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:
- They have to–their families are too poor to support them otherwise.
- 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.
- They want to–they like working, or get bored otherwise, or subscribe to to the beliefs expressed in #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.
“Nothing Gold Can Stay”
by Robert Frost
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
I trust you’ll see the relevance.
I do indeed–how apropos.
Just don’t complain when companies turn you down in the future…
Thankfully I aspire only to be a humble academic, and not to make vast quantities of money.
Good thing to know your academic insights will have no basis in real-life experience.
Is employment the only kind of life experience that has value?
Also, isn’t academia a form of employment and thereby, according to your definition, real-life experience?
Pretty important if you want to understand politics. Emotional intelligence does not come about by reading books.
Emotional intelligence can only be gained by working in summer jobs as a young person? That doesn’t sound right.
Emotional Intelligence is outright harmed by meaningless work.
Only a relevant form of experience if you are writing about academia…
So in order to write about political theory, I have to have direct personal experience of all of the occupations of all of the people whose lives my writings might affect? In addition to severely violating the principle of division of labor, no theorist has ever done that. Are we to throw out all of their work?
Erm, no – it’s about having experience of the reasons for political action and agrnt behaviour. Locke, Burke and Mill all had practical political experience, incidentally…
Unless you are theorising from some fool’s paradise, I find it very difficult to believe that anyone could make salient (and practical) prescriptions without having hands-on experience of the subject they are writing about. Unless, of course, you believe political philosophy is reducible to metaphysical principles which are not apparent nor meaningful in everyday life.
Neither Locke nor Burke nor Mill had any direct experience of what it was like for the average citizen of the country in which they were theorizing. All three lived well-off, charmed lives, while the majority of the population worked on farms or in factories in dull drudgery. None of them ever worked a 15-hour day. Locke served an aristocrat as a personal physician before getting involved in politics, Burke was a writer who later became an MP, and Mill’s work for the East India Company prior to his MP job was managerial and cushy. All three came from well-to-do backgrounds. They had no experience of the reasons for political action–the poverty, the alienation, the inequity, and so on. This did not prevent them from writing work of some value.
Eh. I understand your argument, but your stance comes across as a bit standoffish.
Personally, I have a summer job/internship not because I particularly enjoy my work, but because I believe that it has an impact. (Directing an SAT-prep and college counseling program for low-income high schoolers.) It’s not fun, but the program has demonstrably helped the students it serves. You can call it a mix of #2 and #3.
I’d caution you about the tone of your post. As a potential laborer, you have the right to value your leisure time over potential income from working, but you sound almost combative about your decision. I don’t think there’s a need for that.
It’s wonderful that you have a job that you derive meaning from. While you may not enjoy it, you seem to gain some measure of fulfillment from it, and that certainly has utility value. It’s also great that your work contributes to society in a significant way. Such work is not the target of my criticism. My primary target is work of dubious societal and personal value undertaken unthinkingly, purely because it’s been socially normalized, and often under pressure from other people.
I guess what we’re getting at here is something you didn’t really touch on: Community Service. It doesn’t really fit under any of the 4 conditions you listed, yet they aren’t the type of drudgery that you (rightfully, imo) condemn. (We’ll ignore the sad truth that high schoolers will pad their college applications with volunteer work that they don’t give a damn about.)
Your post brings up the valid point that people are capable of spending their time in productive ways without needing to be pigeon-holed into boring, unskilled labor. But capability doesn’t always equate to practice. Even if work does not ‘build character’, one could argue that there’s a moral responsibility to contribute to society – in whatever way one wants – and work, even drudgework, is the easiest avenue for most to follow.
That obligation to contribute to society must surely have limitations, though. It is morally permissible for a person not to labor for the collective every waking moment, and we also don’t take issue with many people spending very significant portions of their adult lives outside the labor force, such as retired people otherwise capable of work. The retired are often (though certainly not always) capable of much more substantive contributions than the young due to their many years of extensive experience in their given areas of work. Many people choose to retire much earlier than they need to because they have the resources to opt out of the labor force. How can we resolve these disparate intuitions?
We could go with a principle of reciprocity. People ought to, so far as they are able, return the social investment in themselves over the course of their lives. They ought to reciprocate the benefits they have enjoyed from community membership. That reciprocity does not provide a constant obligation, however–one is not obliged to devote any specific moment or period of one’s life to this reciprocity, but is merely obliged to return the investment over the course of his life. This permits retirement, and it also permits vacations, summers off, and other leisure periods. Under this thinking, insofar as one has a plan by which one will return the social investment that one genuinely intends to carry out, one’s summer leisure is justifiable. If one is inclined to do some kind of charitable work, so much the better, but one is not obliged to do so.
The state, insofar as it can influence the behavior of its citizens, should encourage them to adopt this moral principle, through the public education system, incentives, penalties, etc.