There is a story — a kind of parable, I suppose — circulating on social media currently. In brief, a fisherman catches enough fish for his needs in a morning and spends the rest of the day sitting around drinking and chatting with his friends. A well educated visitor explains to him that, if he caught more fish and sold the surplus, he could build a business, eventually owning a fleet of fishing boats and becoming rich so that he could retire and enjoy his days fishing and relaxing in the company of his friends. To which the fisherman responds: “Why go to all that trouble for a lifetime when fishing and relaxing with friends is what I do now?”
As all such tales, it is an over-simplification of real life and seems to be based on a dual fallacy: that a life of comparative ease is either possible or desirable in the real world. It is at heart an anti-capitalist story, denigrating ambition and the desire for self improvement, suggesting that work is an undesirable imposition upon us which should be resisted.
Let’s examine the assumptions that underlie the story one by one, starting with the real lives of those who live by the sea and sustain themselves through fishing. The idea that such a life is easy would be laughed at by most such folk. It might look like that to the typical outsider visiting in high summer when the weather is good and the fish are running. But there are, through the year, many times when the weather prevents vessels gong to sea and other times when the fish have migrated elsewhere and are in short supply close to the community. The wise fisherman ensures that surpluses caught during the good seasons are preserved, by smoking and salting, for use during the lean periods.
Which brings me to the second assumption: that fishing is the only work that fisher communities have to do. They have nets to repair and they need to maintain their boats in sea-worthy condition. Their homes, too, need to be cleaned and maintained, their clothes made and repaired. And someone has to collect the wood and the salt for preserving the fish. All of which makes nonsense of the idea that after a morning’s fishing it is possible to idle away the rest of the day drinking and relaxing with friends.
Not all communities are fortunate enough to live near the sea or any other rich source of food for the taking. The reality of life everywhere is that ensuring the whole community is fed, clothed and housed, their ailments and injuries treated, their young cared for and educated, requires work, and lots of it. And if the worker is to be afforded the luxury of relaxing among friends in the twilight years of his or her life, then those undertaking the necessary labor must produce enough for the old ones as well as for themselves and the young ones.
So, no, work is not something that can be avoided.
Is it, though, desirable for any human being to avoid work? I would say that the evidence suggests it is not, certainly not for most people anyway. You only have to look at the entertainers and entrepreneurs, millionaires in their twenties, who are still working in their 70s and 80s. They could have stopped work and enjoyed a life of ease, funded by royalties from their early work. They did not. And, I would contend, not because they were doing something they enjoyed doing, but because the desire to work, to do something useful, to earn one’s bread and more, is instinctive within every man and woman’s breast.
And that is why the idea that has been around since before I was born, that there will come a time when machines will do the work and we humans will be able to lead lives of ease, is an unrealisable fantasy that will never happen.