Meaning Via Work Or Play?

Our culture celebrates variety and change. People who move from small towns to big cities often go on and on about how those small towns were hells where nothing happened and the ignorant locals liked it that way. Sophisticated city folks love to visibly embrace change and variety, bragging about their new clothes, gadgets, and exotic vacations.

Some tell themselves that this taste for variety is the natural human state. Yet kids have to be taught to like variety. Kids start out wanting to watch the same movies over and over, not wanting to try out new food dishes, and not wanting to move to new homes or neighborhoods. Also, as anyone trying to push a work reorg can tell you, adults don’t actually like to change their jobs much. And people tend to be pretty stressed on those exotic vacations; what they like is to brag about them before and after.

Similarly, our culture celebrates leisure relative to work. Most of our fiction is set in leisure, and we tell ourselves that kids naturally want to play, and must be forced to work. But in fact foragers don’t push their kids to work; adults wait until kids beg to be allowed to follow adults around and be taught how to do adult jobs. Furthermore, kids today worldwide actually like the meaning and autonomy that comes from mundane work:

[Mexico City’s] Centro Santa Fe mall [is] one of the largest in Latin America. … At one end of the mall is KidZania, a theme park for children that opened fifteen years ago, and has since spread to cities in a dozen other countries, including Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Mumbai, and Istanbul. …

KidZania gives children between the ages of four and fourteen the chance to enact the roles of grownups in a lavishly realized, scaled-down world. … Children can work on a car assembly line, or move furniture, or put out a fake fire with real water. … Children receive a check for fifty kidzos upon arriving at KidZania, and can supplement that with the “salary” they earn for participating in an activity. The most popular of them, like training to be a pilot on a simplified flight simulator, are not as remunerative as the less popular, like being a dentist. (You peer inside a dummy’s mouth.) Children can spend their kidzos … at the mini city’s department store, which bears the name of a regional chain and is stocked with covetable trinkets. …

In Mexico, kids tend to spend their kidzos immediately after earning them; in Japan, it is difficult to persuade children to part with their kidzos at all. … “What they love most, on the second or third visit, is their independence. … Even if you go to Disneyland, you are guided—you are supposed to walk a typical way.” (more)

Here are some results from a 2002 paper on work vs. leisure, from a survey of 1942 Israelis in the years 1981 and 1993:

People can be divided by whether work or leisure is more important and central to their lives. Those who see leisure as more central see work as less central and vice versa. Leisure orientation has increased over time, and is more common among women, the young, and the unmarried. High school graduates are more leisure-oriented, compared to those with both more and less education.

Money is just as important to both types, and both feel equally entitled or not to a job. Leisure-oriented people are less satisfied with their job, and they feel less intrinsic rewards from work and more such rewards from leisure. They care more about interpersonal relations at work, they feel less obligated to work to contribute to society, and they work fewer hours.

I recently watched two acclaimed movies, Still Alice and The Wind Rises, about people with strong work orientations. Such characters seemed quite human and sympathetic to me. And The Profit, a reality show about a guy who saves failing small businesses, is my favorite tv show in years.

If, as I suspect, the future will be much more competitive and push more people back to a work orientation, you might lament that to the extent you have strongly internalized modern cultural values. But I don’t think you can plausibly claim that because of this such future folk would be any less human than you, more self-deceived than you, or that they’d see their world as a hell. Beware too easily projecting your values onto others.

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  • Daniel Carrier

    Hunter-gatherers do work that humans were built for. It makes sense that humans would want to do it. We weren’t built for what we do now, so we’d need more incentive. KidZania is built to entertain kids. It’s similar to adult work, but it’s not adult work. If there’s something about it that kids don’t like, they can change it to make it more fun. Adult work is all about accomplishing something, so you can’t just cut corners if it gets boring. You also can’t just stop after an hour and switch jobs. And you have to keep doing it, day in and day out.

    • IMASBA

      And do it for 40 hours per week, plus commutes, and then get home and cook and clean, pay bills, etc… Quite different from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and quite different from KidZania…

  • Ali


  • Dain

    I find it doubly distancing, culturally speaking and then some, that those who opt to leave boring small flyover towns for the cool coastal cities are ALSO into taking vacations to exotic places. It’s not enough that San Francisco has all these cultural amenities, you have to go to Thailand too and take pictures for the Facebook.

  • Philip Goetz

    Robin, did you notice that the first paragraph of your post implies, “Our culture is the culture of big cities, not that of small towns”?

    My impression is that people who are more work-oriented have better jobs.

    • Our culture celebrates big cities more than small towns.

      • Philip Goetz

        If by “our culture” you mean “the culture celebrated in big cities,” then maybe.

      • IMASBA

        Different parts of our culture cater to different groups. The elites care more about city-culture but the elites also form that culture and are more likely to like whatever it is that city-culture preaches.

        Sure it doesn’t cater to country people but it isn’t meant for them either and they don’t care about that.

      • Philip Goetz

        Funny, our culture just lost our Presidential election.

  • pliny

    Why hasn’t evolution bred out leisure, anyway?

    • IMASBA

      Most predators and omnivores have leisure time, while herbivores only stand around grazing which doesn’t really elevate stress levels. Social predators and omnivores could spend all their leisure time scheming but this only happens to some extent. It just doesn’t seem worth it to constantly elevate stress levels for some marginally better social position.

    • Philip Goetz

      This is a species-by-species thing. Spiders and sea cucumbers have plenty of free time, but no hobbies. Perhaps humans have curiosity and enjoy leisure activities because they’re programmed to learn. Work of the type pre-agricultural ancestors would have done are still popular leisure activities. What we call “leisure” resembles survival activity more than 2000 hours a year behind a desk does.

    • Peter David Jones

      Its related to sexual display?

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