Labor, leisure, and briar pipes

August is a great month for goofing off, as is December and, come to think of it, we should add November to the tally, too, since it gets us ramped up for December. This leaves us nine months in the year to be serious about things.

That makes sense to me, but how does the world really stack up with this working thing?

I’m glad you asked. Across the 36 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average worker works 1,770 hours per year. That’s for the year 2014, incidentally, and, also incidentally, China is not an OECD member, so that powerhouse economy is not part of the data.

German workers tally the least amount of hours, at 1,366 per year. Mexico is at the other end of the chart, with 2,228 hours per worker. The U.S. is just about on the average, at 1,789 hours.

Japan, often cited as a hard-working, or perhaps, overworked, country, comes in at 1,729 hours. I don’t know what’s going on here; perhaps off-the-clock working is missed by statistics.

Now that we’ve seen some data, we can forget all about it, since I want to contemplate something more abstract. That’s the notion of labor vs. leisure.

In economic parlance, “labor” is, well, labor. Everything else is, by default, “leisure.” It’s a zero zero-sum gig.

This stuff gets theoretical and pretty darned philosophical. You can make things more complicated when you consider that labor is not a uniform blob of activity, but, instead, has a lot of nuances to it.

Do we delay our entry into the workforce in order to get more education, or do we start bringing home a paycheck as soon as possible? Do we work for straight hourly pay, or for a salary, or for a commission? If we get an hourly raise, will we decide to work more hours or fewer hours? Do we take a safe job, or a dangerous job that pays a premium for the risk? Do we work for a big, established company with a stable, if mediocre, salary, or do we take a low-pay, ground-floor flyer with a start-up in hopes of a fast ride to the top if it succeeds? Do we decide to work for somebody else at all, or do we invest our time and effort in self-directed endeavors?

None of the questions I posed have a “correct” answer. All pivot on personal preferences, assumptions, and constraints.

Of course, in reality, at any given moment, we’re not offered a smorgasbord of all the options I posed. But the idea is a hypothetical exercise in a specific type of thinking, so the wider the field of potential options is, the more exercising we can do.

As interesting as that notion can be, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that it’s built on a premise that isn’t airtight. That premise is the simple, zero-sum tradeoff between labor and leisure.

Economics has a lot of these little gotchas. They look wonderful at first glance, but they start getting cranky after the honeymoon is over and the in-laws want to borrow your car.

Outside of economics texts, in real life, highly-compensated professions or entrepreneurial situations often embrace work as a calling, not just a job. There’s actually a big gray area between labor and leisure. For example, if you’re keeping up with some professional literature while sitting at Micro Beach soaking up the sun, is that labor or leisure?

If you’re playing golf with your vendors: labor, or leisure?

How about karaoke with your clients? OK, that was a trick question. It’s obviously pure labor.

For a few time-honored stations in life, such as farmer, rancher, or mariner, work might be an entire lifestyle and even a home.

Oh, and let’s not forget lighthouse attendant. Now, that looks like the lifestyle for me: sitting in the topside apartment, warm and snug in a cable-knit sweater, smoking a briar pipe. I’m surveying the horizon with a practiced eye. Fog starts rolling on shore. The sun, sinking low, ushers the sky into a gray dusk. A lock of platinum-hued hair brushes across my shoulder. It’s followed by the presence of a well-manicured hand offering gentle pressure that beckons me hither. I saw this in a European tobacco ad about 45 years ago. Some things just stick with you.

Uh, where were we? I was about to say, before the fog rolled in, that the notion of an “average worker” can overlook the wide variance in personal preferences. For example, I’ve known writers, charter pilots, artists, doctors, dentists, and accountants who have worked into their 70s, or even 80s, just because they liked the work. Some of these pros were on Saipan. On the other hand, I’ve known people who retired in their 30s, threw their alarm clocks out, and never looked back.

Well, now that we’ve thought about this stuff, does it solve any of your problems?

No?

Frankly, it doesn’t solve any of mine, either.

Oh, well, that’s August for you. You shouldn’t have gotten your hopes up. I tried to warn you.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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