Act: Inspiration

The Cult of Busy-ness

December 13, 2021

bookcoverI am reading Sarah Jaffe’s Work Won’t Love You Back. As you can imagine, this is rather like throwing gasoline on a flame. Jaffe’s book is packed with all the things I hate about our working world — or perhaps our not-working world — and she’s put names and vivid life stories with all the broken elements. What Jaffe makes abundantly clear is that our “work ethic” — what I call the cult of busy-ness, since the fetishizing of being at a wage-job all the time has little to do with actual work — is killing us. I’d like to expand that a bit. This mania for wage work is not just killing us and our planet; it is not even generating any true rewards for anyone. It is empty, useless waste. And it certainly isn’t getting any real work done.

My ex-husband once proudly declared himself a company man. This has always bothered me. Why would you choose to subordinate your needs to… nothing? Less than air. A corporation. A business. A busy-ness. Why work long hours and deny yourself proper sleep, proper diet, proper exercise, and any kind of non-work social interaction for this nothing? And why does this self-abnegation earn high status in our culture? (OK yes, I know, mind-body dualism, capitalism, domination, inequality, blah, blah, blah. Bear with me while I belabor a point.) He put work ahead of everything else. (Hence the ex.) He earns a high salary for what he does. He has respect in his field. But has he lived? Or has he just been busy? What does he get out of this busy-ness? What is his reward? I suppose some might point to the money, but if you work all the time, you aren’t free to spend what you earn. You can’t enjoy the one thing that being busy takes from you — time. So, again, has he lived? Is this living? Or is he just existing? What has the cult of busy-ness gotten any of us? Not much from my perspective.

Steve Jobs is often invoked as the patron saint of the busy cult. Apparently sincerely, which must make one seriously question cult intelligence. By all accounts Jobs was an asshole. He had no true friends and problematic relationships with all those who did get close to him. He cultivated no interests or passions other than his work, which he did nearly without stop. He created an empire of deeply unhappy workers, including himself — there are suicide nets on buildings in China because of him — and the Apple empire itself is an object lesson in toxic waste and planned obsolescence. This was a man who lived a life almost completely devoid of any reason to be alive. His renowned ascetic existence was grey and cheerless and boring beyond endurance. And… well… he’s dead. How is this success?

Now, my question is — What did Steve Jobs get out of being busy? What made his life worthwhile? Most people would point to the money. And in truth Jobs earned a good deal of income. However, he spent relatively little of it, making his wealth worthless to him. If you don’t trade in those dollars on true material wealth — the things that contribute to health and well-being, hence “wealth” — then you have nothing. More “less than air”. Money is the potential to meet your needs, not meeting your needs itself. In Jobs’ case, he had more monetary wealth than he could possibly turn into material wealth — even if he hadn’t been an austerity zealot. There aren’t enough human needs to require that much money. (There may not be enough resources to acquire for that much money either, but that’s another issue.) You don’t need money; you need stuff. And people. And he had neither. However, we do all know his name… and that is really the only reward he personally got out of all his busy-ness. Is that status worth having lived no actual life?

Maybe some would say that post-mortem fame is better than living well. That certainly seems to be a theme of Western culture — though we don’t get to ask the dead what they think of the deal now that it’s done. Still, what of those who call themselves company men and don’t even get their 15 minutes? I think it is generally agreed that the cult of busy-ness is largely status signaling. The less acknowledged and sadder thing is that it is empty. It’s as empty and futile and materially meaningless as flag-waving. (And often favored by the same sort of people. Not coincidentally…) Most of us don’t get 15 minutes of fame. Hardly anyone attains higher status from working constantly. Nope, we just get to work constantly. There is little correlation between constant work and either promotion or increased income. Those above you are perfectly happy allowing you to do their work for the rate you are currently earning in the position you currently occupy essentially until you die. Which will happen sooner than later if you continue to deny your body’s needs in struggling to be constantly busy. And the worst part about that is that your body still has those needs. If you are to stay alive to do this busy-ness, someone else has to do the real work incurred in your body’s existence.

That’s the true zinger about pursuing status. It is not only futile — you are not likely to get it — but it is also not actually, physically consequential. Wage work is not important. The people who do it are not important. To anything. Both you and your sois disant superiors will never be as truly important or actually busy or productive as all those you must pay to do the work your body needs because you are busy. Doesn’t that just suck? You are chasing something you have little chance of catching and even if you do it’s not beneficial in any real way to your existence. Busy-ness does not support you.

Those who talk about being busy — sighing about the red-eye flight to attend that day conference in Seattle, moaning about the budget report that took away sleep for the last forty-eight hours, proudly declaring that caffeine is the only thing in their diet — are doing no real work. The middle managers who whine about the endless stream of staff meetings they must coordinate in which they prevent underlings from doing any part of their wage job at all — for hours — because they must sit and listen to management tell them what they should be doing are doing no real work. Of course, the corner office ass-sitters make a point of being eminently important while doing no real work. All of these busy people accomplish nothing. They are busy doing nothing that needs to be done. Not even to maintain their own bodies. Isn’t that pathetic? They must pay for laundry to be done, food to be prepared and likely delivered, and any building-tending — from maintenance to their copious trash removal — wherever they have been busy. They must pay for someone to watch their children grow up. They must pay for pets to be cared for and walked regularly. They even pay to exercise their bodies — and then throw that into the litany of complaints about their [sigh] busy-ness.

They must pay for all this because all the work they must off-load so they can be busy is the only essential work in life. It is what needs to be done to maintain the body. Busy people do nothing to maintain themselves. They pay the truly busy people — the people who must work constantly because the work they do, this essential work, is so devalued that 40, 50, 80 hours of it a week can not pay their own expenses (which include paying others to do some of their own essential work, especially in food preparation). The people who do this essential work do not sigh about being busy. They don’t have time and we’re not listening to them anyway. But they are rightfully enraged. They know the cult of busy-ness will get them nowhere, but they can’t get out. They are trapped because you pay them so little to do your necessary work. While you are being busy, working for something that will never do this care work for you. Busy-work will never love you back, to paraphrase Jaffe.

Jaffe talks at length about care work and the unequal burden that falls particularly on women who must work both inside and outside the house. (Which is most women now that two incomes are required just to pay for that house.) Jaffe talks with women who have chosen “family” over jobs, by which is meant that these women have chosen to do one job, in the home, doing all the work that is necessary to maintain that home. They do not do wage work in addition to being a home-maker, though many do earn income through producing and selling things from their home. There is a stigma attached to the people Jaffe interviewed. In this culture we denigrate women who choose to remain in the home. Our culture of busy-ness is deeply bothered by those who may be getting off easy, and we tend to perceive these home-makers as somehow being slackers. (Never mind the home knit clothing made from wool sheared from their own sheep raised organically in the back yard with the garden that produces ninety percent of their diet and, and, and…) We ask “Why do they get out of going off to that wage job? Why do they get to have all the fun?” And yet, we also denigrate all that fun. Worse, we do not even acknowledge that it exists. As Jaffe points out repeatedly, we have erased all the work that goes into maintaining a home. It is not real work. It is just house-keeping — what most of us in this culture pay others to do for us while we go off to the wage work. Even though we generally loathe that work and would prefer to be at home — or really anywhere but at work — wage work is believed to be real work and therefore superior to house-work.

We have a love-hate relationship with house-work — or maybe just mostly hate — which is probably why we work so hard to ignore its existence. We would love to be allowed to just focus on our own lives and not have to go off to wage work. But then, we really, really, really don’t like the real work involved in home-making. We use words like “boring” and “monotony” and “drudgery” to describe most care work. And, in truth, a good deal of care work is boring, monotonous drudgery. Also gross. Cleaning the bathroom is not fun. Ever. No matter if you have a whole Disney carnival of woodland critters whistling alongside you while doing it. And it is never done. You simply can’t check laundry off the to-do list. Before you find a pen, there is another mound growing under the bed. You can’t accomplish, defeat or subdue laundry. Further, it’s very difficult to build up any sort of status around these tasks. You don’t win accolades or climb ladders through dish-washing. I would say home-making is the polar opposite of the busy-ness cult — it is the thing the busy folks are avoiding doing in remaining busy, while sighing that they would much rather be at home doing life, but… there’s this report that needs to be filed, email that needs to be sent, meeting that needs to be coordinated, etc. Sigh.

What I find a bit off in Jaffe’s discussion is that she never quite says that this view of being a home-maker is skewed — both in our culture and in the way she presents those who have chosen to be home-makers. It may be my interpretation, but she seems to imply that those who choose to be home-makers are just plain strange women. They have values that trend into racism and patriarchy and other dark things at odds with the socially liberal modern woman (who works outside the home… as well as inside). They’re different. They’re also privileged to be able to make that choice to avoid wage work. And perhaps all of this is true — of the women she describes. But not of all women who eschew wage work in favor of focusing on care work and definitely not those who don’t get the make the choice at all for one reason or another. Jaffe seems to be tacitly conflating home-making with conservative North American housewives, and these are not at all the same things. More than half of the world is engaged in home-making. There are very few people who have decided to be “stay-at-home moms”, and they are not at all representative.

I think this may be because Jaffe is not a home-maker. She views the desire to just do life with the same cultural bias as those in the busy-ness cult. It’s boring, it’s menial, it’s ugly. There’s no opportunity for personal growth or fulfillment. There’s no reward. And those who would choose this life must be the kind of weirdos she interviewed for her book. She focuses on the tasks and not the product in home-making, the work and not the care. And yes, when you look at just the job list, it is not rosy. But that could be said of all work. Maybe all living. However, the product of home-making is a home. Isn’t that enough of a reward? Moreover, there is no personal growth or fulfillment from wage work that can equal a healthy body and happy life — which is the product of home-making. This is the only work that really does produce a tangible benefit to you. And yet… being a home-maker is not considered rewarding for its own sake. It is weirdness that must be explained away. Even Jaffe seems to imply that you can’t be normal and actually want to stay at home.

I read things like this all the time. Particularly from women. And I keep coming back to the same question: what exactly is so wrong with being a home-maker? (Yes, again, I know, mind-body dualism, capitalism, domination, inequality, blah, blah, blah.) But seriously, how did making home become so tainted? How have we so thoroughly denied the reality of our wants and needs? A home is what we all want out of life. Making home is the main biophysical goal in life. Food, shelter and reproduction! These are the only important and necessary things. The work done to create food, shelter and reproduction is the only necessary work, the only things that have to be done if we want to exist.

Now, the anomie of being a housewife intrinsic to our culture is wrong, of course. But fix that. Make a world of homes that are interconnected and vibrant. Because they are. It is only self-delusion to say that any given household is separate and independent, a castle to be ruled by one. So make webs of people working together to make homes. In particular, don’t make women do all the care work and do wage jobs as well. But don’t send any people out of the house to do wage jobs just so we can pay others to do the work of the house. In any case, most wage jobs shouldn’t exist. Most wage jobs are destroying this world of interconnected homes. Most are are wasteful, unproductive, and toxic to all life forms, including those who are doing them.

The worst is that even when the work itself is interesting and sort of necessary — like most research and invention, culture production and recording — wage jobs make the work degrading and stupid and so very bone-grindingly boring through the hierarchies imposed by busy-ness. (Because status is the only true goal of the busy-ness cult.) All the competition and comparison and accounting and money-mining takes the joy right out of work and, on balance, erases any good that might have come of the work. A focus on maintaining status hierarchies will always lead to destruction and degradation, not production and vitality. Or at least thus far in several thousand years of human history, hierarchies have always led to destruction and degradation — and care work has had to muddle along in the shadows to maintain the requisite production and vitality.

So change that. Don’t throw out home-making because it has been cast in the shadows. Give it back its luster. Put humans back in the comforting home as interdependent equals working together to eat, play and make new humans.

And more than anything else, let’s be done with the cult of busyness. It is getting us nowhere. Just like Steve Jobs.


Teaser photo credit: By Metc123 – Own work, Public Domain,

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.

Tags: care work, homemaking, work