I've been following some online discussions about the current economic situation.

There are a number of solutions proposed to the economic malaise across much of the developed world, but one idea that captures my imagination is the idea that our current economic situation is making the notion of "full employment" obsolete. By that, I refer to the idea that the economy and society should be radically reorganized so that there is no labor (or radically less labor) for most people to do.

I realize that at present, labor is an extremely important part of life for most people. Many people go so far as to identify themselves with their profession.

Therefore, I would like to ask, if we could reorganize society and reorganize our economic system so that there would be a large class of people who do no work or very little work, would people become happy and well-adjusted to such a system. If not, what sort of problems might ensue.

Please note that I am not asking about the feasibility of implementing such a system, I am asking about individual human beings being able to adjust to it.

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    Isn't this a psychology question?
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Nov 1, 2011 at 0:14
  • 5
    @Rice Flour Cookies - You're not asking about the nature of reality and existence in general. You're asking about behavioral traits of a particular species of primates. This is no different than questions like, "Do guinea pigs prefer hay or alfalfa as bedding?" or "Can crows be happy as pets in small cages?" Psychology is the field that answers questions like these with regard to humans. This is not intrinsically a philosophical question; it's an empirical question of behavioral psychology. Philosophers can be well-read and insightful, but otherwise have no special expertise here.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Nov 1, 2011 at 15:21
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    @RexKerr. "Is work necessary to be happy?" is not the same thing as "Do guinea pigs prefer hay as bedding?" because the meaning of happiness is also a philosophic (and not strictly psychological) question. The existentialists deal with it. The nihilists deal with it. Religions and theology deal with it. And there are many more.
    – john
    Commented Nov 2, 2011 at 15:30
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    In passing, I did not feel it was central enough to the core issue to discuss in my answer, but just to be clear: the wealthiest generally do not have to work for their bread; as to whether such a social and economic arrangement is possible we do not have to resort to philosophical speculation.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Nov 2, 2011 at 16:19
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    @awfullyjohn - If philosophers (and theologians etc.) do not defer to scientific studies of happiness--what we in practice mean by the term, and what seems necessary or correlated with its expression--then they will likely either be wrong or analyze something which is not happiness. It seems there is consistency in human emotional states across people, one of which we label "happiness". The variation in and triggers of those states are an empirical question (in psychology). Given knowledge of happiness, philosophy is useful in understanding the consequences for morality, knowledge, etc.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Nov 2, 2011 at 16:37

7 Answers 7


You should read In Praise of Idleness, an essay by Bertrand Russell which examines your question.

If the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be enough for everybody and no unemployment -- assuming a certain very moderate amount of sensible organization.

This is the gist of Russell's argument. Indeed, he argues that "individual human beings" would be capable of adjusting to such a system. (I can't recall what he has to say regarding the " feasibility of implementing such a system")

  • 3
    You should consider adding a brief summary of your recommendation, that makes your answer even more helpful and will be appreciated.
    – iphigenie
    Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 17:23

It does not sound like a suitable finality for human subjectivity to abandon creation and give up production altogether. On the other hand, maybe alienated production under the constraint of profit (for profits' sake) is also not a suitable finality for human subjectivity.

My suggestion might be to consider the ways in which our desires and expressions have become the objects of a kind of economy of subjectivity, where the substance is often completely lacking -- Zizek is very good on this critical point. He might suggest that today one often has "everything" but the (sometimes malign) property that would also make it "real" or worth it -- coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, etc. He says this is one of the ways ideology functions today: it obfuscates the shape of the world, robs us of the very language to articulate our unfreedom.

One way to see this is of course with "recreation" itself, which in many ways is often a mirror image of our alienated work: locked into fierce yet "legal" combat with others or the world, etc. At any rate, one thing to think about here might be that even our relaxations from work life have also become various forms of competition and rule-dominated exercises; we have recreation "without leisure."

  • I like what you say on Zizek. Any resources to point us to to read up more on that?
    – john
    Commented Nov 1, 2011 at 2:07
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    Zizek's essay "A Cup of Decaf Reality" -- available online at lacan.com/zizekdecaf.htm (text/html) -- may be on point here; for a more rigorous and sustained treatment of this theme see The Sublime Object of Ideology.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Nov 1, 2011 at 13:31
  • Tomatoes without taste, curries without spices... Commented Nov 27, 2013 at 10:55

I think it depends on the definition of work.

A thing may feel like work for one person, but another may be passionate about it. Everyone looks for something to give his life meaning, or looks for challenges.

There are ways to accomplish this: acquire satisfactory work or volunteer somewhere or start your own projects and hobbies.

So I see it basically as: what is work? I´m a software developer, for me it´s fun, for others programming is horror.

It is the same with me for carpenting, I´ve got two left hands...


I think one needs to distinguish between various forms of work. There are forms that are part of a flourishing life and are vital to it. There are also forms that are inimical to it. Such as factory work and I mean this in the broadest of ways: factory work is where the pace of work is forced and alienated from the natural rhythms of a life, that work is piece-meal and atomised, divorced from its natural market and society, that is where one is made to assume the form of a machine, or rather a part of a part of a machine.

Work enables one to flourish when work is craft, and again this is in the broadest sense (for example artists would bridle against their work as being named craft). Craft has a tradition of some depth, a sense of accomplishment, it is active and whole, it is everything that a McJob isn't.

The principle of competition should be replaced with the honourable one of accomplishment. In fact this is the telos of the current paradigm of competition in our economic world, but it seems to me that ends have been confused with means, and competition is seen to be a good in itself. It is not.

Hannah Arendt covers this and more in the Human Condition where she calls on the concept vita activa (the active life) which she further divides into the realms of labour, work & action. She says in the modern conidition for most people the vita activa is essentially just labour: It is repetitive, monotonous & never-ending and is devoted to securing the biological life - shelter, sustenance & reproduction. It was the type of life that was the destined for slaves in the Ancient Greek city-states. This was described as such in 19C America where chattel slavery was compared directly to wage slavery.

Thoreau wrote: ""It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself".

Its probably worth looking at Disciplened Minds, by Jeff Schmidt in the context of Thoreaus last remark.


Work is necessary to be happy because people have a fundamental need to create.

Marx points out that modern systems of capitalism have divorced workers from the means of production and from reaping the benefits of their work. I think addressing this is a core problem of our present age.

  • "people have a fundamental need to create" Does Marx say this? Just curious who made such a claim and why. Seems interesting :)
    – stoicfury
    Commented Nov 1, 2011 at 4:14
  • This a Marxian sentiment, that in production/creation (or labor) we see humanity's "essence" -- will try to track down a cite on this
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Nov 1, 2011 at 13:16
  • Thanks for the answer, @awfullyjohn. In reference to Marx, I've heard some other people say that even Marx's philosophy is based around labor: the idea that the workers should seize the means of production. So then, how might Marx argue that society should operate if it were completely unnecessary for a large part of the population to work to create the things that we need? Commented Nov 1, 2011 at 15:07
  • @stoicfury I said that :). Haha. I know I talk about Marx next, and his idea is of course related, but really, I just said it and then thought of Marx.
    – john
    Commented Nov 1, 2011 at 15:14
  • @RiceFlourCookies Honestly, I'm not exactly sure how he would argue concerning that because he made his theories during the industrial age, and technology has lifted many of the burdens of his time off our shoulders. I would say, however, that I use "work" here not as a strict subset of labor. Here I mean the kind of work involved in the creation of something worthwhile—art, music, literature, and so forth. Our fundamental need to create is seen in the universal desire to tell story, to have families, and to take part in culture. So although labor might be unnecessary, works of art aren't.
    – john
    Commented Nov 1, 2011 at 15:23

Yes. Work is necessary to be happy. But not sufficient.

No people won't be happy in such a system. For good reason it is said, "an empty mind is the devil's workshop."

You can be unhappy whenever you want, whereever you want, about whatever you want to be unhappy about. And you can stay unhappy forever. But happiness costs. You have to work to gain happiness. And unlike unhappiness, happiness doesn't last. Its volatile.

Most of the people won't know what to do when there is no work. In short most of the people aren't creative (myself included.) Which means their minds are empty. Which brings us back to line number 1 of this post.


We have to "work" to create anything and if we are being forced to "work" against our will to do so, the chances of being "happy" would be far less. "Work" is necessary for survival, a productive working individual doing what they are personally interested in will experience the pleasure of feeling their full worth and the "happiness" of their fulfillment by being productive for their survival, and also producing values for them self and society.

I would say, that if your will is not to "work", you would have to still "work", to produce and create this non working environment! By my "experience" most people who live by these standards are living off alms and handouts, produced by someone else and their real "happiness" is unfounded and not understood. Famine creates mass stagnation, people cannot even "work" for their survival by producing food, do any of these people look "happy"? It is "work" that creates the necessary requirements to be "happy".

  • why was this post down voted? please comment?
    – scravy
    Commented Dec 7, 2011 at 7:52
  • My guess is the spelling/grammar issues, if not the lack of sources, etc. I may try to look into cleaning this up -- although I would also encourage OP to do the same. In passing, @scravy, note that downvoting is intentionally anonymous -- please try not to demand downvoters out themselves or provide a full and complete justification
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Dec 9, 2011 at 2:53

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