Workers, Socrates once remarked, make bad friends and bad citizens. Socrates, of course, lived in classical Athens where free men (and philosophers) had plenty of time for dining and democracy: the slaves did all the work. Today we are free, but there's no time any more. If we have work, we are slaves to it.
The dangers of overwork and the effects on health, marriage and family life have been widely debated. In the Sunday Review today, Annabel Ferriman reveals the latest thinking on what has been called "the disease of the Nineties". As summarised by CharlesHandy, the business theorist, the trend among employers is to employ half the people, drive them twice as hard and get three times the productivity. If they burn out, so what? There are plenty more queueing up for jobs. Handy warns that the 67-hour weekis around the corner: our working life may be dropping from 47 to 30 years, but we will still be putting in the same 100,000 life-time hours.
But it is not just the quantity of work that has changed; the quality has changed, too. And that may have effects that we have hardly begun to consider. Is it possible that work, in its modern form, makes us not just tired and stressed but robs us of creative vigour as well? Is it affecting the quality of our thoughts?
The nature of work is changing in two ways. First, people who actually make things are becoming rarer. Second, everyone will be doing much more "symbolic analysis".
"Symbolic analysts", according to Robert Reich, the US Labour Secretary and former Harvard academic, are people who "solve, identify and broker problems by manipulating symbols". They spend much of their time sitting at computer terminals but rarely comeinto contact with the people at the other end of the network. They will be the emperors of the new service and information economy. They are the highly trained technocrats and white-collar staff, the architects, the managers, the market-makers.
Remember Sherman McCoy, the self-styled "master of the universe" who was the hero of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities? By Reich's calculations, symbolic analysts already account for 20 per cent of American workers, against 8 per cent in the 1950s.
But though the future looks rosy for the symbolic analysts (more than any other group, they have benefited from the polarisation of wealth over the past 15 years) they seem lukewarm about their prospects. We give labels to the psychological toll of the new world of work (overwork, stress, "burnout") and we put estimates on the cost ( pounds 8bn, 80 million working days lost each year), but we don't really understand it. What we do know is that the 67-hour week is doing something unpleasant to our sense of wellbeing - not least to what used to be called our souls.
Westerners have a peculiar attitude to work: they believe (or once believed) that it has a moral purpose. Outside Europe and North America, most people do not share this view. Nor did Europeans before the age of Protestantism. They did less work and believed hardly at all in its ennobling nature. As authorities such as Professor Marshall Sahlins, author of Stone Age Economics, have shown, even the much-maligned hunter-gatherer was a creature of leisure - the bushman had a 15-hour working week.
The work ethic, which linked grace and salvation to good works, was the psychological engine of capitalism. But with Christianity in retreat, and its transcendental reward system largely discredited, all that remains of the work ethic is the after-taste.We have the compulsion without the high moral purpose. Hence the "joyless striving" associated with heart attacks.
Robert Bly, guru of the embryonic "men's liberation" movement, says that some of the most passionate talk in men's groups comes from those "who feel that they have walked up a blind alley in their jobs: the rationality is too dry, or the job has gone dead for them, or it leaves them no time to be with their family, or it is stupid and dishonourable. …