Tuesday, June 12, 2012

How Much Would I Have to Pay You to Do Nothing?

My husband and some co-workers were having a hypothetical conversation that he brought home with him and discussed with me. The premise is simple: how much would someone have to pay you to do nothing?


That might sound like a trick question, so let me flesh out some of the ground rules:

  • You can not do paid work, so the money you're getting paid will have to sustain you forever. 
  • You can not do productive unpaid work that benefits someone else--no volunteering, no helping your neighbor carry in their groceries, etc. 
  • You can have hobbies, but you can not share anything produced by that hobby with other people. (So, for instance, if you want to watch a movie and critique it, you can do so in your own mind, but you can't blog about it or even discuss it with your partner or write it down (because people might potentially see it in the future). 
  • You can do housework so long as you (and your immediate family living in the house) are the only ones who benefit from it. 
So, what do you think? What would it take? 

There's no way I couldn't write. I mean, literally, no way. Even if I said that I would do it, I'd lose. I would break down. My soul would explode, maybe in ways manifested physically or maybe in ways that only show through the psychic toll. My answer was simply that there is no amount of money worth that. 

And then I started thinking about it a little more, and I realized that this arrangement (or something like it) has existed (and does exist) for certain people. Consider these lines from Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" (full text available here).
"If a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression--a slight hysterical tendency-- what is one to do? 
        My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing. 
        So I take phosphates or phosphites--whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to "work" until I am well again
        Personally, I disagree with their ideas. 
        Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. 
        But what is one to do? 
        I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal--having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition. 
        I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus--but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad. 
        So I will let it alone and talk about the house." 
Spoiler alert: Things don't end well for our narrator. 

There have been classes of people (usually upperclass white women) who did have this "opportunity" to trade "work" for "wealth." If they married well and right, they would not have to work and they would have access to scads of wealth.  But how often do we frame it as "not having to" work instead of "is not allowed to" work. At what point do those two merge? And what does it mean for our identities if we are not able to share our selves with the outside world? What is a self that is not seen?

What do you think? Is there any amount of money for which you would accept not being able to work?

EDIT: After re-reading this, I want to clarify that I'm not trying to make a statement that stay-at-home parents are repressed and doing "nothing." The group of men (at work) who were discussing this hypothetical didn't even bring up the context of gender oppression, but it's the first thing that jumped out at me. I'm definitely not saying that stay-at-home parents do "nothing," and for me it was the restrictions on hobbies and unpaid productivity that really struck me; I hope that those aren't restrictions that most people have to face, as I think that would be an incredibly difficult and isolating experience. 

Photo from 401K


  1. Yeah, I definitely think "don't have to" could often be renamed "not allowed/able to". Many women who don't work outside the home have husbands who just aren't at home/available enough to make paid work a possibility for them (ie couldn't ever help out with sick days or early pickups), and there seem to still be a lot of men who make kind of an ultimatum of "if you go to work, you still have to do everything (and I'm allowed to say that because I earn enough money for all of us)." It's certainly not always a privilege to be "able" to stay home.

  2. Yes, and I think that the distinction of not being able to have any hobbies or share your productivity with the outside world is what makes the thought experiment so isolating. You can definitely be the stay-at-home parent without having to give up that kind of interaction and productivity, but what happens when you don't have an outlet to share your ideas with other people?

    Also, I think it's interesting that a group of men (at work) were discussing this as a hypothetical without thinking about the context of gender oppression.

  3. I agree. There is no amount of money that would satisfy me enough to not share my thoughts. I too feel like I would explode if my productivity, and sharing of my productivity, were restricted or not allowed. Though it would be nice to get paid and not HAVE to do anything, the repression that I would feel from being told I CAN'T/COULDN'T would outweigh all of the material goodness.