#101: Hidden Freedoms, How Work Became A Job, Rediscovering Leisure & Pandemics
😷 Exploring work, life and the possibilities we ignore
July 25th, 2020 - Connecticut, USA
Greetings from the US 👋 Flying to the US was the smoothest experience I’ve ever had in international travel. Empty airports, 30 people on our flight, no line at customs and a traffic free two-hour drive to Connecticut from JFK, all for under $200.
I’ve still been dealing with some energy issues related to ongoing health issues so didn’t get the newsletter out this past week. Expect the newsletter a little less consistently this summer, but I am working on having a few guest authors contribute. Send me a note if you’d be interested in getting in the mix.
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#1 🏠 Housing, Freedom & Real Preferences
I was having a conversation with a friend this week mentioning that I see people “misprice” their freedom in ways that might not make sense if they had a better understanding of their own preferences.
The conversation was in the context of buying a home and how people make these decisions.
Owning a home is not a normal decision. It’s highly emotionally and it not a simple financial calculation. It is an identity decision. People aspire to be the kind of person that owns a home.
However with decisions where there is an accepted conventional norm and narrative (e.g. owning a home is smart and good people own homes) people seem to actively undermine their own preferences for freedom in other aspects of their lives without much interrogation.
One area there they ignore these preferences is work. (almost 300 words in before I dropped the w-bomb!)
People actively choose the the freedom of having one’s own property but give up time (longer commute) and future lifestyle options or work paths (need to keep paying the mortgage) because those are accepted tradeoffs of owning a home. Everyone has to work, right?
However, many have seen their own assumptions crumble. Working remotely, many are wondering why they went so many years spending several hours commuting each week.
Maybe I kind of like this newfound freedom?
Some people renting in high price cities are wondering if they are trading off too much money for the freedom to access all sorts of convenience they don’t even value.
One friend said to me about abandoning his NYC apartment:
“When we were in lockdown I realized I hadn’t lose anything”
It wasn’t cool to question some of the deep assumptions around how we work and where we live prior to the pandemic. I know because people would tell me to stop talking about it 😂
Now they are bringing the subject up to me.
I’ve seen many people reprice their own freedom in their live and how they want to live, deciding that “yes, I do want a house” or “what the hell am I doing paying $4,500 a month living in a city I don’t like?”
Owning a home may even become an even better decision for many as the trade-off of a bigger home for longer commute can be broken with remote work.
As I’ve experimented with working in different ways over the past several years, I am a bit overwhelmed with the possibilities for how I might live in the future. While I know that I am not willing to trade work freedom for an expensive house in a good school district right now, the paradox of choice of other potential options is overwhelming and exciting.
Does Owning A Home Make One Happy?
I went searching around for the link between home-ownership and happiness and found a couple links. Here is research from Grace Wong in 2009 arguing that renting seemed to lead to better well-being than owning:
The results show that after controlling for household income, housing quality, and health, homeowners are no happier than renters by any of the following definitions: life satisfaction, overall mood, overall feeling, general moment-to-moment emotions (i.e. affect) and affect at home but instead derive more pain from their house and home. Time use pattern analysis reveals that homeowners tend to spend less time on enjoyable activities.
However, it does seem that if you live in an area with many homeowners who also happen to have similar amounts of wealth it can transcend this:
Homeowners who live in ZIP code areas with higher rates of homeownership report more positive attitudes only if other owners are similar to them in socio-economic terms
This research is interesting, but not very helpful for most individuals who have different preferences.
One thing changing the calculus is that we know remote work works and people are realizing that trade-offs that once were taken for granted may be more negotiable than they thought.
People rarely want to give up such freedom once they have it and I think this will have profound implications on how people reprice their own preferences for freedom, where they live and whether they decide to rent or own in the future.
I believe that many people are living in ways in which they would not choose if they were building their life by scratch. Remote work opens up the possibility to live in new ways and it s gateway to approaching life in a new way. As more people in our lives start making these decisions, I think we’ll see a profound reimagination of what’s possible over the next ten years.
ICYMI: Last week was one of my most read essays on the creative journey. Check it out here if you missed it and also see companion follow-up thoughts on building on audience:
#2 Meaning & Work (h/t Luke Butler)
Clickbait for me looks exactly like the opening line of this essay
If you want to experience a meaning crisis, it’s hard to beat being an American white-collar worker today.
The essay “How work became a job” by Aaron Jacob is a great contemplation and walk through the history of work and touches on many of the things I think about such as what does a new work ethic look like in the 21st century and is it even possible?
He makes some powerful observations about the growing middle ranks of large companies and their lack of freedom (see above!)
But those in the middle, stuck in the pipeline of middling credentials and half-spurious requirements for qualification, in a sense have the fewest options of all. Being considered “skilled” offers them the potential for a greater income, but it also makes it much harder for them to change industries, since companies insist on “relevant experience” and often have highly specific criteria for hiring. Yet at the same time, the former incentives for staying put, the paid training and lifetime guarantees once enjoyed by workers, are long gone. Those in the shrinking middle class are in effect stuck planning for a future that neither those above them nor those below them have any incentive to invest in.
He links this to a general outsourcing of many of the aspects of life that made life meaningful (I’ve been arguing there a similar “accidental meaning hypothesis” that explains why we are so stuck with the idea that the default path works)
Forget the outsourcing of jobs overseas—we have outsourced not just the manufacture of goods but every function of human life, from the telling of stories and the transmission of culture, to the rearing of our children and the care for our elderly, up to and including the very sense of undertaking a meaningful task.
This is LaaS: life as a service. We are so far from being producers and so deep in the mental and social setting of the consumer that even the feeling that one is a producer is just one more service to be paid for. Our sense of reality is inextricable from our sense of agency. With so little to account for the latter, we are cornered: viewing the world and our very lives, not with the high indifference of an enlightened being, but with the detachment of asymmetrical spectators. We have enough skin in the game to keep us locked in, but not in a way as to enjoy many of the benefits.
Worth the read.
#3 Pandemic Reads
Andrew Sullivan’s writing on the pandemic has been excellent as he contrasts it to his experience at the center of the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s:
It changed me — and many others — for good. The liberation of surviving an early brush with death is hard to describe, but like Porter, I learned that I had to live — and live like me. Regardless of the crowd, or accepted opinion, or communal loyalty, I was determined as the plague changed me to live my life freely, to say what I think, and to do as I pleased. And this is not entirely unusual. Plagues can first depress you, force you to isolate and hunker down. But, in time, they can also prompt a kind of defiance, a very human desire to tell this virus to go to hell and to act in ways that ignore it. Gay men slowly began to try to have sex again and to celebrate the life that sex gave, even as they also always risked, to a greater or lesser extent, illness and death. Over time, as treatments improved and the illness ceased to be a death sentence, condoms, like today’s COVID masks, came to be used sporadically, then less and less, until they were largely cast aside.
#4 The Future of Low-Wage Labor
Anytime David Autor writes something on work its worth paying attention to. Probably one of the smartest labor economists, he highlights four effects of covid on the labor economy.
Two notable ones were:
#1 Harsh prospects for low-wage workers
Autor believes that both remote work and automation will eliminate demand for low-wage work, the kinds of personal service jobs that were growing rapidly before the crisis. These are often jobs that cater to the needs of the growing high-wage professional workers in cities and surrounding areas (think Uber, personal trainers, restaurants, concierge services)
#2 Increasing concentration of employment in large firms
Which he doesn’t think is a good thing:
“Because large firms tend to pay a smaller share of earnings to workers and a larger share to owners and investors, the reallocation of economic activity from small and mid-size firms to large firms will tend to reduce the share of national income paid to wages and salaries”
#5 Leisure as The Forgotten Basis Of Progress
I am going to award Oshan Jarrow a PhD on the history and sociology of work at some point. He continues his excellent research into this subject and has a beautiful conversation with Ben Hunnicut on Leisure.
They explore the question, “why, after 100 years of shortening working weeks, did America abandon the pursuit of leisure?”
Highly Recommended: 🎧Link To Listen Here
If you made it this far you might have had a good time. If so, why not share this with some of your friends?