“I do not have a dream job,” says Tik-Toker Casey Hamilton. “I do not dream of labor.” Hamilton’s worldview can be found in every culture, but lately it’s become a meme, hailed by many young people as a perfect summation of their life philosophy. “Anti-work” attitudes like these are not new: They have popped up every few generations, waxing during economic turmoil and waning when the jobs are plentiful and people are forced to make the best of their work situations. What is new, though, is that such attitudes are now coinciding with a labor shortage.
At this point, we need to define some terms. Without establishing definitions, many debates circle the drain of futility – with different people using the same words but referring to different things.
I am using the term “labor” to mean a force of effort or focus that aids in completion of a goal.
“Work” means the structured methods towards the purpose of making money or participating in exchange of goods and services.
“Leisure” includes any act that has no purpose or end outside of its own existence. Leisure is technically “useless,” but in a good way. Leisure is what you do for fun, something you engage in for the pure enjoyment of it. It serves no other purpose. Uselessness doesn’t equal meaninglessness. C.S. Lewis notes this in The Four Loves, when he says“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” Thus, for example: An act of religious worship can be true leisure, as its purpose is completed within itself. To love God for the purpose of loving him, and not for the purpose of getting something or going somewhere is true leisure. In the same way, a hobby can be true leisure.
When I use the word “meaning,” I am referring to an attribute that significantly impacts the reason (or end) for which a person, idea, or action exists.
“Use” applies to the function of a person, idea, or action in the wider effect of continuing life or existence. To have use, something or someone must contribute to the goal of staying alive.
Finally, “culture” refers to the results of persons living in community and the establishment of traditions, shared values, or beliefs.
That was a lot, but bear with me.
We have to answer this question: Can this “anti-labor” ideology abide? Can we build a culture with people who recoil from labor? How can we rebuild a good culture after Covid?
To save some time, let’s rule out a few possibilities.
First, a healthy culture cannot be built on the notion that every single person is meant to be in the work force. It really can’t. To build a culture of work is to minimize the human person to their utilitarian functions, which excludes many of the joys of life: Beauty, art, fun and delight have no place in a utilitarian culture.
Secondly, a healthy culture cannot be built on a rigid division between some sort of “worker class” and a corresponding “leisure class,” consigning one group most of the work and another group most of the leisure. We see this in much of the world today, and throughout history: One portion of the globe lives in misery under perpetual labor, another portion lives in fretful but not debilitating toil, and a third portion lives in unimaginable wealth. Often, prison labor, sweat shops, slavery, and exploitation make up the largest portion, while the working class of first world countries make up the second portion. The “one percent” make up the smallest portion.
This rigid division between worker and leisure classes is culturally destructive, because to have human culture, we need leisure. Unfortunately, as a culture we are actively killing leisure at the roots.
Specifically, we are killing leisure by turning it into something else, by systematically “harnessing” it for the goal of usefulness.
Think about it: If leisure is defined as something with no other end besides its own existence – something you do for fun, something you engage in for the pure enjoyment of it – then the destructive commodification of leisure activities as “side hustles” removes the uselessness from leisure. Making every hobby a source of income suffocates the life-giving quality of leisure. We are killing leisure.
“The new generation now entering the work force watched this happen and took note. Unsurprisingly, much of Gen-Z is resistant to the thought of becoming another cog in a corrupt system. They do not dream of labor. Why would they?”
This is a problem because, as nearly every religious tradition throughout history reminds us, the purpose of the human being is to reach perfect happiness. A version of this has become fashionable again, but not necessarily in a good way. In the sense that labor is synonymous with “effort,” “energy,” “focus,” and “ambition,” we absolutely dream of labor. Labor is the engine that carries an actual goal to reality or completion. We do not admire people who have no passion, no goals, no interests. We feel sorry for those who have deep and wide dreams but lack the effort and focus to actually accomplish them. Increasingly, we have come to invest our efforts, energies, and ambitions with the weight of both our sustenance and our happiness. But this is the death of hope, the death of creativity, the death of generosity. All the things that make us more virtuous, more like God, are suffocated when we have displaced and malfunctioning expectations. Your gardening hobby will never perfectly fulfill you. It wasn’t supposed to.
That brings us back to the labor shortage.
The millennial generation was given the matching set of ‘work = reward’ in a slightly different context than that of their parents: With the growth in two-income households, employers could stunt salary inflation. More women in the workforce meant cheaper labor, and thus real wages have continued to plummet, a phenomenon that has only worsened through the years. Today, few careers can support a family with only one source of income. It wasn’t until the majority of millennials had taken on crushing student debt that news broke: A degree doesn’t guarantee a job, especially a job in your field or at an experience level that pays enough. They weren’t given enough to live, start a family, or pay off student loans. For the previous generations, those who worked were expected to meet at least basic human needs, but it wasn’t so for many millennials.
The new generation now entering the work force watched this happen and took note. Unsurprisingly, much of Gen-Z is resistant to the thought of becoming another cog in a corrupt system. They do not dream of labor. Why would they?
But the consequent “anti-work” attitudes that have sprouted up probably won’t result in liberatory outcomes. More likely, rejecting all labor will—ironically—result in a lot of people living lives of pure work to support those who “do not dream” or lack ambitions, desires, goals, or any motivation to complete them. Rejecting work entirely will only make our problems worse.
The only way to roll back these trends – if that is even possible – is to fix our work culture, to bring work back to its proper place in the order of human life.
Why do we work? To live. Why do we live? To reach perfect virtue in this life and perfect happiness in the next. How can leisure be possible if people work all the time? It can’t, and this is even more of a reason to learn how to work well. Learning how to be efficient in your chosen field will not only aid you in acquiring the materials you need to live, but it will begin to draw lines between home and work again. To separate the person from their usefulness.
The motion-study and efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth worked for his entire life to break down the steps of completing a task and find the fastest way of doing each step. He revolutionized the working world, and reducing worker fatigue was one of his chief goals when entering factories. His work in reducing the time needed for surgical operations has saved thousands of lives and given people greater chances of recovery while reducing chances of infection. He was an inventor, a workplace revolutionary, a life saver, an author, a speaker – and a loving father and devoted husband. In a book written by two of his twelve children, someone asks Gilbreth, “What do you want to save time for? What are you going to do with it?”
“For work, if you love that best,” he responded, “For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure – for mumbletypeg if that’s where your heart lies.”
Why learn how to do your job and do it well? “For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure,” that is, for leisure! For the things that make life meaningful. For the things that remind us that our value is not limited by our usefulness. For the things that bring us closer to joy. For shenanigans, for mumbletypeg, for the joyful meeting of minds—for everything that has no obvious reason to happen but makes the burden and gift of existence more beautiful, true, and good.
Theresa Bova is studying Graduate Theological Science at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She enjoys examining pop culture, making pizza, gardening, and meeting new people. Theresa is deeply invested in the revolution of politically restless American people.