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Opinion: The Right to be Lazy

Poli Psy


Published August 15, 2007 at 4:00 a.m.

As you read this, I am on vacation. That’s not something many can say in this country. Only 14 percent of American workers get a paid vacation of two weeks or more. One in three women (including me) and one in four men get no paid time at all. By contrast, every European country guarantees four or five weeks off, and even the famously industrious Japanese get a minimum of two. In fact, ours is the only developed nation that does not legally protect its citizens’ downtime.

Still, I’ve noticed that lots of people lucky enough to enjoy a decent period of fully compensated R&R are not resting or relaxing.

I don’t mean the folks who sign up for a weeklong Arabic immersion course or go off to trek the Himalayas. I’m talking about those from whom I receive an email reply with an automatic “Out of Office” subject line and then, an hour later, a response to my work-related post. Yes, they are sitting on a lawn chair by the ocean or in a snowbank on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. But they have their BlackBerries with them, and they’re not using them to play backgammon.

Now, the reason may be that, even if they’re paid to not work, they actually have work to do. U.S. productivity has steadily increased even as wages and benefits have shrunk and companies have downsized. And when you think your job may be the next on the block, you’re not exactly sanguine about goin’ fishing.

But I don’t think we can blame only the greedy corporations and the laissez-faire government for our overwork.

Today, it is not the rich who are idle — the executives, surgeons, and frequent-flyer inspirational speakers — but the poor, who, being underemployed, undereducated (and, conservatives charge, undermotivated) have nothing better to do than loaf. Or so it is alleged. Idleness is not, anyway, a high-status condition.

We lionize the busy. Those who work too hard are proud of it, even if they dislike their jobs or suspect their occupations — say, missile manufacture or hedge-fund management — are of dubious social value. And those who don’t have “enough” work, which is to say, too much work, feel slightly ashamed.

This was brought home to me a while ago, when I called a college professor who represents the New York chapter of Take Back Your Time, a fine U.S.-Canadian organization that advocates for such reasonable entitlements as universal paid vacations, family and sick leave, and guaranteed adequate retirement income. I wanted to see if we could hang out on Take Back Your Time Day, which fell about a month hence, as it happened, on a Sunday.

But he couldn’t. He was working.

Might there be another time we could talk? A long pause ensued, during which he flipped through his date book. Finally he said he could fit me in on the day before Thanksgiving. We laughed. The irony was obvious to both of us.

Still, when I got off the phone, instead of being irritated or amused, I sank into a little slough of self-contempt. I mean, I could have made an appointment for the next week. I felt like a dust bunny in the cyclone of his activity.


Workaholism is not new in the West. Every high school student who bones up on her Max Weber Wikipedia entry knows that Calvinism, with its emphasis on worldly gain as evidence of spiritual righteousness, boosted early capitalism into gear. The Protestant ethic, even with the Protestantism stripped out, is still powerful in America.

But workaholism has also had its discontents. “Industry and utility are the angels of death who, with fiery swords, prevent man’s return to Paradise,” wrote the German Romantic ironist Friedrich Schlegel. He condemned the predominant lifestyle of his time (circa 1800) as one of “empty, restless striving,” which he dismissed as “a Nordic bad habit.”

By mid-century, Marx had turned this Romantic yearning for idleness into political principle. “A nation is really rich if the work day is six hours rather than twelve,” he wrote. Legend has it that as its first order of business, the workers’ government of the Paris Commune of 1870-71 burnt the money and smashed the clocks. Now that’s taking back your time.

In 1883, Marx’s son-in-law, the French labor activist Paul Lafargue, published a pamphlet called “The Right to Be Lazy.” He quoted the Greeks and Jesus on the virtues of idleness and declared that Jehovah himself toiled six days, then lay on the couch watching football for the rest of time. He indicted the capitalist as a slave driver, but was equally distressed by what he saw as the worker’s masochistic lust for labor, even when technology might have eased his lot. “The blind, perverse and murderous passion for work transforms the liberating machine into an instrument for the enslavement of free men,” he wrote. And this was before email.

Lafargue called for a three-hour workday. In the 1970s a Brooklyn anarchist group did some statistical figuring, accounted for technology, and concluded that we’d all have to put in four hours weekly to keep the world spinning. They named themselves Zero Work.

Still, even labor unions, to which we owe such labor-saving devices as the weekend, have never accepted a week of Sundays as a seemly goal. It was in response to 19th-century socialist demands for the “right to work” that Lafargue wrote his manifesto. Although the Right proselytizes the obligation to work, even when there are no paying jobs, it was Bill Clinton, the Democratic son of a struggling single mother, who ended welfare as we knew it. And the Left continues to struggle for “full employment.”


We’re not going to beat the odds for time off in America until we knock busy-ness off its pedestal. Those odds are already slim. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guarantees 12 weeks off every 12 months to care for a new baby or sick family member. Several states, including Vermont, offer more time for more reasons to more people — but nowhere is this leave compensated. Earlier this year, Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Dodd introduced a bill to expand the FMLA (which was his baby) to include some paid time — but the bill lost steam, and would have expired on the president’s desk anyhow. Similar bills were voted down in Oregon and stymied in New York.

And these are proposals to pay workers recovering from childbirth and giving their demented parents sponge baths. Can you imagine demanding to be paid to read People magazine on the beach?

Actually, Take Back Your Time is doing just that. It is promoting an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act that would guarantee three weeks of paid vacation after a year on the job. The group has challenged the presidential candidates to make the issue a priority. So far, not even now-candidate Dodd has done so.

The Take Backers may be Utopians, but they are also realists. So, alas, they are selling vacations as good for families, health and even corporate productivity. “This is not about slacking, not about being lazy,” campaign spokesman Joe Robinson made clear. “Vacations are as important to your health as checking your cholesterol or getting exercise.” Gee, maybe I should schedule a colonoscopy while I’m away from my desk.

What if vacations weren’t good for anything except feeling good? Don’t we deserve them anyway? When will we win the right to be lazy?