Oscar Wilde preferred absinthe and repartée to the nine-to-five grind. The notion that drink was the curse of the working classes? He twisted it like a lemon-peel garnish, declaring that work was the curse of the drinking classes. And he was secretly in earnest. In “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” Wilde insisted that “all unintellectual labour, all monotonous, dull labour, all labour that deals with dreadful things, and involves unpleasant conditions, must be done by machinery.”
So much for the nobility of Whitman’s clean, honest sweat. Wilde preferred amusement and cultivated leisure, “making beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight.” Having tried, hard, to see mopping and laundry as spiritual exercises, I find I agree with his priorities.
But Wilde was talking about the hulking steel machines of the Industrial Revolution. Visible (unmissable, in fact) and mechanically predictable, they made for uncomplicated servants. Were he alive today, would he cheer on AI? The cynical misanthrope who sleeps rough in my brain’s back alleys (I refuse to rent her a room) suspects that today’s Great Resignation is a moment of temporary defiance that will ultimately hand even more power to the robot masters.
It felt like a natural outburst, the cumulation of years of frustration and injustice. Leaving those shitty jobs en masse was the perfect, spontaneous way to shift a little power from the bosses to the workers and thus improve pay and conditions. Get a little more respect. But the thirty-eight million resignations of 2021 also makes plenty of room for robotic service workers to replace humans altogether, and the possibility is no longer distant. Bosses were supposed to say, “Gee, I should value you more”—and they are, for now—but as soon as they are offered AI that will never get sick or resign, they will leap to implement it.
Similarly, the legislation introduced by the Congressional Progressive Caucus last month to shorten the work week to thirty-two hours sounds humane and intelligent, a long-overdue way to balance work with the rest of life. But a shorter week also leaves gaps the robots can slide through, and we are too tired to care.
Since 1950, work hours in the United States have grown apace with consumption. Stressed, hollowed out, any chance for creativity or enthusiasm turned to ash, many of us sit late at night in front of our own screens, eyelids heavy, determined not to go to bed yet, because we are stealing some time back for ourselves, goddammit. (There is even a name for this: revenge procrastination.) Come morning, we drag ourselves to work and, blinking a few times, realize that an algorithm has eaten half our job description. AI now sifts through legal discovery or proofreads copy. We are sharing our cubicle with a robot.
If other, more interesting jobs are available, AI’s contributions will be fine—as long as, like good British butlers, the robots know their place. But make no mistake: these are not Wilde’s machines. The new sort of “machine” is replacing—and skewing—information work. Our new (unpaid) careers might be as activists trying to right their wrongs. And that will take more than forty (or sixty) hours a week.
Wilde’s solution to work was machines, and they did make life easier. AI will make a lot of life easier, too. But many of us—if we are lucky enough to still be employed—will shift from doing work to making sure it gets done, updating and downloading and programming and monitoring and double-checking. All of which is far more stressful than doing the work itself.
Which brings me to the point Cal Newport, a Georgetown University political scientist, made recently in The New Yorker. Shortening the workweek for jobs in various kinds of service (work that has a concrete, interpersonal immediacy and cannot be done at midnight while your spouse sleeps) is a partial, useful solution for teachers, nurses, all those who are overworked and not being paid for the extra hours. (Those who are paid by the hour and want more hours might be screwed yet again.) But shortening the workweek for people whose family members already have to pry their phones and laptops from their spasming hands in order to enjoy dinner or a weekend movie? That will do nothing to help them. In fact, it is an old trick: give people a generous vacation benefit and keep the deadlines so tight, they must work twice as hard before and after just to manage a few days off. A magnanimous and almost mean gesture, like the boss handing you, with a sweeping flourish, tickets to a sporting event you loathe, then waiting to be thanked profusely.
Knowledge workers are free to work at their own pace (as long as they complete the tasks and respond to the demands at everyone else’s pace), but everything is up to them. The solution they need is a slower work week—“Slow Productivity” is Newport’s phrase. Bosses must learn to ask for less, stop issuing projects all at once, stop forwarding every request instantly just to empty their own inbox. Work assignments must come at a manageable pace, so our to-do list ceases to read like the Labors of Hercules, and we can at least imagine checking off every box.
Slowing down is the fastest solution when you feel panicked, frazzled, unable to think straight. The Slow Food movement started as a burst of outrage over plans to open a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome. The concept struck a chord, and soon we had Slow Cities, Slow Medicine, Slow Parenting. Slow Productivity would do more to relieve burnout than any other measure—something that should have been obvious long before the pandemic, but seemed like profit’s enemy. Now that a mutating virus has smashed a few dents in our economic hustle and bustle, maybe it could take hold? Because not all of us are Oscar Wilde, dreading work itself. What we dread are frustration, overwork, stress, exhaustion, drama, hypervigilance, and being set up to fail.
Some see the Great Resignation as proof that we are all fundamentally lazy; I see it as a correction. Capitalism is like Christianity and democracy: it has never been tried. Not in its intended pure form. Instead, we took Adam Smith’s invisible hand as permission for greed and forgot that the man was a moral philosopher. This crazed, exploitative work life was never his intent.
Another reason for exhaustion: the effort of sustaining so many illusions.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.