This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
We are currently living in an era dominated by overwork. Whether it’s your punch-in, punch-out job, the side hustles and extra gig work you pursue to help make rent, the drive to produce and consume “content” during every waking hour, or the expectation to look a certain way and constantly keep up with whatever trends surround you—it’s relentless.
We’re so immersed in these behaviors and their corresponding ideologies that it can be hard for people to understand that this is a project carefully crafted over decades, even centuries—culminating in our neoliberal era of hyper-productivity and extreme overwork. How have the concepts of “productivity” and “laziness” been manufactured and deployed by capital to cultivate pliant, profitable workers? How have the ideals of hyper-productivity encouraged not just willing but enthusiastic participation in the hustle-and-grind culture of modern capitalism? And what can we do to escape this prison?
These are just some of the questions that Dr. Devon Price, a social psychologist at Loyola University in Chicago, explores in their book, Laziness Does Not Exist, published by Atria Books.
Robert Raymond: Laziness Does Not Exist begins with your personal story and how your experiences around overwork and under-rest led you to take a deep dive into our society’s ideas around laziness and our expectations around productivity. At some point in your career, you ended up falling chronically ill—after going undiagnosed for months, you finally came to realize that your ongoing fevers and chills were a result of extreme overwork and the unrealistic productivity standards you put on your body and your mind. This inspired you to write the book, in which you introduce the concept that is woven throughout: “The Laziness Lie.” What is The Laziness Lie and how does it manifest in our lives under capitalism?
Dr. Devon Price: The Laziness Lie is my little shorthand for a bunch of latent beliefs that are really deeply embedded in our culture and date back centuries—beliefs that are really infused in how our educational system works, how we approach the workplace, how people think about a lot of social issues such as unemployment, homelessness, and so on. It has three main tenets: the first is that your worth is defined by your productivity. The second is that you can’t really trust any needs and limitations that you feel in yourself—because those are just threats to your productivity that you’re supposed to ignore and push through. And then the last one is that there is always more that you could be doing.
So even if you are someone who is working a 50-hour, 60-hour work week, you could be doing more for your community or your family, or you could have a better looking home or just have a better looking physical appearance. There’s just an endless litany of things that we’re supposed to do to broadcast that we’re virtuous and we’re kind of conforming to standards and that we’re trying hard enough. And if you slip on any of those, you can feel a lot of shame.
And in the book I chart it back to really early in American history and what the Puritans believed about hard work and how we’ve used this really misanthropic belief that people are lazy and you have to push them to work. That belief system is how we justified slavery, it’s how we justify kicking people off of disability benefits if they don’t seem sick enough… so many other inequities trace back to these beliefs that we just can’t trust ourselves and that we can’t trust other people, that everyone is fundamentally lazy deep down, even though we really have no evidence to actually believe that.
RR: Yeah, it’s a fundamental tenet of our economic system that work is a disutility and that workers are always trying to minimize the amount of work and maximize what they get out of that work. Which I think is maybe true when it comes to the fact that a lot of us hate our jobs because of, you know, wage slavery and that kind of thing. But there’s a big difference between jobs, work, and doing things that are fulfilling, and the definition of work is not necessarily something that is always going to be seen as work in our current system.
You write that, quote, “Research shows that when we believe the world is fair and people get what they deserve, we’re less likely to support social welfare programs and have less sympathy for poor people and their needs.” One of the things that stood out to me while reading your book was how pervasive the myth of meritocracy is in our society — that we really believe that success is tied to hard work, an idea that has been foundational to American capitalism since its inception. This idea, this myth of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, but really success is only tied to a very specific kind of hard work—the kind of work that’s valued by capitalism. And even then, it’s not in any way inevitable that that hard work will lead to financial stability and social status. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on that idea of meritocracy and sort of this myth that pervades our society.
DP: Yeah, we get these really valorized images both through fictional media and through the mythology of your Steve Jobs or Elon Musks, your Dale Carnegie kind of figures. Those figures have been with us since at least industrialization, this particular idea of the self-made man and the mythology that if you have a dream and a vision and you singularly pursue it and you work really hard, you can not only ascend the ranks in terms of wealth, but you can actually become someone who really shapes what society is like. It’s kind of become literally cosmic now with people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk not even just accruing wealth, but really trying to dominate the world and space. This incredibly individualistic view of the world that is a very convenient and appealing story.
But, first of all, most of those figures had some access to generational wealth or some advantages to give them a pretty significant head start. Not always the case, but it usually is with those mythic figures. But second of all, just how many social structures make it possible for those who do succeed in society to be able to—whether that’s having access to public infrastructure, having cities give them deals so that they can move their warehouses and not have to pay taxes for years—just basic things like the fact that we’re all dependent on society to some extent for roads and water and shelter and education. It’s because we have this view of being self-made and individualism really drilled into us, I think many of us are uncomfortable zooming out and looking at how reliant we are upon other people. And that makes us really undervalue the very social systems and social welfare that makes anybody’s well-being even possible in the first place.
RR: In the book you unpack the history of The Laziness Lie, really connecting it to early components of the American project, particularly exploring the Puritan work ethic. You also talk about enslaved people and the treatment of Indigenous people and poor white laborers and other exploited groups—and you tie The Laziness Lie into all of that. I’m wondering if you could unpack a little bit how the control of these groups led to this idea of The Laziness Lie.
DP: The Puritan beliefs about human nature really were very artificial and aberrant at the time. It actually takes so much effort to go against how people’s bodies and minds actually work, but it’s just so ingrained in our belief system now that we take it for granted. One tidbit that I learned recently is that Puritans would even try to construct furniture that would force babies and toddlers into sitting into a more mature, adult-looking stance from as early as possible. I knew that they had views of childhood that were basically, ‘We should treat children as little adults and view any childishness in them as immoral,’ but the fact that even not being able to hold up your own head because of basic developmental biology was something that they went against and tortured their children over—it just really shows you how distorted their beliefs really were about people.
They believed that if you had a drive to work really hard, that was a sign that you had already been chosen for heaven, and that if you didn’t have a strong drive and motive to work hard, that was a sign you were already basically consigned to hell. And in the colonial United States, where you have a lot of enslaved workers, you have white laborers who are indentured servants, people who are having their labor exploited to varying degrees, an ideology of pushing people past their limits and really just being downright cruel and dehumanizing and disrespecting people’s physical needs, to the people who stand to gain economically from colonization at that point, that was a really handy belief system to have. And it was also a belief system that got other people on board with things like chattel slavery in the U.S.
There were already in Europe, before that, beliefs percolating that there were different races of people, and certain races were more animal and less moral and had less self-control. And that really only got worse under the American empire. It was basically promoted to the American public that enslaving Black people was how we would save them from their own base animal instincts. After abolition happened, that narrative shifted a little bit, but basically the same core beliefs were still really politically useful.
You see political cartoons from right during the Reconstruction period portraying Black Americans as looking for a handout and being really greedy and lazy. And this, of course, was propaganda to justify not paying reparations and not making good on the immense harm that we did to Black Americans. It was also really useful around the time of labor strikes and protests for really portraying white laborers and basically any kind of poor laborer as an idle hand that’s just going to drink and drug and run riot all over town if you don’t work them 16 hours per day.
These beliefs continued to morph, but not that much. The welfare queen stereotype of the ’80s is very similar to the Reconstruction-era stereotype of Black Americans as looking for a handout. And unfortunately, because it is so deeply entrenched in the stories that we tell in our political system at this point, so many people passively absorb it and believe it. Even if they wouldn’t endorse the most literal race science level of it a lot of people still, on some level, implicitly believe ‘I can’t trust most other people’ or that people who are on government benefits are opportunistic fakers, that ‘I need to police my coworkers, too, if they seem like they’re slacking off.’
RR: How does our education system perpetuate these beliefs?
DP: The factory model of education is a little bit of an oversimplification, but it is more or less accurate that the structure of the school day was modeled on the idea of being an industrial warehouse worker during the late 1800’s, early 1900’s. If we take a longer view across culture and time, we didn’t really teach children that they needed to sit in place and churn out times tables for hours at a day and be very docile and well-behaved as consistently, though obviously there were people like the Puritans who did have that very rigid view of childhood.
But we’ve been stuck with that factory model of education pretty much ever since, because it was easy, once more workers went into an office setting, to adapt it and to still benefit from the fact that we were really drilling into people, ‘You sit still, you do what you’re told, you show your work in a particular prescribed way, and you conform to behavioral standards.’ And I think it’s self-evident for almost for anybody who’s been through that kind of system, or at least anybody who’s been burned by it even a little bit, how much it isn’t complementary to our humanity.
A lot has been said about how it creates the problem of ADHD—and not to say that ADHD isn’t real—but the idea that certain neurotypes are stigmatized and seen as fundamentally broken because maybe you need to walk around a little bit and get some energy out or you’re just not built to sit in a fluorescent-lit room staring at a chalkboard for hours a day. It’s really created the condition under which a lot of people are stigmatized as ill and defective, when if we had just more diversity of ways of living that were acceptable, and ways of learning that were acceptable, we wouldn’t be doing that to people—not as severely, at least.
RR: I want to bring up another quote from the book. You write, “If every person who’s ever been jailed for drug possession was simply too ‘lazy’ to get a real job, I don’t have to worry about drug policy reform. And if every student who gets bad grades in my classes is simply too ‘lazy’ to study, then I never have to change my teaching methods to offer any extensions on late assignments.” I love how you bring back the lens and challenge us to think about things not so much from just an individualized vantage point, but moreso through systems. And it’s really interesting—your book is like a self-help book and a systemic critique at the same time. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of thinking in systems versus the more neoliberal-informed individual judgments of character?
DP: It’s kind of staggering to me how much we really don’t train people to think about systems and to just immediately explain a problem in terms of individual bad actors. One of the most timely examples here in the U.S. is COVID, the way people talked about COVID numbers, and it being just a product of individuals behaving badly. So, I live in Chicago, and our mayor [Lori Lightfoot] very quickly became notorious for opening up restaurants, opening up businesses, whenever the numbers took even a slight dip COVID-wise. And then immediately, once numbers started climbing back up, logically as a systemic result of that, she would be on the news talking about how young kids from the South Side, a majority Black area of Chicago, were partying and behaving irresponsibly and not wearing their masks—and that’s why the numbers were up. That’s such a clear-cut example of someone who surely she must know that when she opened up schools and when she opened the bars, that she was creating the system that would cause COVID to proliferate. But it’s so much easier to just say individuals are behaving badly as a way to allow herself to keep serving business interests while putting everybody’s life on the line.
Unfortunately, a lot of people really bought into that. And certainly Chicago isn’t the only city where that happened. And just even anecdotally, so many of my friends and people who I know and share a lot of the same values as me, were still feeling really negative on humanity and really thinking that COVID numbers being so bad in the U.S. was a result of people not caring about others and being selfish and stupid—all of these individual failings, rather than us just not having the systems in place to make it possible for a lot of people to stay home and make the “right decision.”
RR: Let’s shift now to the latter half of your book, where you move into looking at ways of overcoming The Laziness Lie and really talking about the importance of stillness and space in life. You write, “Wasting time is a human basic need,” and that, “Quitting things, cutting corners and all other actions we typically write off as laziness can actually help us heal and grow.”
DP: So, to take a step back and set the stage for this topic, industrial organizational psychologists have tried to solve the problem of “time theft” at work for decades at this point. Whether you’re looking at people in a manufacturing plant or office workers or retail workers—people don’t work constantly for the full eight, nine, ten hours that they’re on the clock. We’ve found that really consistently for decades. And yet for some reason that’s always framed in the research literature as a problem. And a lot of interventions look at how to stop distracted workers and get them to actually work during their entire workday.
What I argue in the book is, if we’ve repeatedly found across time and a bunch of different settings that the average person can only really focus on work tasks for three or four hours per day, why can’t we just accept that as data and description of what people are capable of and what’s good for them, rather than a problem to be cured? Because clearly it’s not changing, no matter how much we try to make the workplace a really punishing environment where you have to fake being productive that whole time.
We know that humans aren’t built to just focus and churn productivity out. People need to daydream—we know that’s really essential for processing information and creativity. People need time to process experiences that have happened to them—we certainly know that from the trauma literature and memory research. If you want information to be stored in long-term memory, you have to give your brain time to plug it into the places where it needs to be and to make meaning out of what you’ve learned. And yet we’re all trying to live in a way that’s completely incompatible with that need.
RR: In the concluding portions of your book, you write that, “The compulsion toward overwork is a key component of The Laziness Lie, and resisting it is important. But we have to go much further than that.” I’m wondering if you can talk about what you mean by that.
DP: The Laziness Lie and all of these problems that I’m talking about are so much deeper than just, ‘people are workaholics, they’re addicted to work, and they need to get over that compulsion,’ for all of the reasons that we’ve already talked about. It comes down basically to really objectifying human bodies and human minds. And instead of seeing our bodies and minds as us, ourselves, that we get to do whatever we want with and get to live however we choose, we see our bodies and our brains as a means to an end that have to justify their own existence and earn their own right to survive under capitalism. And what that does is it imposes all kinds of values and assumptions and standards onto how bodies and minds should be. So, if the way that you pay attention is different from what the educational system considers the norm, you’re defective and you need to be fixed and you need to feel shame about that. If your body doesn’t conform to the standards laid out for it, it’s not being a good, diligent object, and so it needs to be fixed or shrunk or destroyed, basically. Even things like deviating from professional norms by having a natural textured hair that isn’t Eurocentric or wearing clothing that is gender nonconforming—anything that could be a distraction from tidy, conforming, inoffensive productivity can be seen as a threat.
And so what I really want to challenge people to do when they read this book is not just take more breaks, take more naps, take Fridays off of work when you can—though all of that is great—but really question what society has taught you about who you should be, how you should live, and what you’re supposed to value. Because if we start from a base assumption that all life has value, that all humans, no matter what they do or don’t do, deserve dignity and a reasonable degree of comfort, that necessarily forces us to really think about, ‘Do I actually have to have a body that looks this way? Do I actually need to present in this way? Do I need to actually construct my life around these norms? Or can I completely throw that all out the window and really focus on what really matters to me and what I really value? So, when I say that compassion kills The Laziness Lie, I’m really saying we can’t just say ‘I’m going to work less.’ We need to say work is irrelevant to human dignity and the human right to exist, and we need to take care of everyone, no matter how they live.♦
Robert Raymond is a writer, founding co-producer and creative director of the Upstream Podcast, and senior producer of The Response. He is passionate about exploring the intersections of sound design, storytelling, and eco-socialist principles to help ease our way out of these tumultuous times.