What are you planning to do after work? That’s a question we ask one another often enough, but it’s quickly becoming a question we’ll have to ask ourselves. If the second answer follows the pattern of the first, modern society could be in trouble.
Work has been a familiar concept to us for millennia, but for most Westerners “after work” has been with us for barely a century. Before fire and farming, work was life. Every moment was devoted to survival. “After work” and the afterlife were synonymous.
Once we mastered agriculture and animal husbandry, the calories required for daily sustenance were a bit easier to come by, except when they weren’t. Weather, war, and bad luck had to be taken into account. If there was more work to be done, it was better to do it and store any surplus — just in case.
Only since the industrial revolution have most workers received a wage for a number of years, followed occasionally by a pension paid by their employer. Social Security has not yet reached the life expectancy of the its average recipient. The average American retiree will live to see 85 years or so. Social Security was born 82 years ago.
Social Security began long enough ago that we’ve forgotten what those two words meant to earn their capitalization. Security is what American elders lacked after the Great Depression and Society was what suffered. “Societal Security” would better express the need the program met, but saving two syllables for decades to come gave us “Social Security.”
Thanks to FDR’s New Deal, the elderly could stop working and keep eating. The rest of society could go to work, no longer distracted by the destitute begging on sidewalks and near soup lines. Workers could begin dreaming about retirement without dread. Still, “after work” was reserved for those who lived longer than their peers. In 1935, the average American at the retirement age of 65 had been dead for three years.
So we brought “after work” into our weekly routine. More of us began to relax, separating work from life, asking each other about our plans “after work.”
Our reply commonly referenced (recently re-legalized) alcohol or some other inebriant. Work was no longer constant and unending, so the idea of not working became intoxicating. Habits took different shapes, but they shared the pattern of letting go, giving in, settling down and getting away. Americans became prepositional with what they would do after work.
We embraced “after work” but now it threatens to strangle us. It’s hunting us down. Retirement at 50 is offered to some and forced on others. Many lose control of their inebriants and medicate themselves from morning until night. Whether it’s alcohol or opioids or pornography or video games or binge-watching, the value and hope that work provides is fading away.
Will “after work” have any meaning for those who never worked? That’s becoming an urgent question. Automation has recently begun outpacing consumption. We can no longer buy stuff fast enough to keep everybody busy making and delivering it.
Underdeveloped countries might follow us into the overconsumption trap, keeping the current model afloat for a few more decades, but that’s no longer a sure bet. America is increasingly becoming a cautionary tale of obesity, depression, isolation and desperation.
Pick your metric. American life has stopped getting better. Life expectancy, infant mortality rates, family stability and support, even schoolchildren’s test scores — we’re losing ground to societies that promise less and expect more. We’re still where innovation and creativity grow best, but fewer laurels that offer us less rest.
Which is why we must redouble our voice to ask that first question, hard and strong, while we still can. Company-paid retirements have become rare. Jobs are being replaced by temporary “gigs.” Work itself will soon become a lifestyle choice. What will that look like, and how can we help those who are slow and resistant to change?
What will our societal security require 100 years after Social Security was founded? We don’t know, and we’re running out of time to find out.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) blogs at www.dksez.com.