Why We're Really Being Worked to Death

A column by Tim Kreider in The Sunday Times, “The ‘Busy’ Trap“, which addressed the modern scurry of work seems to have struck a chord with people. I’ve seen it passed around the web constantly over the last few days, almost always with an approving nod. It seems everyone can identify with the constant pull of work, which for most of us has extended its tentacles beyond 5pm and now dictates much of our lives. I check my email in bed on my phone the moment I wake up. Kreider is a colleague in that he used to draw a great alt-weekly political strip and now mostly writes. When I first started reading the column, I wanted to be on board – balancing work and life is such a huge struggle for me. But there are omissions in Kredier’s diagnosis that are screaming to be addressed.

I could identify some of myself in the essay. I routinely work over 60 hours a week, 52 weeks a year (I am self-employed with no health insurance or vacation time) and commonly blow off friends for work. A few romantic relationships have been thrown under the bus as I’ve pursued a career in the dying field of editorial cartooning, with only the smallest pang of regret. It’s a chosen path, you could say, but working less isn’t; I simply don’t make enough money to do anything but.

To land in a fulfilling career in America, let alone a creative one, takes an incredible amount of work. Even then, the mythical promise of bootstrapped payoff may be nowhere in sight. I’ve seen numerous friends, colleagues, and family members downsize their life as the recession kneecapped their careers and student loan debt buried them in bills.

What Kreider glosses over is how it is he able to maintain a living in New York City while working a maximum of 20 hours a week devoted to freelance writing. He alludes to a retreat in the essay, from which he writes, a home in Chesapeake Bay where he spends some of his time. Kreider is either extremely well-compensated for his time or he has another source of income, a privilege he doesn’t acknowledge in the article, that allows for his leisurely lifestyle.

In Kreider’s view, the busyness people claim to experience is “pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint.” He attempts to carve out an exception for the working poor by quickly excluding people who are working “back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs.” Problem is, you don’t have to work multiple blue collar jobs like my parents to be genuinely tired or busy. The majority of America, to say nothing of the rest of the world, cannot simply “choose time over money” as Kreider has done, blowing off his four hour work days to idly ruminate on creative affairs. The only people I know with comparable amounts of time on their hands are unemployed and desperately seeking income to alleviate the stress.

The trap of modern life is not selfish workaholics unable to peel themselves away from their careers long enough to smell the flowers – or the “pink minty cocktails” of Kreider’s afternoons – because they fear loneliness, but a political and economic reality that has workers of all stripes being bilked and squeezed to the breaking point against the backdrop of soaring corporate profits. I know from Kreider’s comics that he agrees with the politics of that statement, but instead of addressing it, he treats being busy as a self-imposed trap  while encouraging us to join his more laid back approach to life. The result was maximum reader identification – and lazy logic. We aren’t all as comfortable as him.

I long for more free time, loudly and often. But the end goal is just that for all the workaholics I know – a slice of security and accomplishment that might allow for it. Until then, I’ll worry that even writing this has taken too much time away from my busy and fulfilling life.


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