill. You can see that Dream being chased in casinos, in the slush piles of publishing houses, in the overflowing file cabinets of the patent office, and in classifieds sections thickened by omnipresent ads for multilevel marketing schemes and make-millions-working-at-home-in-your-spare-time scams. We are as much a nation of disappointed dreamers as of optimistic laborers. You can’t really blame people for dreaming big. The problem with big dreams, of course, is that when you eventually wake up, you’re still in the same grubby little bed you fell asleep in; the bigger the dream, the littler and grubbier the bed seems in the morning.
Realistically, the decision to forego work must be made independently of any attachment to material comfort. It is a decision that must be made from the soul. Being idle means being willing to live with two separate categories of unpleasantness: the unpleasantness of being broke all the time and therefore unable to buy things you want; and the unpleasantness of public opinion, of people calling you a lazy shit, of people telling you to get a life. But public opinion has it backwards; the people who really need to get a life are those who have no life because they are wasting theirs slaving away at some inane job that they detest but will not admit it.
There finally came a day not so many years ago when, largely owing to the idiotic way we finance health care in this country, I had to bite the bullet and get a regular, professional-type job. I found myself, irony of ironies, employed in a position that involved editing a twice-monthly publication all about employment. One of my tasks was to review books about how to get a job. I became quite well-read on the topics of job-hunting and career navigation. Most of these books contained a certain amount of useful technical information, like how to format your résumé and what kinds of questions to expect in an interview. Beyond that, many employment book authors seem to put a lot of stock in the notion that the real key to career success is finding the job you were meant to do. This “Do-What-You-Love-and-Let-the-Money-Take-Care-of-Itself” school can be annoyingly New Agey at times. They would have you believe that some folks have “insurance adjustor” or “phlebotomist” woven into the fabric of their soul. How sad, as I wrote in one of those reviews, that innocent soybeans had to die for the ink used to print those ridiculous volumes.
I have a friend who, two years ago, had a job that paid exactly the same salary as mine. There were, however, two major differences between his job and mine. One was that he worked for the state, so he had really good benefits while mine sucked. The other was that he didn’t have to do anything. He could just sit around all day and surf the Web if he wanted to, or do crossword puzzles, or read cheap westerns.
Other than the fact that my friend had to actually show up to not work, his job was my idea of the American Dream, or close to it. But my friend was miserable, because he thought he should be doing something useful. He and another friend of his got the idea to write a book called Not Working, which would be a spoof on Studs Terkel’s famous opus Working. It would consist of a bunch of people’s accounts of the no-work jobs they have held. Naturally, they never got around to writing the book. My friend has since changed jobs and is, I presume, much happier for it.
As it happens, my friend is married to a labor economist. She will tell you that workers have been getting shafted for years. At the dawn of the industrial age, the masses were led to believe that they would be the beneficiaries of the increased productivity that technology was bringing to the work process. Socialist types tended to envision a society in which people worked a lot less, and were free to spend the rest of their time enriching their lives through cultural endeavors, or quaffing ale, or screwing, or whatever. The idea is that since it takes only half as many hours to produce a widget as it used to, the other, newly liberated half of that erstwhile widget-making time belongs to the worker.
Our pinko friends would seem to be implying that nobody in his right mind would choose to work more than he had to.
Sadly, the owning class has elected not to cooperate with this little fantasy. They have, if I may continue to wax slightly Marxist for just another moment, stolen all that newly created productivity from us working stiffs. Thus the income of workers has actually shrunk over the last few decades in spite of all that spiffy new machinery. I say, therefore, that having a job that entails lots of loafing really just represents the workers taking back a little bit of what has been stolen from them. I would argue that under the right circumstances, getting paid to not work is not only defensible and desirable, but gosh darn it, it’s the right thing to do.
Hating work is hardly a new idea. In fact, for most of history people have understood that work is difficult and degrading. It wasn’t until the Protestant Reformation that anybody thought to design an ethic around work. Even since then, my attitude puts me in some pretty heady historical company. Some of our brainiest geniuses and wittiest wags have been closet layabouts. Mark Twain, for example, staked out a fairly extreme position when he wrote: “I do not like work, even when someone else does it.”
Benjamin Franklin, on the other hand, tended to waffle on the matter. Franklin’s alter ego Poor Richard preached an “early-to-bed-early-to-rise” brand of industriousness, but Ben didn’t really buy it, admitting: “I am the laziest man in the world. I invented all those things to save myself from toil.” In other words, he avoided a life of print shop drudgery by dreaming up bifocals. Perhaps the most influential slack enthusiast was the multitalented Bertrand Russell, whose 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness” was published at a time when thousands of Americans had idleness thrust upon them by cold economic reality. Russell wrote:
“I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached. . . . The road to happiness and prosperity lies in the organised diminution of work.”
Another intellectual giant who lobbied for lethargy was R. Buckminster Fuller, of geodesic dome fame. Fuller, not surprisingly, had an ecological take on work. As he explained in his visionary tome Critical Path:
“History’s political and economic power structures have always abhorred ‘idle people’ as potential troublemakers. Yet nature never abhors seemingly idle trees, grass, snails, coral reefs, and clouds in the sky.”
Fuller goes on to complain about the waste inherent in a society rife with jobs that produce nothing of real value to the world.
“We find all the no-life-support-wealth-producing people . . . spending trillions of dollars’ worth of petroleum daily to get to their no-wealth-producing jobs. It doesn’t take a computer to tell you that it will save both Universe and humanity trillions of dollars a day to pay them handsomely to stay at home.”
Too bad Bucky didn’t stick around quite long enough to take part in the debate over welfare reform.
Unfortunately, only a very lucky few actually get paid to loaf. Most quality loafing must be done on a volunteer basis, as an act of conscience. Sparsely populated areas of the country, including parts of the northern Midwest, are crawling with folks who have opted out of the conventional workaday world. Many of them have kids, but, unlike me, have not let that little detail force their hands. For a lot of people, an aversion to work is part of a broader lifestyle choice.
One can arrive at the decision to not work from several different philosophical angles. A common one is the desire to live simply and in harmony with the environment. The Midwestern countryside is dotted with communities of people who grow their own food and make their own clothes and don’t have jobs. Some, including a cluster of homesteads in the vicinity of Amherst, Wisc. (home of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association), get their power by tapping the sun and milling the wind. They know how to fix things when they break. They barter and invent alternative economic structures, like co-ops and local currencies.
A similar dedication can be found among the black-helicopter crowd, which values self-reliance above all else. A different set of skills is required, but in many ways the choice stems from the same impulse: a fundamental distaste for and consequent refusal to participate in a political/economic system they perceive as being corrupt beyond repair; a rejection of mainstream values, one of which is the good old Protestant Work Ethic.
But make no mistake–avoiding employment by going “off the grid” is no stroll in the park. There are photovoltaic cells to hook up and bunkers to booby-trap. A truly work-averse individual, be he extremely green or extremely olive-drab, would probably balk at the effort involved in either undertaking.
I envy people who successfully pull off an intentional workforce withdrawal, regardless of their motivation or political persuasion. For me, the failure to concoct a work-free lifestyle is a big defeat. I feel like a sellout and a coward. Sure, I still hold out hope that someday I will figure out a way to end the misery, but it gets harder to imagine with each home repair and dentist bill. In the meantime, a fella can still dream, and calculate, and revel in the occasional privilege of delivering that most exquisite phrase, “I quit.”
As for Irving, my first employer, he eventually got nailed by the NLRB for failing to shell out the overtime pay he owed his workers. A couple years later, he developed a circulatory problem and had to have his leg amputated. It’s tempting to chalk his misfortune up to twisted fate or poetic justice, but in the words of Bartleby, American literature’s most famous idler, “I would prefer not to.”
From the November 8-14, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.