I can’t understand it. No kid can understand it either.  Yet huge numbers of adults claim that even if they didn’t have to work for financial, moral or other imposed reasons, they would continue working, because otherwise they’d be bored to death.

Frankly, I find that generally incomprehensible, even with regard to many of those who have fascinating jobs, as would the average kid, who sees a world of beckoning trees to climb, toys to break, pets to play with and games to invent as a sure offset to any threat of boredom.

Lifetime Enjoyment vs. Lifetime Employment: a Kid’s Perspective

I don’t know any age at which I wasn’t ready to retire. I was ready to retire before I even started school, not to mention before I started working, even before I could spell “employment”, but after I was able to spell “job”—or at least as soon as I understood that something called “work” exists as something in store for most of us.

Finding the question unquestionably fascinating, I have to ask how it is possible to be bored with the gift of complete freedom—“freedom from” the constraints of the toiling mass of mankind combined with the “freedom to” do anything that’s legal, popularly understood as the lot of the very wealthy and of those who, for whatever reason, don’t have to work at all at anything paid or unpaid.

I exempt from this questioning those who have fantastic jobs that could not be performed without a well-funded employer footing the bill. Instead, I am addressing those whose jobs are less than fascinating or fulfilling.

 “Freedom From”, “Freedom To” and Boredom

There are, of course, two different kinds of freedom. A vagrant may have freedom from the stifling demands of an office job, but pays for that freedom through a loss of freedom to do what the average office worker takes for granted, e.g., to sleep in clean sheets and be able to afford a decent meal that isn’t second-hand dumpster-dive moldering fare or donated.

On the flip side, the office worker is free to do a lot more things, but at the price of lost freedom to do them whenever, however or wherever desired and loss of freedom from what’s waiting on the desk.

The truly free have the advantages of both lifestyles, with none of the costs. Presumably, the truly free include many who are independently wealthy. Also among the truly free are those who see their paid jobs as a mission, paid fun or an endless subsidized adventure. But most jobs are not likely to offer such freedoms.

For all the rest of working humanity, how could not having to go back to the job and, instead, to have that kind of “freedom from” and “freedom to”, possibly be “boring”? To answer that, a close examination of “boredom”, its forms, causes and consequences, is required and useful.

How Could Freedom Conceivably Be “Boring”?

Monotony: Presumably, many of those who claim they prefer to continue working when they could afford not to, because nonemployment will be “boring”, meaning that it would be “monotonous”.However, whether any situation, including working or not working, is experienced as monotonously boring—like an endlessly repeated simple assembly-line task, an excessively repeated once-maybe-twice-funny joke or continuous musical tone—is entirely dependent on individual capacities, perceptions and appetites. One man’s monotony is another’s “groove”, mantra, trance, variety, base rhythm or preferred pattern.

Punk rock and heavy metal illustrate this perfectly.

Humor of repetition also illustrates this: Some will laugh at a pie-in-the-face clown gag no matter how many times it is repeated; for others, twice is enough, before it becomes boring. Differences in attention or information span, retention, thresholds of excitability and need for or experience of familiarity account for much of this variability of response to or perception of a lack of change. Hence the gleeful persistent response of toddlers to pie-in-the-eye circus clowns and yawns from me. 

For many jazz musicians, the unvarying 1-2-3 of a waltz is about as engaging as spoon banging. Likewise, one McDonald’s cook may see endless variety in the combos, sauces, customers, etc., he serves, while for another it’s all the same. If not the food, then the customers—endless variety for one employee, consumer clones for another.

In this instance, whether or not what is experienced seems monotonous all depends on what psychologists call “stimulus discrimination” and “stimulus generalization”—the [trained] capacity to see differences among things vs. the capacity to see similarities.

In general, the more different things seem to be, the less monotony. When I, in my late teens, performed simple duties as a center-drive lathe operator churning out turbine discs, I was bored—in part because my energies were not being used in preferred ways and in part because of the perceived monotony of the job. However, the operator next to me rhapsodized about the rich variety of parts: titanium alloys, steel, etc., and the different tool, bit and caliper sizes.

The crucial difference between us? Apart from any differences in long-term ambitions, his perceptions were framed by stimulus discrimination, mine by stimulus generalization. That difference notwithstanding, the question remains: Why would he find less variety in limitless freedom than in a work station, assuming that the free life could offer him other comparable or more engaging enticements?

However, there are complex exceptions in the form of fewer perceived differences’ being experienced as anything but monotony, e.g., when an archaeologist first notes detailed similarities between images on prehistoric cave walls and modern Mars rovers. In this case, and at least initially, “sameness” means excitement, not monotony and boredom.

What is curious about monotony-boredom, is how, despite having what appears to be a monotonous job, many people would hate to give it up. As I queried above, even if stimulus discrimination makes the job interesting, why wouldn’t the same principle apply in a fully-leisured lifestyle, in which even greater variety of different experience is virtually guaranteed?

This phenomenon cries out for an explanation: How is it possible to find free time that can be used however one wishes more boring than sticking to a monotonous job or one with less variety than free time offers?

There at least two speculative explanations that may account for this:

1. The real contrast for the worker is not between a monotonous job and monotonous free time. It is likely that the job is preferred to the free time despite the job’s monotony, not because of it—e.g., because “all my friends are where I work”.

Alternatively, the worker may believe, as many do, that being able to work but not doing so —irrespective of one’s wealth, given good health—contravenes the culturally  deeply entrenched work ethic and compromises one’s social status.

“I would be bored” may therefore be code for “recognition hunger” or any other four of what Games People Play author and psychologist Eric Berne called the “6 hungers”: “recognition hunger”, “contact hunger”, “incident hunger”, “time structure hunger” and/or “sexual hunger”, rather than only the sixth—”stimulation hunger”— unless the stimulation of interactions with friends at work is the main or only source of stimulation in life for that worker.

2. Despite the perceptions of others, the worker simply doesn’t see his job as being monotonous and boring, because of factors like those cited above, e.g., that the “monotony” actually induces a comforting trance-like state, not unlike that of work songs on a river delta or barge. The externally imposed rhythm may actually be comforting, if not engaging.

Alternatively, thriving on monotony may correlate with an incapacity—whether emotional, cognitive or volitional, to handle the freedom from that kind of comforting monotony. In this case, preferring to continue working when it is not clearly necessary may amount to what Eric Fromm called an “escape from freedom” and what Berne called “time structure hunger”.

To leave that routine-riddled haven for the unstructured circumstances of nonemployment may carry too severe a challenge to create a substitute—ironically, both an especially severe volitional challenge and severe cognitive strain because of the same factor: a work history of structured simplicity, repetition, passivity and structure.

“I wouldn’t know what to do with myself” is likely to be a reflection of volitional, creative and cognitive limitations—if not primarily of limited life interests, over-excitability [routine work as exciting], under-excitability [unresponsiveness to unfamiliar stimuli, situations or patterns] or limited value-horizons.


Next: In Part II, why else would anyone would be bored to death by not having to work?

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