Work is not going well lately. Exhaustion and burnout are rampant; many young people are reconsidering whether they owe all their energy to their jobs, as seen in the widespread popularity of “quiet quitting.” An ongoing wave of unionization—including at Amazon and Starbucks—has led to victories, but has also been met with ferocious resistance from management. In this context, or perhaps in any context, it might feel absurd to imagine a society in which workers can’t get enough of work. It certainly would have seemed ludicrous to readers of the French firebrand Paul Lafargue’s satirical 1883 pamphlet, The Right to Be Lazy, in which he invents a Bizarro World where workers cause all kinds of “individual and social miseries” by refusing to quit at the end of the day.
Lafargue, a onetime doctor who became a critic, a socialist, and an activist, was a politically serious man, but in this recently reissued text, he uses humor to cut through the noise of political debate. His made-up work addicts are meant to help readers see the very real dangers of a system in which many have no choice but to work until they reach their breaking point. Lafargue’s mordant approach is still effective 140 years later. Mixed with the longevity of his ideas, it gives The Right to Be Lazy the angry, hilarious wisdom of a Shakespearean fool.
It has long been said that no one knows with any certainty the population of Lagos, Nigeria. When I spent time there a decade ago, the United Nations conservatively put the number at 11.5 million, but other estimates ranged as high as 18 million. The one thing everyone agreed was that Lagos was growing very fast. The population was already 40 times bigger than it had been in 1960, when Nigeria gained independence. One local demographer told me that 5,000 people were migrating to Lagos every day, mostly from the Nigerian countryside. Since then, the city has continued to swell. By 2035, the UN projects that Lagos will be home to 24.5 million people.
What is happening in Lagos is happening across the continent. Today, Africa has 1.4 billion people. By the middle of the century, experts such as Edward Paice, author of Youthquake: Why Africa’s Demography Should Matter to the World, believe that this number will have almost doubled. By the end of this century, the UN projects that Africa, which had less than one-tenth of the world’s population in 1950, will be home to 3.9 billion people, or 40% of humanity.
These are staggering numbers, but they do not tell the full story. We need to zoom in closer. It is in cities where most of this astounding demographic growth will occur. Once we begin to think along these lines, what is at stake becomes even clearer. Much western commentary on Africa’s population growth has been alarmist and somewhat parochial, focusing on what this means for migration to Europe. The question of how African nations manage the fastest urbanisation in human history will certainly affect how many millions of its people seek to stay or leave. A recent continental survey by a South African foundation, for example, found that 73% of young Nigerians expressed an interest in emigrating within the next three years. But given its scale, this is a story with far larger implications than population movements alone, shaping everything from global economic prosperity to the future of the African nation state and the prospects for limiting climate crisis.
The recruiter was a chipper woman with a master’s degree in English. Previously she had worked as an independent bookseller. “Your experience as an English grad student is ideal for this role,” she told me. The position was at a company that made artificial intelligence for real estate. They had developed a product called Brenda, a conversational AI that could answer questions about apartment listings. Brenda had been acquired by a larger company that made software for property managers, and now thousands of properties across the country had put her to work.
Brenda, the recruiter told me, was a sophisticated conversationalist, so fluent that most people who encountered her took her to be human. But like all conversational AIs, she had some shortcomings. She struggled with idioms and didn’t fare well with questions beyond the scope of real estate. To compensate for these flaws, the company was recruiting a team of employees they called the operators. The operators kept vigil over Brenda twenty-four hours a day. When Brenda went off script, an operator took over and emulated Brenda’s voice. Ideally, the customer on the other end would not realize the conversation had changed hands, or that they had even been chatting with a bot in the first place. Because Brenda used machine learning to improve her responses, she would pick up on the operators’ language patterns and gradually adopt them as her own.
In 2012, I was working at a hotel in Glacier National Park when a man I’d just met invited me for a day of tubing and drinking beer on the river. Little did I know, I would nearly drown in the rapids.
But this story doesn’t begin in the water.
This story begins at Many Glacier Hotel the night before the start of the summer season. The employees, most of us new to each other, new to Glacier, gathered in a basement theater space typically reserved for a folk singer who performed songs about mountaineering. A seasoned National Park Service ranger stood before us in the usual wide-brimmed hat and stiff green trousers.
“Glacier National Park is dangerous,” she said. “And every year, there are fatalities. Climbing accidents, deadly encounters with animals. Some of you have experience in nature. Some of you are new to it. Either way, statistically, one of you will die this summer.”
Perhaps it was the growing darkness outside, the perfectly triangular silhouette of Grinnell Point above the mirrored surface of Swiftcurrent Lake, or the forest, thick with night, but her words sounded like a campfire story. We listened, but we did not believe. Instead, we thought of the cold beers we’d later share on the porch outside the employee dorms, tomorrow’s hike to Iceberg Lake, the beds in the hotel that needed linens, linens for guests who were on their way to this sacred corner of Montana.
I’m not going to die this summer, I thought the next day in the employee dining room, dousing a plate of rubbery scrambled eggs with hot sauce. I was young. It was my first season in the park. I’d seen the group of veteran Glacier employees headed for foreboding black cliffs with their helmets, headlamps, and worn copies of A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park. I wasn’t going to do anything like that. At least not yet.
An hour later, I stood on the bank of the Swiftcurrent River, barefoot in a bikini, inflating a cheap plastic inner tube.
“It’ll be mellow,” Luke* said over the thrum of the water. Like me, he was a server at the hotel restaurant. He handed me a warm can of beer and we made our way down the berm, sat on our tubes, and pushed ourselves into the water.
The river was swollen with alpine runoff. Clear and cold enough to drink big gulps. He was right at first; it was mellow. The water tugged us along steadily, then slowed, picked up the pace, slowed again. Like the ride at a water park I’d loved as a kid, or the game I’d played in neighborhood pools where we’d move in big circles to create a current. Mellow.
Halfway through my beer, the trickle mutated into a torrent. Suddenly, the river roared as it curved through the valley. It forked. Luke went one way; I went another. It became a force bigger than me, a surge of water pouring over downed trees that sliced my arms and legs, poked holes in my pathetic yellow tube which began to deflate, deflate, deflate. The muddy riverbank was out of reach. I sank. The current tossed me from my tube. I held onto the handle of the sinking vessel, my entire body underwater except for my fingers, the bones of my shins hitting every rock on the riverbed, downed tree branches stabbing my ribs, my lungs filling with water as I gasped for air and was denied. The river was in charge now, I realized, and though I fought it as long as I could, my veins electric with fear, I kept swallowing water, choking on it, until I was breathing more water than air, until my legs were bruised and useless, until my grip began to loosen on what was left of the inner tube. And then my head went heavy, my vision went dark. The rushing river in my ears became a song guiding me toward the unknown.
MY DIVORCE LAWYER did not seem to believe me and my ex-husband when we told her our divorce would be simple, by which we meant there was simply nothing to split. “No property?” she asked, flipping through the papers on her desk. “No shared bank accounts? No shared debts? No pets?” We shook our heads. “Just the Picasso,” my soon-to-be-ex-husband said. The divorce lawyer looked up from her files. “He’s kidding,” I said. “We don’t own any art.” “Oh,” she said. “I thought maybe you named your cat The Picasso.”
I doubt I’ll ever answer a question like who gets the Picasso? in earnest, but for the once-married couples who count themselves among the 2,668 billionaires in the world, this may be a more urgent inquiry. When couples of a certain class decide to go their separate ways, their wealth will, like all other areas of their life, be both easier to manage and infinitely more convoluted. At the very least, they’ll be able to afford the cost of living apart, which is, in my opinion, the only reliable metric for determining what causes married people to file: whether divorce is legally available and financially viable. Every unhappy couple can technically split up, but not every unhappy couple has separate bank accounts with enough cash saved for first and last. If you are, let’s say, a billionaire CEO who is more concerned with the equitable division of your properties around the world, or the split valuation of a priceless artwork, or how many shares of your company your spouse is entitled to, an acrimonious divorce can inspire a different kind of panic. Where the moral outcry was once won’t someone think of the children, in these circles, it’s maybe more like won’t someone think of the stockholders.
How does a billionaire divorce? The facts of a billionaire wedding are openly displayed in society pages, yet the figures of a billionaire divorce are largely kept closed in private hearings. On balance, we are offered much more information about how billionaires romance their future spouses than about how they leave them. The follow-up question seems obvious: Well, why should we know? You could argue that there are more than enough reasons to scrutinize a billionaire’s behavior without turning their personal life into public spectacle.
The billionaire, though, whether single or wed, amasses their wealth not with dollars but with some intangible sense—their earnings are perfunctory compared to the stocks and shares they hold. Meanwhile, divorce law is a strange combination of the practical and the arcane, made up of oversimplified precedents for impossibly complicated entanglements. So much of divorce law in North America, which is now defined by the widespread accessibility of no-fault divorce, tries to keep these disputes from turning into financial payments for bad behavior. At-fault divorces can seem to measure emotional damage like a ledger. No-fault divorces mean that who gets what is no longer the same—in courtrooms, at least—as asking who was right and who was wrong. A casual understanding of divorce often conceals just how bizarre it is in practice for the ultrarich. What we do know is that many of them marry in “community property states,” Washington and California in particular, which means that everything the couple gains during the marriage—income, inheritance, debts, and yes, company shares from whatever they founded or invested in—must be split evenly between both spouses once they separate.