Alternatives to Busywork



Last week, the New York Times ran an op-ed with the temptingly clickable title of, “It’s Time to Stop Living the American Scam.” Good millennial that I am, I eagerly clicked on this piece, looking for further validation and confirmation of my generation’s collective economic angst (see also). By then, 2,000+ people had already commented.


In the op-ed, Tim Kreider describes the recent evolution around our glorification of busyness. Back in the earlier years of the 21st century, it was cool to be busy, to be pecking away at our BlackBerries and then our iPhones/Androids. We had only to dig deeper, work harder, play harder.


These days, I think a lot of us are over that, though there’s still no shortage of supposedly productivity-enhancing technologies. For Kreider, “the pandemic was the bomb cyclone of our discontents.” Many people realized that they hated clocking in, pretending to enjoy their work—that their jobs weren’t really all that essential. It was the “nurses, cashiers, truckers, and delivery people” who ran the world (or, more precisely, kept the world running).


There are many valid reactions to these discontents. Kreider lists the lying-flat movement, the Great Resignation, the fears that many young people have about bringing children into this world. Some of us feel the need to just enjoy life as much as possible, since maybe there’s really no future. I don’t have to dwell on these various reactions to everything seeming like it’s on fire—plenty of writers have already done that.


On the other hand, there are others, like Kreider, exhorting us to “do something”. That we should stop wasting our time with meaningless work that ultimately exhausts us into spending our evenings mindlessly streaming and doom-scrolling. There are lots of problems in the world, and ‘we’ need to start addressing them.


While I somewhat sympathize with both the ‘do nothing’ and the ‘do something’ sides, there is a fairly obvious, practical problem with such exhortations for people who are lucky enough to be employed.


Meme: One does not simply stop working.


One does not simply stop working.


Some are lucky to have savings or inheritances that give the luxury to stop working. But many, if not most, Americans don’t have much in savings and/or are paying off various forms of debt. After stopping work, how would one feed themselves and their families? How would you pay for shelter? How would you transport yourself? And so forth.


Stopping work or stopping to do something are very appealing, but can be impractical for many. It is true that there are people who risk everything to start community organizations that are solving major social problems. Those people are doing amazing work and deserve to be honored. But not everyone is that kind of person or has that tolerance for risk. 


In our economy and society, basic services are commodified—that is, you need money to pay for them. Universal basic income (UBI) might help solve issues around ensuring universal access to basic services. If everyone received a basic income, then it might become easier to purchase food, housing, and other services, without necessarily needing a job (or if your job got automated away). However, such a UBI would have to account for inflation—a major concern right now—and would nonetheless be dependent on taxation raised by a government, which subsequently depends on many people working at jobs and consuming (see also). Social Security payments do annually account for inflation, but that does leave recipients vulnerable to short-term inflation spikes, i.e., right now.


These potential limitations are what drew me to universal basic services (UBS). Why provide income to purchase basic services, when the basic services could be directly provided or made available? There are risks that a UBI would continue to be dependent on both market and government mechanisms for the production, and ultimately distribution, of basic services. However, markets are not necessarily perfectly competitive and governments, with their policies, can change. 


That said, these risks do not mean that government- or market-based support have failed to improve societal welfare. There are many innovations, supported by government-funded research or developed through market competition, that have made our lives better. Neither the glass next to me nor the water in it is likely to make me sick. The drywall sheltering me is unlikely to spontaneously combust. The bus lines outside my building will transport me around Boston.


The innovation we haven’t figured out, though, is how to decouple access to basic services from the need to earn and accumulate money. Sure, money can play a role in organizing, directing, and rewarding talent to create important innovations. But it’s not literally the money itself that created those innovations—people did. I’m not saying that money should go away. That’s extremely unlikely. It has important uses, such as facilitating transactions or removing/reducing the need to negotiate an item’s value. But for basic services that all people need, I do not think access to those should depend on one’s wallet.


Providing better basic services at the local levels can help to decouple access to services from the imperative to earn money. Can we reshape our society to one where each of us, for 2-3 days a week, volunteers in our communities to provide the basic services that we all need? Can it not be possible to work with our hands alongside our neighbors to farm, package crops for transport, build/maintain structures, give rides, check on the vulnerable, etc.? We already have the actual technologies and experts to learn from. Many organizations around the country are already successfully providing these services to those who cannot pay. There might be many people willing to give this society a try; as Kreider notes,


“And I don’t believe most people are lazy. They would love to be fully, deeply engaged in something worthwhile, something that actually mattered, instead of forfeiting their limited hours on Earth to make a little more money for men they’d rather throw fruit at as they pass by in tumbrels.”


Perhaps in such a society we could then have 4-5 days of that week to do what we want. Some of us would want to still work jobs that we find fulfilling and earn some money. Others, burned out by their prior work, could lie flat for a while and not fear starving or losing shelter. Still others could work to solve further community issues. More people, assured of their basic needs, might be free to pursue creative channels or invent new software and hardware (see also), instead of such inventions being disproportionately shaped–or impelled–by access to finance and the profit motive. Better basic services, provided by our communities, could be an alternative to the busyness or busywork afflicting many of us. Providing those services for all would be truly innovative.