According to "Breaktime: Living Without Work in a Nine to Five World," our attitudes toward work have undergone dramatic changes in recent decades. Citing studies of both working-class and professional people, author Bernard Lefkowitz maintains that increasing number of men and women in the United States today are leaving their jobs -- not to get other, better kinds of jobs or even to write great books or paint great pictures, but simply not to work. Responsible citizens, not just "congenital malcontents" are opting, "when they can, to be supported by government, family, or savings," contentedly joining a "community where work and salary and consumption" are "not all-consuming values."
Lefkowitz's discussion of these changing attitudes and practices centers on the accounts of about 20 people, mostly white-collar, who have at one time of another and for varying lengths of time "broken out" of this work routine. The accounts are sustained throughout by a kind of sentimental sociology. On the one hand, there are quotes from and discussions of the work of sociologists C. Wright Mills and Peter Berger, social anthropologist Jules Henry and others. On the other hand, there are comments such as the following, made on the occasion of a friend's abandonment of a promising career in journalism: "I don't cry for the loss of his humanity. I rejoice in the rediscovery of his humanity." Or, on the return of a woman to a unsatisfying job: "Her time away from work was a 'vacation,' an 'island in time.' I hope someday she will return to that island and find there her true ease."
Lefkowitz has, of course, identified a real phenomenon; there can be no doubt that people's attitudes toward work have been changing in recent decades. The "malcontents of the 60s did nothing if not acquaint society with what they regarded as the "virtues" of life without work; and sociologist since long before the 60s have been tracing the spread of these virtues through the population at large. Today, the sentiment that technology makes or will make much work unnecessary is pervasive. Clearly, the "work ethic" has loosened its hold on large sectors of society.
The problem with "Breatktime" is that it does not so much analyze this disenchantment with the work ethic as promote a new one to put in its place -- what might be called the value of being workless. According to the dictates of this new ethic, a person's decision to stop working is to be interpreted as "an act of principle and a commitment to belief" while his goals are properly defined as the attainment of "inner calm," "wholeness" and "passivity without shame." Toward the end of the book, Lefkowitz gives us a hint of what he has in mind for the future: "Not everyone is an adventurer, not everyone is up to the test of freeing time and seeking 'wholeness' by themselves. They will need guides to direct them through the straits of not working." The ideal which this book seems to propound is that of a bloodless Andy Capp, glorified.
"Breaktime" is, to be fair, absorbing and well-researched. My major complaint with the book is its emphasis on the fulfillment of inner needs as an alternative to meaningful work. That a lot of people nowadays structure their lives around such fulfillment, even to the point of regarding doing nothing as a goal, is a fact which Lefkowitz can hardly be blamed for reporting.
What is objectionable is that in a book whose viewpoint is given to be sociological, the dominant interpretation made of the fact is psychological. The pursuit of "inner calm" manifests a psychological "need"; in this way Lefkowitz justifies and approves of the pursuit. In fact, however, the state of "inner calm" is not inherently more fulfilling than any other "state." It is the social environment which structures, at least in part, our needs. It acts as a sort of governing body over the commonwealth of our goals and desires. Only by recognizing this governing power does it become possible to challenge its policies, to question the health of an environment which induces people to be obsessed with their own psychic well-being, perhaps even to foment rebellion against certain elements of leadership.
My strong impression of the present state of the world is that there is a great deal of "work" in it to be done -- that the load may even be increasing, as the French sociologist Emile Durkheim believed. The problem is that very often today the attempt to shoulder this responsibility gets one thrown out of a job. Whether in or out of a job, fulfilled or unfulfilled, however, the solution does not consist in giving the responsibility up; "Breaktime" seems to counsel us to do just that. Not once in this book is there expressed any serious interest in the possibility of making work a more positive, creative experience than it is for most people now. Instead, we are asked to pursue a phantom within. No doubt if we look long enough we will get what we seek.