The Value of Time

by Benjamin Studebaker

From time to time I am asked what I am going to do with my summers. Am I going to get a job? An internship? What productive, respectable use will I make of my time? The answer is no such use at all–I spend my summers enjoying myself. Why? Because time is valuable.

There are four conditions under which high school or college students work:

  1. They have to–their families are too poor to support them otherwise.
  2. Their careers demand it–they must acquire “work experience” by toiling for a substandard wage in order to receive future hiring consideration by the very companies they intern for.
  3. They want to–they like working, or get bored otherwise, or subscribe to to the beliefs expressed in #4.
  4. They are compelled to do it by parents who would otherwise cut them off, because these parents believe some permutation of “idle hands are the devil’s playthings” or it “builds character”.

In my situation, none of these apply. My family is not so poor that I have to work, my career aspirations do not require it of me, and I have no desire to spend my time that way. My parents don’t compel me to do it either, so I don’t do it–I spend my summers reading, writing, thinking, and relaxing. No job, no internship.

But occasionally I hear counterarguments, and my parents do too. There’s a popular belief that young people ought to work. What are the justifications for this belief?

Historically, we really did need nearly everyone to work because human society was perpetually on the brink of starvation or dissolution otherwise. The only people freed from productive toil were what Veblen termed the “leisure class”, rulers and military people who were tasked with upholding order and protecting the community from outside violence, but did not participate in the food-gathering or growing. Over the centuries, technological innovations have made the portion of the population which must devote itself to food production steadily smaller, and this freed many people to take up alternative employment. These new jobs were either devoted to the maintenance of the morale of the workforce (entertainers, priests, athletes, and so on) or the further increase in the productive efficiency (engineers, scientists, and the like). Some people, like statesmen or doctors, have the fortune of being tasked with both jobs. Statesmen also have the initial task of upholding order and protecting.

A new category of industrial manufacturing jobs arose to construct the mechanisms developed by the engineers, and these jobs replaced agricultural work for many people. During the industrial period, we often talk of the migration from the rural farming communities to the industrial towns. But of course, we’re now passed even that–the engineers have made manufacturing itself more efficient, to go along with farming. As a result, we now can manufacture many goods more cheaply with fewer workers–we can automate. But the robot economy has never been met with universal glee–those made unemployed by it have raged against it. The Luddites are the textbook case. The Luddites were early 19th century English textile artisans who were enraged by the labor-saving machinery invented to increase the efficiency of textile production. They famously went about attempting to destroy all of these machines, and of course they failed, but their name lives on along with the attitude it characterizes.

In today’s modern economy, in highly developed countries like the United States, most workers are neither involved in agriculture nor in manufacturing. We call the group of jobs that are neither the former nor the latter “service” jobs. Increasingly, most jobs are all about improving morale or increasing the productive efficiency further. Whether one works or not no longer has the life and death connotations that accompanied the decision historically. Consequently, the perceived moral obligation to work no longer has the force it had. Most people’s work is not in and of itself economically essential. It is essential that money continue to circulate throughout the economy, that people continue to spend money and receive it, in order for the economy to grow, but many of the jobs people have are not themselves essential–they are only important insofar as they provide money that can be spent to further fuel growth. We don’t need McDonald’s, we need the financial circulation McDonald’s provides. If my parents give me money, and I spend it, am I not doing the task of helping to circulate money through the pipes?

In particular, the jobs typically available to high school or college students are almost uniformly unnecessary jobs, and to the extent that it would be nice to have people that do them, there is a permanent pool of unskilled unemployed people capable of doing so. If all the high school and college students opted not to work this summer, the economy would not really miss a beat. Most businesses are perfectly capable of getting by without student labor, either by relying on their existing workforce or hiring out of work people who are in need of a job for sustenance. They are certainly capable of getting by without people in my position–who neither have to work nor desire to.

How do we know this? Because if businesses needed me to spend my summer working, they would offer me a wage that would convince me to do so. The labor market only really functions properly when the worker can credibly refuse to take any job at all if the jobs in question do not pay him what he believes his time to be worth.

Barring major scientific advancements, we are not going to live forever. I am certainly not going to be in my low-20’s forever. An hour of my youth during my favorite season of the year, summer, is not worth the minimum wage to me, especially if I am going to spend that hour engaging in unpleasant or otherwise intellectually unstimulating labor. Life, and youth, in particular, is too short to work at McDonald’s unless you absolutely have to. To say otherwise is to disrespect the value of one’s time, of one’s youth, of oneself.

Despite this, people invent a host of reasons to justify compelling young people to work. They say it is to keep them out of trouble, or to teach them the value of money, or time management, or responsibility. These are all old ideas, holdovers from the agricultural and industrial periods. Work is not required for any of these things. Young people get into trouble not because they don’t have some unpleasant work to do but because they have never been taught how to take pleasure in their leisure in ways that do no harm themselves or others. They can learn the value of money by budgeting an allowance, they need not connect the money to misery because their future employment need not be a source of misery in their lives. Managing time is better learnt by budgeting one’s time among enjoyable activities, deciding which are worth prioritizing, than it is by not doing things you enjoy so that you can do something unpleasant.  If we believe in responsibility, what of the responsibility of having a good life, a life worth living? Surely young people should take responsibility for their own happiness before they begin taking responsibility for other people’s via employment.

The principle cannot apply to all young people. Some must work, or are made to work by the companies they aspire to work for, or have already found work available to them at a young age that they enjoy or find pays them sufficiently. But in my case? The work the is available in my society for people in my age group pays too little and is too unpleasant. While some young people take their youth for granted, I take seriously the value of time. If that poses an inconvenience for companies, let them attempt to convince me. Let them make their jobs more interesting, or their pay higher. I have no obligation to toil for them, I am only obliged to have a life that satisfies my conception of the good. As it stands, I am most useful to society and to myself if I have a great summer and spend some of my parents’ money–after all, we’ve got to keep the pipes clear.