Friday, February 25, 2005

Work 'til you drop

The whole social security issue is highlighting a lot of issues that haven't been well addressed. Kevin Drum mentions raising the retirement age as a solution to potential SSA shortfalls and has this reasonable reaction:

...people live longer than they did 60 years ago and are both physically and mentally active longer than they were 60 years ago. So why not work longer and retire later?

Answer: because we don't want to. Sure, we could continue inexorably raising the retirement age, ensuring that no matter how much richer we get and no matter how many medical advances we make, we're still working til we drop. We could do that, but we don't want to. Most of us like the idea that we'll have more years of "active retirement" (i.e., "free of chronic functional impairment") than we did 60 years ago.

This brings up something I've wondered about for some time. To wit, what makes a civilization 'advanced'?

If we're talking about standard of living, most anthropologists agree that pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies had it better than the average low-skilled worker today. The 'work-week' (the time it took to acquire the necessities of life) was around twenty hours a week, and everyone pretty much took part in whatever bounty was available, as well as shared in the misfortunes of scarcity. This left plenty of time for cave art, developing language and making babies.

When the latter proved too successful, population pressures forced the adoption of agriculture, and it's been pretty much downhill from there. Longer work-weeks, a growing disparity between 'workers' and 'management', and more brutish conditions for the lower skilled increased and accelerated up to the extremes of the industrial revolution.

Yet technology seemed to be our way out the depths of economies based on degrading labor supporting an unworthy leisured class, and so it proved for the past two centuries. Even the least skilled workers could now expect a minimum of two days of leisure a week, and the standard of living of the lowest in society partiallly justified the incredible wealth acquired by the few.

We seemed, for a brief period, to be on our way to an enviable standard of living, wherein you could acquire life's necessities by working fewer than forty hours a week, and the difference between the Haves and the Have-nots were simply how much they paid for their toys.

Thus, my definition of an Advanced Society: one in which no one is required to work more than twenty hours a week to acquire all they need to live. If you had asked me in 1978, I would have predicted that the standard workweek would have been below 36 hours by 2000, and most people would prefer the job that only took 32 hours.

Something happened in the Reagan eighties that warped our sense of what 'advanced' and 'wealthy' means. Whereas most people would agree that working eighty hours a week in a coalmine is no way to have to live, these same people may feel justified in spending eighty hours a week in their law office. If you asked them what they were working for, they might say 'to make partner' or 'to get rich so they can retire from work and enjoy themselves'. But in fact, they are getting some ego-boo out of being 'overworked', obnoxiously calling clients from their cellphones in line at the Starbucks; worse are the people who claim they're doing it 'for their children'. What, so your kids can be idle rich social parasites and have all the fun you never had? Are you mad?

Somewhere along the line, we got sold a bill of goods. We mock the Europeans for their month-long vacations and generally more relaxed attitudes towards 'making it', and reward corporations like WalMart who undermine local manufacturing by purchasing almost exclusively from Chinese prisoner-labor.

What happened to us? Surely 'work until you die' isn't a philosophy we mean to support?


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