What Role Should Work Play in your Life?

While there are many who have mused about the pressures of climbing the corporate ladder, there are none so astute as Jay Z who says, “who we gonna tell, we top of the totem pole?” The erudite philosopher, as usual, prompts deep thought - we will likely spend most of the remainder of our lives working, likely climbing towards the top of the totem pole, but then what?

After we graduate from Booth, most of us are going to spend at least 75,000 hours working. As tomorrow’s business leaders, for ourselves and for those we will work with, I strongly believe we are also responsible for answering the ethical question of, “what role should work play in our lives?” I want to put forth a concept that is amorphous to me but somehow still has the same inexplicable appeal as one of Kovler’s chocolate chip cookies: post-work.

Post-work is an idea that has been loosely tossed around since ~2010 as far as I can trace. While definitions vary, it is premised on the idea that work today is suboptimal. So what does work look like today? Work is the master of the modern world. We work all the time. One’s “line of work” is a significant piece of most people’s identities. The virtue of “hard work” is extolled by politicians, put on the same pedestal as sincerity and goodwill. New innovations for our gadgets continue to allow us to work from anywhere at anytime.

As we work more and more, our sense of time-scarcity also deepens. While taking time for ourselves is almost universally acknowledged as a good thing, it is very tough to do so at the expense of money - higher income, greater savings, whatever it may be. It is easy to erroneously devalue time and overvalue money and end up rich and unhappy as documented in a recent HBR cover story.

Through the years, there have been academics and politicians that have suggested an alternative. While defining post-work is hard, I think it has something to do with the idea that self-expression is really important to the human experience. And if self-expression is not something you get through your work, then work should be significantly less consuming than it is in modern society. Even Adam Smith says, “The man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly not only preserves his health the longest but, in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.”

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, a number of microcosms experimented with smaller workloads. 1974 Britain instituted a 3-day work week that led to an arguably minimal drop in productivity, and the Swedes recently tried a 6-hour workday that led to a less stressed and happier workforce (albeit creating additional human capital costs).Perhaps most profoundly, there have been repeated projections that advances in technology will lead to less work. However, as advanced as we have become technologically, we have continued to find more work to do. Since the late-1970’s, the frequency of long work hours amongst the top salaried quintile of working Americans has increase by almost 15%.

Of course, the actual implementation of post-work requires much, much more in-depth exploration and debate of human behavior, corporate regulation and public policy. But tough challenges are what Boothies are built to solve.

I’d like to end with a quote from Margaret Thatcher: “The heresies of one period,” she said, always become “the orthodoxies of the next”. In the “work hard, play hard” times, saying that working less is a virtue feels almost heretical. But perhaps tomorrow, it will be completely normal.

I would like to acknowledge this beautiful publication in The Guardian from which I drew a lot of inspiration: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jan/19/post-work-the-radical-idea-of-a-world-without-jobs