It’s Time to Stop Living the American Scam

July 7, 2022. By Tim Kreider

Ten years ago, I wrote an essay called “ The Busy Trap,” about the curse of “busyness” that seemed endemic at the time. The treadmill had been imperceptibly increasing its speed for a while, and people were nervously starting to notice. As happens with a lot of unavoidable evils, they tried to rebrand their frantic busyness as a virtue. “Busy — so busy, crazy busy,” was the answer you got whenever you asked how they were. I came out, in my essay, as anti-busy; I advocated idling, daydreaming, hanging out and goofing off. My conclusion: “Life is too short to be busy.”

I guess a lot of other people had been thinking the same thing. For a few days, that essay was the thing everyone linked to, reposted and emailed. Other writers got paid to write responses to it. Someone even “debunked” it, as though it were a fake Bigfoot film. Entrepreneurial self-help gurus cited it and invited me to conferences. “The Colbert Report” even called, but I was unreachable in the Idaho panhandle at my friend Carolyn’s anniversary party, for which my agent has never really forgiven me. (Meg, I am sorry; Carolyn, I blame you; Mr. Colbert, I am still available.)

A decade later, people aren’t trying to sell busyness as a virtue anymore, not even to themselves. A new generation has grown to adulthood that’s never known capitalism as a functioning economic system. My generation, X, was the first postwar cohort to be downwardly mobile, but millennials were the first to know it going in. Our country’s oligarchs forgot to maintain the crucial Horatio Alger fiction that anyone can get ahead with hard work — or maybe they just dropped it, figuring we no longer had any choice. Through the internet, we could peer enviously at our neighbors in civilized countries, who get monthlong vacations, don’t have to devote decades to paying for their college degrees, and aren’t terrified of going broke if they get sick. To young people, America seems less like a country than an inescapable web of scams, and “hard work” less like a virtue than a propaganda slogan, inane as “Just say no.”

The pandemic was the bomb cyclone of our discontents; it not only gave all us nonessential workers an experience of mandatory sloth — which, for many, turned out to be not altogether unpleasant — but also dredged up a lakeful of long-submerged truths. It turns out that millions of people never actually needed to waste days of their lives sitting in traffic or pantomime “work” under managerial scrutiny eight hours a day. We learned that nurses, cashiers, truckers and delivery people (who’ve always been too busy to brag about it) actually ran the world and the rest of us were mostly useless supernumeraries. The brutal hierarchies of work shifted, for the first time in recent memory, in favor of labor, and the outraged whines of former social Darwinists were a pleasure to savor.

Of course, everyone is still busy — worse than busy, exhausted, too wiped at the end of the day to do more than stress-eat, binge-watch and doomscroll — but no one’s calling it anything other than what it is anymore: an endless, frantic hamster wheel for survival.

You’ve seen all the headlines about the Great Resignation — “Gen Z and Millennials Would Rather Be Unemployed Than Unhappy in a Job,” Business Insider reported, nervously. Even the youth of China are embracing the virtues of sloth, with the lying-flat and sang movements. On YouTube, the faux guru Self-Help Singh exhorts, “ Do nothing.” Millions are now pursuing what a punk guitarist I know called “the C-minus lifestyle.” And it’s no longer just a subcultural rumble: Companies in Britain are now experimenting with a four-day workweek.

I think people are enervated not just by the Sisyphean pointlessness of their individual labors but also by the fact that they’re working in and for a society in which, increasingly, they have zero faith or investment. The future their elders are preparing to bequeath to them is one that reflects the fondest hopes of the same ignorant bigots a lot of them fled their hometowns to escape. American conservatism, which is demographically terminal and knows it, is acting like a moribund billionaire adding sadistic codicils to his will.

More young people are opting not to have kids not only because they can’t afford them but also because they assume they’ll have only a scorched or sodden wasteland to grow up in. An increasingly popular retirement plan is figuring civilization will collapse before you have to worry about it. I’m not sure anyone’s composed a more eloquent epitaph for the planet than the stand-up comedian Kath Barbadoro, who tweeted: “It’s pretty funny that the world is ending and we all just have to keep going to our little jobs lol.”

Midcentury science fiction writers assumed that the increased productivity brought on by mechanization would give workers an oppressive amount of leisure time, that our greatest threats would be boredom and ennui. But these authors’ prodigious imaginations were hobbled by their humanity and rationality; they’d forgotten that the world is ordered not by reason or decency but by rapacious avarice.

In the actual dystopian future we now inhabit, the oligarchs have realized they can work everyone harder, pay them less, eliminate benefits, turn every human institution from medicine to corrections into a racket, charge far more for basic rights and services than people in any other nation would stand for without revolting, and get rich beyond the penny ante dreams of a Carnegie or Astor.

In the past few decades, capitalism has exponentially increased the creation of wealth for the already incredibly wealthy at the negligible expense of the well-being, dignity and happiness of most of humanity, plus the nominal cost of a mass extinction and the destruction of the biosphere — like cutting out the inefficient business of digestion and metabolism by pouring a fine bottle of wine directly into the toilet, thereby eliminating the middleman of you.

Everyone knows how productive you can be when you’re avoiding something. We are currently experiencing the civilizational equivalent of that anxiety you feel when you have something due the next day that you haven’t even started thinking about and yet still you sit there, helplessly watching whole seasons of mediocre TV or compulsively clicking through quintillions of memes even as your brain screams at you — the same way we scream at our politicians about guns and abortion and climate change — to do something.

I once watched in awe as my girlfriend, who’d been lying inert on the couch, hypnotized with dread of whatever she had to do next, roused herself by intoning, “One, two, three” — and on “three,” immediately got up and swung into action.

I have a shameful confession to make: Secretly, I am not lazy. I’ve learned that if I do literally nothing for more than a year, two at most, I start to get depressed. I’m not recanting my old manifesto. I still hope to make it to my grave without ever getting a job job — showing up for eight or more hours a day to a place with fluorescent lighting where I’m expected to feign bushido devotion to a company that could fire me tomorrow and someone’s allowed to yell at you but you’re not allowed to yell back.

But once I become genuinely engaged in a project, I can become fanatically absorbed, spending hundreds of hours on it, no matter how useless and unremunerative. As a teacher, I edit my students’ writing with a nit-picking precision and big-picture ambition they may likely never experience again. And I don’t believe most people are lazy. They would love to be fully, deeply engaged in something worthwhile, something that actually mattered, instead of forfeiting their limited hours on Earth to make a little more money for men they’d rather throw fruit at as they pass by in tumbrels.

It’s no coincidence that so many social movements arose during the enforced idleness of quarantine. One important function of jobs is to keep you too preoccupied and tired to do anything else. Grade school teachers called it “busywork” — pointless, time-wasting tasks to keep you from acting up and bothering them.

Enough with the busywork already. We’ve been “productive” enough — produced way too much, in fact. And there is too much that urgently needs to be done: a republic to salvage, a civilization to reimagine and its infrastructure to reinvent, innumerable species to save, a world to restore and millions who are impoverished, imprisoned, illiterate, sick or starving. All while we waste our time at work.

OK: one, two, three —

Tim Kreider is a cartoonist and the author of two essay collections, “We Learn Nothing” and, most recently, “I Wrote This Book Because I Love You.” He writes the newsletter The Loaf.