In praise of idleness

Posted on May 18, 2022

Early in my career, over a break, I approached a co-worker of mine and complained that all of my life’s problems were due to my relationship with work. I had watched Office Space the day before, still one of my favourite movies, and almost shed tears of joy seeing that others understood the very same concept, that most of the time we spend on work is meaningless. To my surprise I got back an answer along the lines of “what else is there to do in life?”. It was not an argument stemming from the necessity or virtue of work but from sheer boredom, something that had never occurred to me, as I had tons of interests I wanted to pursue in my free time. I stumbled upon Russell’s in Praise of Idleness shortly after, which led me to economic planning (quoting: “Owing to the absence of any central control over production, we produce hosts of things that are not wanted. We keep a large percentage of the working population idle, because we can dispense with their labor by making the others overwork…”). Some of the issues Russell ignores (e.g. problem of finding which products to create) are harder than what was imagined in the 1930s and pretty much still unsolved, which is why planned economies risk looking like fully balanced optimal economies frozen 40 years in the past. When it comes to boredom, Russell understood the problem of having nothing to do outside work and had a concept of active vs passive entertainment (e.g. playing football vs watching football), with a strong preference for the former.

I still think of Russell’s essay on labour as a blueprint for the good society (including his pitch for a 4-hour workday). It stood the test of time quite well; I’ll try to “modernise” it an other post.

PS. Following writing this, I realised it’s Bertrand Russell’s birthday today (18 May 1872)!