You hear the complaint a lot: “too many American live to work when they should really be working to live.” The dichotomy always rang false to me, and I finally figured out why.
The first problem is that this, like most dichotomies, is completely false. To demonstrate this, I’ve compiled a short list of the inane dichotomies created by the rhetoric of modern American politicians. “You’re either with us or against us.” “My opponent is a tax-and-spend liberal while I support tax cuts [but can’t pay for the programs you’re asking for without taking massive loans from China].” “You either support our troops or oppose the war.” “You’re either a patriot or a ‘cut-and-runner.’” “You’re either a liberal or a conservative, a Republican or a Democrat. Come on, pick a side, we’re at war!”
This dichotomy of “living to work” or “working to live” is no less false than the ones above. It divides the world into two camps, neither of which has much basis in fact. It ignores the inherent nuance of life, people, and worldviews. But dichotomies, even false ones, can be useful. This one, unfortunately, is not.
The real problem with this dichotomy is that neither possibility is a very good or realistic one, especially in an America where one’s identity is built in no small part on their work. If you “work to live,” your life is regularly put on hold for 8 hours out of every weekday, roughly half your waking life–wasting half of your life is no way to live. On the other hand, if you “live to work” you’re somehow without motivation or method any time you’re not in, thinking about, or talking about the office–hardly a life worth living.
Because the two options in this dichotomy are both bad ones, the most rational thing to do is opt out. But as I said, we could have better–though clearly far from perfect–dichotomies. Perhaps the most useful one on the topic of work is “for love or money.” This dichotomy has the same inherent flaws of all the artificial binaries dreamed up for rhetorical ease, but I have little doubt that it’s more useful.
There is nothing inherently bad about “working for money,” but it’s hardly as good as “working for love.” To this day, one my biggest hangups about the corporate world is that I feel pretty strongly that most of the people there are “working for money.”
Working for money can be fine, especially if you don’t much mind what you’re doing or find it ethically questionable. But a devout Catholic working at an abortion clinic for the money would probably suffer incredibly because she was “working for money.” Fortunately, for most people “working for money” isn’t half as bad as that.
“Working for love” is, almost without question, everyone’s ideal. If everyone were able to do jobs they loved, I have little doubt that people in this country would be happier. Doing work you love–while making enough money to live comfortably–is what all people would do if they had the chance. Some people probably never have the chance, some people probably never realize they have the chance, and some people probably never want to see a pay cut.
If forced to chose some binary that illustrated people’s relationship to their working lives, “living to work/working to live” is not one I would ever choose. “Working for money” and “working for love” is a better dichotomy. It implies that there is a type of life in which work has meaning without its sole meaning being work.
Having said that, I would prefer that we banned all dichomoies, or at least disclaimed them. Asking: “Given a binary choice between ‘working for love’ and ‘working for money,’ which are you doing?” is far better than asking “Are you a liberal or a conservative?” The first embraces the falseness of the choice while the second denies the existence of alternatives. And there are always alternatives.