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We should think differently about work and vacations

Perhaps it's time we started thinking of work

Perhaps it's time we started thinking of work as an intrusion, even if it's a necessary one, on the time we call our own. Credit: Alamy / Lev Dolgachov

Among the happiest of prospects for most workers is the annual vacation. It offers, at least in theory, our best opportunity to pass time on our own terms. It’s freedom from the clock, from stressful demands. Some choose to spend that free time in crowded places, others in solitude. One way or another, it is time spent, we hope, just as we — not the boss, client or customer — want it to be.

Vacation’s appeal is at odds with what we generally think we should be doing with our hours: working to provide for ourselves and perhaps others. Only by working, after all, can we make something of ourselves and gain standing in the world. The virtue of work is that it brings security and reputation, the essential rewards. In that context, a vacation might look like a deviation from virtuous activity. But we can justify our leisure when we see it as a noble reward for time spent at the core business: work.

But time off isn’t really permitted, or even encouraged, to support the pursuit of freedom. Vacation actually supports the world of work. Although annual leave is a right in many workplaces, it is of significant value to employers, too. Studies consistently urge employers to embrace a culture of paid leave, even if it is in the name of their own profit. Labor laws would probably look quite different if workers returned from vacation or long weekends in rebellious or feckless moods. Furthermore, a planned absence within a company allows whoever is temporarily taking up the absentee’s duties to gain experience in a role they do not usually occupy. This allows a company to develop a pool of workers with more diverse skills.

Is it just a happy coincidence that the sense of freedom that attracts us to time off coincides so neatly with the needs of well-run businesses? A dismal world of time-consuming and personally sapping labor requires, as the philosopher Herbert Marcuse put it in “Eros and Civilization,” “that leisure be a passive relaxation and a re-creation of energy for work.”

Here, we might expect philosophers of Marcuse’s ilk to come to our aid, defending some truer form of freedom as an essential human value. The Ancient Greek philosophers — Aristotle among them — spoke of leisure as the opportunity for contemplation dedicated to improving one’s life and community. Roman authors spoke in similar ways of leisure as “otium,” the negation of which — negotium — is the tawdry world of business. Instead we find that philosophers in the modern age too often criticize the excesses of leisure, effectively — not always intentionally — siding with the values of the managerial classes.

John Dewey, for instance, defends “a worthy leisure” as a just reward for admirable labor. Rest without toil, however, forms no part of a good life. Similar views are found in the writings of William Morris, the Victorian English artist and social critic, still celebrated for his patterned textile designs. In the essay “Signs of Change,” he welcomed the arrival of mechanization, recognizing that it might provide opportunities for increased leisure. But he warned that an ever-lurking danger of aimless degeneracy accompanied this possibility. Informed by his socialist commitments, Morris worried that leisure could be selfishly misused. He proposed: “I should probably use my leisure for doing a good deal of what is now called work.” That would entail a voluntary contribution to the needs of the community, as well as an effort to sharpen one’s skills in a less-stressful environment.

Philosophers of quite diverse ideologies have shared Morris’ skepticism that true release from work is a fundamental good, among them Adam Smith, G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx. Despite their different perspectives, they all believed that human beings are especially impressive when they are “useful.” Hegel made his case by comparing the industrious, well-trained workers of his own culture, who live with the “need and habit of being occupied,” with those of unspecified other places. Those others fall supposedly short of the ideal by idling and doing nothing beyond the bare minimum required to preserve their lives. They have little by way of skill, and that is to be lamented.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that such thinkers would justify work. It’s not uncommon, after all, to hear people report their delight at getting back to work at the end of their vacation. The structure of the workday, together with the clear purposes of its tasks, is easier to handle than time when we have to find fresh activities to stave off boredom. Sometimes, too, a vacation goes wrong. Perhaps the travel or the weather was an unexpected misery, or maybe time on the road with friends and family brought up long-simmering frustrations. Or maybe work is just less dull than leisure.

As Immanuel Kant, to name but one example, suggests in his book “Anthropology From a Pragmatic Point of View,” we have “a highly contrary feeling” in which we long for ease, yet quickly become bored when we have all the ease we want. Well-trained workers fear unemployment not only because of its financial implications. It is also because of the daunting prospect of tedium — of being forced against one’s will to do nothing, and of doing nothing ordinarily considered to be useful. Unemployment inflicts a version of social invisibility on us, since humans have been taught to value standing in society.

If that’s true, then filling our time within a structured workplace may be more pleasing than the freedom our leisure gives us, even if the work is not especially fulfilling. But the problem may be a matter of collective culture rather than human nature. We spend most of our formative years learning how to work. Our schooling trains us to complete tasks. It escalates the challenges of those tasks as our abilities grow, and we receive rewards for our accomplishments. At home, our families train us to help out, keeping things in order. There are few schools for idlers or households for the lazy.

While we all grumble that too little of our time is really our own, we still unconsciously see the annual vacation as an experience that ultimately reaffirms the value of labor.

If that idea troubles, it also hints at a more agreeable possibility. Perhaps it’s time we started thinking of work as an intrusion, even if it’s a necessary one, on the time we call our own. To embrace such a premise would be to reverse our current arrangement, in which the annual vacation is cherished as a special treat. There is much to be learned from a range of innovative thinkers who say considerably fewer working hours need not lead to a collapse in our capacity to provide for ourselves. Bertrand Russell, for example, hoped that mechanization and a greater appreciation of our true needs could lead us away from intensive labor. A flourishing civilization where leisure was intelligently used would follow.

We should not, though, rely too much on wishful thinking. Ridding ourselves of naivete about the supposed freedom of licensed vacation is but a small step toward understanding, and perhaps revising, the all-pervasive influence of the institution of work.

O’Connor, a professor of philosophy at University College Dublin, is the author, most recently, of “Idleness: A Philosophical Essay.”