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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA CAREERS : ESSAY : Why Read This When You Could Be at the Beach?

September 12, 1994|DONALD WOUTAT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some have the notion that leisure is gaining the upper hand over work in America, and that in the 1990s we are correcting the excesses of the 1980s. There are even polls saying so.

This is hard to believe, although a correction would certainly be called for. The 1980s, which took place years ago, were really nuts. Nine of every 10 adults worked 20 hours a day on Wall Street, making money that they squandered on poison pills and other drugs. Former janitors in fashionable gardening togs planted greenmail in clay pots on their penthouse patios. Secretaries made $300,000 and up, which they rolled over into Japan sector funds.

But they weren't happy, because they were working such long hours. For one thing, their laundry never got done. Laundry piled up across New York City and eventually was sent by rail to designated sites in Nevada.

Fortunately, this couldn't last, because many had to go to prison. When the bubble finally burst at decade's end, almost all Americans lost nearly everything. At a late-night gathering in the California desert, more than 700 followers of junk bond king Teapot Milksky gathered to carry out a secret pact.

Dressed in bunny suits for warmth against the chill desert air, they stood in a circle as little white cocktail napkins were handed out, inscribed with the thought-provoking suicide note left by George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak Co., a few years after his 1925 retirement:

"My work is over, why wait?"

Then they drank from small cups of Kool-Aid, fell to the ground and appeared to go to sleep. But a Milksky aide had inadvertently left the cyanide at his mother's, so after a while everybody got up and went back to Los Angeles.

They left the question hanging spookily in their wake, "Have Americans learned their lesson about not working so hard?"

Mankind has been arguing about this from the outset. How hard should we work? Is idleness immoral? What's better, work or leisure? What became of all those old leisure suits? The people at this newspaper working so hard to put out this special report about work, why aren't they at the beach? Isn't that what they came out to California for?

The economists have answers for these questions, but enough said. We should be listening to the philosophers. They have been warning us all along to kick back.

The ancient Greeks, for example, said the whole point of work is the leisure time it buys so we can sit around and tell jokes. Bertrand Russell said in 1932, "The morality of work is the morality of slaves."

But it hasn't been working out, pardon the expression. Sure, Americans have increased their standard of living dramatically, but nobody takes advantage of it. Their work is joyless, their vacations are manic, and their evenings are spent bowling in large groups, sending balls crashing into pins in a deafening crescendo.

The reason is not hard to trace. It stems from the discovery of guilt in 1633 by a Pilgrim youngster as he played in a drafty New England cow barn. Guilt, a heavy lead globe not much different from a bowling ball, was just what his father, Puritan minister John Winthrop, was looking for.

Winthrop had won a following with the line "Work is a godly virtue." But at the time, a labor shortage had driven wages up so high that church pews were priced out of reach. Carpenters and other labourers, as laborers were spelled at the time, made so much money that they started taking a lot of time off to enjoy it, sitting around telling jokes.

"The evils which were springing up," Winthrop wrote in his journal, with a shudder palpable to this day, "were: 1) many spent much time idly, etc., because they could get as much in four days as would keep them a week; 2) they spent much in tobacco and strong waters. . . ."

Well-read in Greek philosophy though these labourers apparently were, they were no match for Winthrop. Holding the guilt aloft in court like a smoking gun, he got a charley horse in his right shoulder, but not before persuading a judge to place a cap on wages so the labourers would have to work longer for the same pay. Failure to do so would cause them to feel guilty.

Ever since, the government has been using workers to get it out of trouble. Just last month, for example, speaking from a bunker in Wyoming, the government admitted it likes to keep people out of work to help control inflation. Yet instead of thanks, these jobless inflation soldiers, trudging barefoot down the street toward what passes for home, get jeered at as slackers.

Then there is productivity, also known as "layoffs." If you double your efficiency, civilized people would argue, you should be able to go home around noon and play with the dog, as the Germans do. Instead, they lay half of you off. This is the sharp-stick-in-your-carrot approach.

Attitudes are changing, according to polls. For example, leisure is now rated as more important than work by Americans, 41% to 36%, the opposite of the mid-1980s.

But many observers, such as the Germans, believe this sort of wisdom is unattainable in a nation capable of the leisure suit. The new poll results probably just mean that the baby boomers are pooped.

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