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The high cost of the work-to-live treadmill

My mind broke a little bit today.

Unable to sleep in the wee hours this morning, I [foolishly] picked up my phone and was browsing through a few social media outlets when I came upon a post that put into words something that I have very worriedly obsessed over for years.

This worry has seemed so big, so unanswerable, that it has been a quagmire that I’ve been been unable to even attempt to articulate, let alone try to imagine an answer.

The quagmire

I have a long list of creative ideas and interesting things that I would love to work on but never seem to have the energy or time to do. On those rare occasions when I carve out a sliver of spare time for such things, my creativity is often crowded by the pressing needs of life. This blog represents nearly the total of all that I can manage, yet I have so much more that I would like to do.

When I am working yet another long work week, all I have the mental capacity for at the end of the day is to let my brain turn into mush in front of the TV, “selling hours of my life in order to purchase survival from society.” (That’s a paraphrased line by author Cassey Maddox.)

But I am one of the fortunate ones: I enjoy the work that I do and I’m reasonably compensated for it. At the end of my brain-numbing days, I am incredibly lucky that I can dissolve on the couch in front of my favorite TV shows. How much more brain-numbing would my life be if my evenings were instead spent in worry of not having earned quite enough for rent, or in trying to muster the energy to head off to a second or third job?

When I think of this and multiply it across a planetful of work-weary people, I know with certainty that we, the societies of the industrialized world — and especially the United States — have gotten it all wrong.

We, society, have focused on work and productivity over people and creativity, and we have turned our people into zombies. We have taken wonderful humans with the capacity for so much, and have stubbed their potential out in the ashtrays of labor, keeping them on an ever-moving treadmill of working to live so they can live to work. 

That is bad enough. But — and now we’re getting to the part that has obsessed me for so many years — in turning people’s lives into a focus on endless working just to live, we are drowning out the possibility to grow as a species. Yes, I’m tired, and I wish I had more time to create. But while I like to think that I am a bright, creative person, I’m not delusional: I know I am no genius on the precipice of greatness.

This quagmire, the real subject of this blog: it’s not at all about me. Dotted among those millions of people living on their treadmills to get by, there exist occasional bright sparks of potential that are doused before they could ever flare into the flames that society desperately needs:

The person with the potential to unlock the secrets of DNA, cure the most puzzling diseases, reduce human suffering, and help all of us be healthier humans.

… to figure out cold fusion, deliver limitless clean energy, and to make human expansion possible in the territories beyond our solar system.

… to understand the nature and keys to mental illness and to help all of us better understand each other, be happier, and actually get along.

… to articulate those barely felt and as-yet-unspoken philosophical keys to understanding our life on earth and to help us finally achieve real, lasting peace.

Not to mention the people with the potential to create the many thousands of awe-inspiring and uplifting works of music, art, dance, film, and more.

Many of these people have long since lived, toiled, and eventually died trying to support their families on minimum wage instead of ever having gone to college or had a peaceful moment to ponder anything beyond worry about making rent or finding a meal. More people with the potential to do so much more are still on the work-to-live treadmills, and some are yet still to come.

What mind-blowing scientific discoveries, amazing music and art, and nurturing philosophical concepts were lost along the way or have yet to be discovered because of this starving of people’s potential and space to think and create?

Our society has failed to make space for people to live, not just to work. And in so doing, we are missing out on the benefits that unfettered creative and intelligent potential can deliver.

By putting its people on work-to-live treadmills, society is on one itself: walking in place.


So, what can we do?

This is what I’ve had in my head for many years, stuck meditating on this quagmire of a problem and never being able to see a way into a future without it. Put another way: I feel this problem deeply, but I have no earthly idea what an answer could be.

So when I saw a Facebook post quoting a tweet that did a good job of articulating a suggested solution (see below), it was a smack upside my head. Is what is suggested in the post the way to go? I don’t know. Maybe, although I can’t imagine how. I don’t have anything beyond the typical hint of understanding of the economy, so I wouldn’t know where to begin.

But dismissing an idea just because it needs to be figured out is foolish.

Maybe her suggestion is a direction to go, complete with the many steps along the way that are perhaps easier to envision and attain. Maybe her ultimate goal is achievable, maybe it can only be achieved by a society who has found many more answers than we have (so far). Or maybe it is too idealistic and could never happen. I just don’t know.

But in reading her thoughts, I lifted my face from that quagmire and thought for the first time that maybe there is an answer, whatever it may be. I won’t be around to see it realized, but maybe my kids will be, or maybe the generation after that.

Or maybe the economists and politicians of today will continue to say “It’s too hard to fix, let’s just keep these blinders on our faces and keep going on these treadmills that we already know everything about.”


The tweets behind this post

MadLori articulated this well — going beyond just moaning about the problem (like me) and actually thinking about a potential solution. Achievable? Maybe. Maybe not. But worth adding to the conversation.

Below is the full transcription of the July 23, 2019 thread of 11 tweets from MadLori on Twitter (@madlori):

When discussing Universal Basic Income, inevitably the retort comes: “So you just want people to not have to work, is that it?” Accompanied by a smug smirk, expecting me to backpedal and hem and haw, say “Of course not, that’s silly.” Except…yes. Yes, I do.

People shouldn’t HAVE to work. People should WANT to work. Sharing in the labor of building and maintaining a society because it benefits everyone should be desirable, not forced. It shouldn’t be something we do because we’ll die otherwise.

Imagine a society where survival didn’t depend on a job. Imagine how that would alter the fabric of…everything. Imagine if you could leave a job without fearing the loss of income or health care. Imagine the power of the worker in that society.

If a person could survive without a job, imagine what employers would be like. They’d have to treat their workers fairly, and make themselves attractive to entice workers. They’d have to offer a better option than other employers, and make people want to participate.

Places that have offered UBI have seen the results: most people do want to work. The people who choose not to are generally young parents, students, people with disabilities and the elderly. people have a desire to contribute, for our lives to have purpose and to be useful.

And before you say it, yes, some people will take advantage. That is true for absolutely everything ever. You think people don’t take advantage of the economy we have? Like, say, the 1% who grow wealthier while their employees have to work three jobs and use food stamps?

They can only do that, by the way, because people are so terrified of losing a job and the destruction that would follow that they tolerate mistreatment, disempowerment, the destruction of their unions, healthcare, retirements and even their bodies to avoid it.

That would not be the case if everyone were guaranteed a baseline survival income. Your boss couldn’t treat you like shit because he knows you can’t leave. You CAN leave, and you will.

What if desperation didn’t motivate everything? Imagine the impact on health, relationships, parenting, well-being, crime, violence, progress. When you aren’t desperately scrabbling for the rent, you can spare a neuron to contemplate long-term problems.

Imagine a society where terror of destitution wasn’t a constant thrum underneath everyone’s existence. Imagine the creative works that society could produce. Imagine the children it could raise, the elderly it could care for. Imagine the inventions it could produce.

Now, imagine knowing all this and thinking “NOPE. We can’t have all that, because someone I don’t like might benefit from it. So to avoid that, the rest of you can all hang.” And there you have modern conservative thinking.