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If work is our ‘modern religion,’ leisure is not the cure

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Americans are known for working longer hours and taking less vacation time than their counterparts in the industrialized world. In response, many are quick to decry this fact as evidence of age-old desperation and newfound decadence.

If people are working long and hard, there must be problem. But is this the only possible explanation?

For Benjamin Hunnicutt, professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa, the answer is a simple and resounding “yes.” Work has become a “modern religion,” he writes, and its recent elevation to a source of meaning is leading our society to ruin—economically, socially, and otherwise.

“No previous age has been so enthralled, or longed for more, rather than less, work to do,” Hunnicutt writes. “No other people have imagined nothing better for their posterity than the eternal creation of more work. Work sits squarely at the center: the enduring economic imperative, political mandate, source of morality and social identity.”

But while we may be prone to nod our heads with that initial assessment—affirming a basic resistance to “workaholism” and its various manifestations—Hunnicutt soon makes clear the true source of his frustrations: modern capitalism and any faith therein.

Rather than (rightly) warning us against over-elevating or over-indulging in the work of our hands—turning work into an idol of sorts—Hunnicutt dismisses the very notion that work has anything to offer in terms of purpose or meaning or fulfillment. Likewise, the Industrial Revolution was not a positive milestone for humanity, leading to unprecedented growth, but a point after which the utopian work-life balance of the peasantry was violently disrupted. The cause? “Modern characteristics such as being hired and paid.” Gasp.

While those characteristics and the subsequent expansion of free exchange would soon lead to widespread prosperity, Hunnicutt believes it to be an unfortunate “accident of history” leading to work that is “flimsy and fragile” and causing us to believe in “everlasting creation of new work to sustain eternal full-time, full employment.”

Rather than seeing work as a good to be pursued, Hunnicutt argues, we should return it to its proper place, once again viewing it as a mere pathway to self-provision and, ideally, a means to ever-increasing leisure and merriment:

There are, however, plenty of alternatives to work that are both more realistic and reliable. I have spent a good deal of my life trying to write a history of labor’s century-long fight for progressively shorter work hours, and the accompanying dream of what Walt Whitman called the “higher progress.” This was once the confident expectation that economic progress was paving the way to humane and moral progress. After providing for the material necessities of life, technology would free us, increasingly, for better things. Eventually we would have plenty of time for family, friends, beauty, joy, creativity, God and nature.

…We all might reclaimownership over more of our lives instead of continuing in thrall, sacrificing our lives for the profit of the ultra-rich. In this opening realm of freedom, equality might also be within reach; we all have the same amount of hours to live each day.

Alas, for all his dismay over the “drive for maximum profit” and its cheapening of society, Hunnicutt’s is a vision that is entirely focused on the self. For all the castigating of capitalism as a mere mechanism for consumerism, Hunnicutt’s ideal gives way to a base materialism and hedonism of a different sort.

Through such a vision, work is fundamentally about “freeing” us unto…ourselves—a pathway to the “higher progress” of leisure, i.e., reactionary self-indulgance. Whether achieved through coercive legislation or a larger cultural shift toward longer vacations and earlier retirement, Hunnicut longs for a world wherein work on behalf of others diminishes for the expansion of our own wants and desires. Such a view not only cramps and confines our work to certain places and “business-y” things; it also makes it all about us, when it’s really about serving others.

To be clear, surely there is much more to life than work, just as there is more work in life than that which is done on the “job.” But a world without work—or a world wherein work is diminished to a self-serving mechanism for increased “free time”—is one wherein personal purpose and fulfillment are sure to perish, never mind the greater goods of love and fellowship for our neighbors.

When we dismiss the true value of work in all of its depth and breadth, we won’t be able to solve our problems of workplace idolatry or “work-life balance.” We will simply diminish and dilute everything else. When we toss out the transcendent purpose of our work, which aligns our hearts and hands to the needs of others in rhythms and patterns across our daily lives, we toss out the basic ingredients to a creative and collaborative society.

Hunnicutt claims to dream of a world wherein work is minimized for the sake of “family, friends, beauty, joy, creativity, God and nature.” But just as these areas will truly suffer if we over-elevate work beyond its proper place, they will also lack any breadth or depth if we over-indulge in competing idolatries of leisure. With family and friends, with God and among nature, most of our meaning is not found in leisure, but in labor—in serving and loving.

So are Americans working too much?

Contrary to Hunnicutt’s elaborate analysis, the answer has little to do with materialistic calculations of how close you are to an early retirement or how many hours you’re clocking on behalf of others. It has everything to do with who you’re serving, what you’re serving, how you’re serving, and whether more or less rest might empower you to serve more, not less.

Rather than striving after self-focused, leisure-laden bucket lists and line-item ideals for “hours per week,” we should instead work toward a world where all is gift and abundance is a given: where our rest leads to work, our work leads to creative service, and our creative service leads to more love, more fellowship, and more flourishing.

Image: The Workaholic, herval (CC BY 2.0)

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, Intellectual Takeout, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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