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Which is worse, work or no work? There must be a way to navigate between the bad ideas of workism and anti-workism

Twin monsters Scylla and Charybdis symbolise the complexities and dilemmas of risk. Credit: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Twin monsters Scylla and Charybdis symbolise the complexities and dilemmas of risk. Credit: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

February 4, 2020   6 mins

My favourite monsters from Greek mythology are Scylla and Charybdis.

Scylla was a absolute horror who lived on one side of the Strait of Messina. With six heads, each on a long neck, she’d reach down and pluck unfortunate sailors from passing ships. Charybdis lived on the other side of strait, but underwater. She really sucked — generating a whirlpool to capsize entire vessels.

The gruesome twosome feature in the Odyssey. Homer’s hero, Odysseus, has to navigate the strait — twice — and only just survives.

Like all myths, the story works on a number of levels. There’s the story itself, of course — and monsters are always good for a ripping yarn. Then there’s the super-naturalisation of things in the real world; in this case, the two fiends personify the shipping hazards of razor-sharp rocks and treacherous currents. Most important, though, is the deeper meaning — the moral of the tale.

Scylla and Charybdis — ‘the devil and the deep blue sea’ — symbolise the complexities and dilemmas of risk. In life, there’s often more than one danger to watch out for. Veering away from the first can take you too close to the second.

An added level of mythic meaning is that the two monsters are not mirror images of each other. The danger posed by Scylla perched high upon her rock is much more obvious than that posed by Charybdis submerged beneath the waves. This too is of contemporary significance.

Take, for instance, the extremes of Left and Right in modern politics. There are many asymmetries between the communist and fascist systems. Both are essentially totalitarian, with a blood-soaked history, but some of the evils of one can appear to have no parallel in the other. This is a reason why those repelled by the most characteristic features of communism have sometimes veered too close to fascism — and vice versa.


Politics is full of bad ideas that come in pairs — to navigate our way between them we need to be aware of both. An increasingly important example is that of workism versus a tendency which I’m going to call anti-workism (though you could see it as a kind of consumerism).

In a brilliant essay for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson provides the following definition of workism:

“…the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”

Examples of the workist policy framework include the push to get people off welfare and into the labour market, the raising of the retirement age, state subsidies and tax breaks for childcare to get parents (especially mothers) of young children back into paid employment ASAP, and the expansion of the workforce through large-scale immigration.

Even policies that, in the short-term, shrink the size of the workforce, such as the expansion of higher education, ultimately serve a workist purpose — i.e. supplying the so-called knowledge economy with a steady stream of suitably qualified new recruits. Of course, there’s plenty of talk of education for its own sake, but the cost of tuition and the accompanying burden of student debt is sold on the basis of the ‘graduate premium‘ — a thoroughly workist proposition.

Workism may go hand-in-glove with hyper capitalism, but it cuts across political lines. Left-leaning Millennials and Post-millennials flock to global cities because that’s where the best employment opportunities are. For some, opportunity equals money. But for many others ‘meaning‘ is equally, if not more, important; which is why employers, especially in the creative industries, can get away with unpaid internships and other forms of exploitation. Alternatively some industries, such as management consultancy and corporate law, will pay top whack for the brightest new talent, but will use that money to own their employees’ lives, insisting on long hours in the office plus the electronic leash of the smartphone.

Of course, technology can be used to exploit low paid workers too — digital platforms serving to control a workforce without the responsibility of formally employing it.


I don’t want to overdo the dystopianism here. Workism works out for a lot of people and not only those at the top of the tree. It’s certainly preferable to mass unemployment. Nevertheless, our economy, society, culture and politics have become so centred around workist ideas that it’s not surprising that we see a reaction in the form of anti-workism.

This has several strands. There’s the obvious-because-it’s-true argument that there’s more to life than work. If family and community life are being sacrificed to the demands of the labour market — or even basic needs like sleep — then clearly that’s not good.

Then there’s the Marxist critique — which views wage labour in a capitalist society as exploitation. More recent intellectual developments on the Left, such as accelerationism, anticipate and advocate a post-work society in which machines replace workers and a benevolent state meets our material needs — leaving us to occupy our days with macramé or something.

This fever-dream isn’t exclusive to the Left. Ideas such as a universal basic income paid by the state to every citizen are finding favour among centrists too and even a few conservatives.

The problem with the idea of a post-work society is that despite all the automation, globalisation and immigration we’ve already experienced, most western countries (excepting the victims of the Eurozone) are at, or close to, full employment. Some, like the UK, are experiencing record levels of job creation.

Therefore, a more mainstream form of anti-workism forgets the science fiction and concentrates on present-day issues such as stagnant wages, low pay and poor working conditions. One might think that the obvious solution to these problems is a programme to boost wages and opportunities in the workplace. For instance, through investment in productivity-improving factors like skills and infrastructure.

But instead of emphasising work, the contemporary Left in Britain and America emphasises consumption. Labour’s 2019 manifesto was a case in point — with its high profile offers of state-provided free stuff, like free broadband. (Significantly, the most notable work-related policy was for a transition to a four-day work week, the priority being placed on less work not better work.)

The Right has its own version of enhanced consumption as compensation for rubbish jobs. Unlike the Left, however, the Right’s consumerist offer relies on the market to (literally) deliver the goods. It’s all about cheap stuff, if not free stuff, and nothing must stand its way: domestic markets are left unprotected; offshoring is encouraged; infrastructure spending subsidises global supply chains; the embedded carbon in imports is left unaccounted for; and the tax avoidance of the tech giants is ignored while they disrupt the economy. As long as we get our smiley cardboard boxes, everything’s fine. So shut up about that pay rise, peasant, and enjoy your flatscreen telly.


So there you have it: workism and anti-workism — the Scylla and Charybdis of the 21st century economy. Because they present conflicting narratives — work-is-everything versus work-is-for-robots — it is easy to recoil from one and fall into the grip of the other.

How then do we navigate between them?

Firstly, we need to move beyond the idea of work-life balance as if work and life are entirely separate things. They ought not to be. Yes, the potential exists for work to crowd-out the other parts of life but it can enrich them, too — and not just materially. For instance, places of work have a vital role to play as generators of social capital. They ought to be, and often are, community institutions — which is why the damage done by the collapse of industries isn’t only economic.

Secondly, we should reject the compromise position that divides society between people who ‘live to work’ (and therefore might benefit from workism) and people who ‘work to live’ (and therefore need anti-workism). With very few exceptions everyone needs a life outside work and work in their lives. We must not allow work to become a positional good — a blessing only to a lucky few.

Thirdly, we need to be aware that while workism and anti-workism appear to be opposites, they actually feed off one another. Tech lords such Mark Zuckerberg may flirt with the idea of Universal Basic Income, but until that distant day comes they need us in jobs earning money so we can buy their stuff. It doesn’t matter if you’re not in the knowledge class and thus supposedly about to be replaced by a robot, you must work to consume.

If, however, you are in the knowledge class, then it’s the other way round: you must consume to work. That’s because you can’t devote every waking hour to your job without buying support services that free up your time (e.g. taxis, restaurants, childcare, cleaning and laundry services, to-the-door deliveries and all rest of it). To maximise this capacity, service workers need to be cheap and plentiful, which in turn requires the state to provide enough free stuff to make their low-paid, unsatisfying jobs bearable — and their lives in overpriced global cities feasible.


Scylla and Charybdis always were partners in crime. But somewhere, beyond their reach, there is the prospect of a very different society.

Whether it would be richer, in aggregate, I don’t know. But it might be happier.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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