Waking up at the crack of dawn to spend your day in a dull, grey office building. Putting in 50-hour weeks for a handful of days off a year. Spending the best part of your life stressed out and overworked, so you can pass your final decades, if you reach them, in peace.
Welcome to “the age of leisure and abundance”.
Rather than the predicted utopia in which we all work 15-hour-weeks and the one worry we have is how to occupy our leisure — as described in the famous 1930s paper by economist John Maynard Keynes — our reality sounds much more like something laid out in a 1950s dystopian sci-fi novel.
And not a very good one at that.
Why is this so? As Keynes predicted, our material needs have long been met, and most of us have the means and technological capability to live lives of leisure and abundance.
But contrary to what Keynes believed, for the vast majority of us, this wealth has not translated into leisure. As if carried along by the momentum and prosperity of the industrial revolution, most of society still operates under the illusion that more, bigger, and faster always means better.
So we dedicate our lives to climbing the career ladder to, so we think, reach a better quality of life. When in fact, although we may achieve a higher salary and grander sounding title, long, stressful commutes, whole days spent sedentary, office politics, workplace bureaucracy, overtime, and the constant worry of when we’ll be replaced by automation, ensure that our time, health, and spirit suffer greatly along the way.
Work is killing is, but could we exist in a world without it? Keynes recognised that work lends meaning to our days and that without it we would be lost. But what he failed to recognise, however, was that most of us would rather be dead than lost.
Keynes did know that the thought of a life beyond work brings an existential dread and that eventually, one way or another, we would have to face it. If it fails to come on the individual level, the “nervous breakdown” will come on a mass, societal level. Gradual advancements in automation and AI, the same technology that would “usher in” an age of leisure and abundance, would instead drive us out into economic uncertainty and scarcity.
There’s a caveat here, mentioned by Keynes, which may at first seem somewhat insignificant, but is enough to tip the scales in either direction. He said that to be able to realise and indulge in the abundance when it comes, one must be able to appreciate “the art of life itself”.
As technology encroaches more and more on our personal lives and blurs the lines between work and pleasure, we’re beginning to see just how fine the boundary is between abundance and scarcity. Just like one stroke of a paintbrush can be the difference between a masterpiece and a mess, one wrong move, step too far, or passive decision, could be the difference between being a slave to technology or its master.
Appreciating the art of life is an as — if not more — difficult prospect in 2018 than when set out by Keynes in the 1930’s. And yet it was already very apparent to him then that one of the principal barriers was how we’ve been trained for so long to strive and not to enjoy. A mechanism that, if we don’t push back and find alternatives, won’t fail in putting us to good use in carrying purposeful money-makers into the lap of economic abundance.
For what is the purpose of striving, of work, of life, if not to achieve greater monetary wealth? Perhaps this is why Keynes described living as an “art”; every form of art, skill, sport, game, or any other mode of leisure, has no other purpose than the act of doing it itself. Rather than completing a task for the purpose of a future outcome, our actions should be seen more as artistic expressions, concerned only with their own quality and immediate effects on others and the environment around them.
There’s no deference, no continual striving for more, no driving yourself into the ground for a future that never comes. If you haven’t already realised it, this perpetual cycle exists only to sustain a select few and is bound for nowhere, and as such, will quite happily take you with it if you don’t make a move and get off.
To end in Keynes’s words, “it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.”
Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Find him on Medium exploring remote working, technology, spirituality, meditation, and everything in between.