The tyranny of productivity
At some point, Americans traded soul-soothing leisure time for economic growth — to their detriment
This summer, in Europe, whole companies are taking a full month off. Workers spend weeks at the ocean or in the mountains with family and friends without an inkling of guilt or pang of anxiety about a drop in their so-called productivity. Meanwhile, many Americans remain in our cubicles or, at best, take a couple of long weekend getaways that will no doubt be interrupted by conference calls and urgent emails.
I'm thinking about this disparity now because I'm in the middle of reading How To Do Nothing, a recent book by the artist Jenny Odell, which argues that a crucial task for 21st-century Americans is resisting demands to make ourselves constantly productive. In the book, Odell delves into the idea of placing human experience ahead of striving, and she examines a variety of political, social, and artistic movements that aim to do just that, from 19th-century strikes for the eight-hour workday to a 2015 art piece that framed the sunset as a performance, complete with ushers and cordoned-off seating. She also talks about her own time spent at Morcom Rose Garden near her home in Oakland, walking, noticing birdcalls and trees, and focusing her attention on her relationship with her physical surroundings.
For all the radical and avant-garde examples Odell finds, her message underpins some of the most common and mundane observations we hear around us every day: "I hate staring at a screen all the time," "work sucks," "I just want to sit with my feet in the sand and an ocean breeze on my face." There may be some truth to the stereotype of Americans' desperate drive to succeed, but humans also have a desperate need to play. We need the freedom to do nothing — and not just as a way to relax and recharge for the next month of work. We need the time to find sources of joy and meaning that have nothing at all to do with the productivity conveyor belt.
Yet, even as multiple Democratic contenders vie for our 2020 votes with various progressive legislative proposals, this need is completely absent from policy conversations in the States. Why?
Perhaps it's because there's little business incentive for giving people time to relax. For U.S. politicians and policymakers, it seems there's a strikingly narrow range of goals the government should be working toward: Creating jobs and growing GDP is paramount. Wonks may also mention improving education, encouraging employers to offer family leave, and providing health insurance, but they usually feel the need to justify these ideas by arguing that they'll eventually lead to more economic growth.
In Europe, The Economist notes, "the idea that summer is for play, not work, seems hard to shake." But, the writer notes, "the practice of a shut-down seems driven more by habit and the social acceptance of holidaymaking … than by much business logic."
I am struck by this unquestioning assumption that people ought to make their choices based on "business logic." Is the idea that the government ought to help us carve out the time and space to dip our toes in the ocean or watch birds at the park just for the sake of it so inappropriate or bizarre?
It wasn't always this way. More than 100 years ago, states began listening to workers' demands and limiting the hours employers could make people work. Later, in the 1930s and '40s, the federal government did the same thing on the national level. And governments didn't just guarantee people the free time to pay attention to things one might deem "unproductive" — they also helped them find unproductive things to do. Indeed, early 20th-century political leaders made playgrounds and public spaces a priority. Teddy Roosevelt, who helped create the national parks system, ensuring Americans' access to wild and beautiful places, frequently described the power of nature in decidedly non-instrumental terms. "There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm," he once wrote.
Later, during the depths of the Great Depression, workers hired by the federal government built some of the country's most gorgeous public architecture — including, as Odell notes, the Oakland rose garden she so enjoys.
But, in the second half of the 20th century, government increasingly shied away from policies aimed at anything as unproductive as beauty and pleasure and devoted itself to economic growth, instead. Corporations, on the other hand, discovered that selling products to an increasingly affluent society required appeals that went beyond basic utility. The advertising industry blossomed, selling the joy of immediate experience as a consumer good for individual consumption. Car commercials promised the physical sensation of speed and the beauty of wide-open wild country. Coke ads associated soda with relaxed time with friends, lit by honey-toned late afternoon sunshine. Nike sold delight in our own bodies' movements.
Today, this seems like the natural order. Government handles the dry business of creating conditions for growth while companies use that growth to offer us leisure-time pleasures that bring them profits. But there's no reason it needs to be that way. Maybe what we need are politicians who are willing to mention goals that don't boil down to productivity.
So, here's a suggestion for any presidential candidate out there: Another promise to give jobs to hard-working Americans isn't going to help you distinguish yourself from the other people in the race. Instead, try rolling out a plan that would push companies to provide European-style vacations for their workers. Maybe it would help the country resist the tyranny that comes from boiling our full human lives down to business logic.