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WORKLESSNESS

The delightful animated movie “Wall-E” portrays a trashed and toxic Earth that is no longer habitable. Earth’s last inhabitants had escaped into outer space. A dozen generations later, their descendants survive luxuriously on a huge space ship.

Over the generations, passengers and crew have grown progressively lethargic from pampered inactivity. They no longer walk, but recline on lounges that transport them on an invisible force field.

Formal portraits of the spaceship’s captains evince a generational decline in fitness: each captain is pudgier than his predecessor. In a dramatic moment, the current captain rouses his bulk from his lounge and actually walks, though tentatively.

I recently interviewed a young man struggling with worklessness. He had earned a fortune by his early thirties. “I wake up in the morning realizing I don’t have to do anything” he admits matter-of-factly. Great success has freed him from the gravity of financial struggle. Free to watch endless TV, he has self-limited his viewing hours. He repairs things, putters, drives his children’s carpool. He searches for new struggles worthy of his considerable gifts. Though not yet forty, in many ways he echoes some of my contemporaries who’ve opted for comfortable retirement only to find worklessness somehow unfulfilling.

Parents worry that inherited wealth will subsidize worklessness. They strongly suspect that struggle, like gravity, is indispensable to healthy living. They worry that the work ethic will disappear into luxurious lifestyles. The captains’ portraits in Wall-E evoke their apprehension that each of their descendant generations will work less than the last until none will be fit to work: that all will eventually recline on a lounge of entitlement and dependency.

Weightlessness is the scourge of space travel. Orbiting astronauts exercise vigorously to offset the absence of gravity. Without physical struggle their bodies would atrophy. Worklessness can be the scourge of financial ease at any age. Without meaningful work most of us would atrophy at any age.

In the course of reviewing my aptitude test scores, our middle school guidance counselor once remarked: “Gerry, these scores indicate you can do anything you want to do. Now, will you please do something!”

Yes Ma’m, at last I think I understand: worklessness is to struggle as weightlessness is to gravity.

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