Slacking-Off for a Living

Oct. 6, 2006 — -- It's not sexy, like lust. Or passionate, like wrath. Or even filling, like gluttony.

It's the deadly sin you commit when you're not that committed to sinning, or to anything else, for that matter.

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It's sloth, loafing, slacking, or as Tom Lutz's new book puts it: "Doing Nothing."

"Sloth seems to me to be that kind of doing nothing that we don't like," Lutz said.

Yet it's celebrated as the less-than-animating force behind pop culture's anti-heroes: think "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "You, Me & Dupree"; fat cat Garfield; Archie's friend Jughead and Popeye's pal Wimpy; and Maynard G. Krebs on "Dobie Gillis" to Kramer on "Seinfeld."

For centuries, Lutz says, people labored without seeing moral value in it. Nowadays "doing nothing" flies in the face of the American work ethic.

Alan Beggarow of Rock Falls, Ill., knows that "not working" gets people talking.

He spent 30 years working at a steel mill, before getting laid off, but now, when asked whether anyone ever calls him a slacker, Beggarow smiles, saying, "Oh, yes. I'm beginning to think that's my middle name."

At 53, he spends his days reading books, blogging, or playing the piano.

"People either give me a thumbs up: 'Good for you, 30 years in a steel mill, you're doin' what you want. Right on.' Or they say, 'You no-good lazy bum. You're in danger of losing your manhood. You're just against everything this country stands for.'"

Living Life, Not Working

Six years ago, Beggarow was making $50,000.

When the steel mill closed in 2001, and he couldn't find comparable employment, he stopped looking.

Beggarow and his wife, Kathleen, get by on his pension and her part-time jobs. They forgo vacation trips and pricey restaurants.

It's not the lifestyle he necessarily would have chosen, but Beggarow finds it fulfilling -- far more fulfilling than flipping burgers at a fast-food place.

"Not that I'm too good for that," he said. "But just in this point in my life, there's other things I do."

College Student for Life

Beggarow enjoys his life and liberty, but for others, like perpetual student Johnny Lechner, it's all about the pursuit of happiness.

Lechner, 29, has been an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater since 1994.

"This is my 13th year of school," Lechner said.

In Lechner's college student career, he has not flunked out.

He's not about to leave, though, not after what he's heard from his friends who graduated.

"They're like, 'Johnny, I'm making more money, but I have no money. I'm broke.' They're like, "Stay as long as you can.' So why not take something that is supposed to be five years' long and stretch it out to six [years] or seven [years]?"

Lechner lives off campus with four party-minded pals.

Cutting classes and kicking back, Lechner looks to all the world like the sultan of sloth -- your American, idle.

"It's a different lifestyle than the norm, but it's so much fun," he said.

"I can't imagine not having all the guys around, all the women around, and all the going out. It's for me, definitely."

The Stigma of Being Unemployed

Lutz, the author of "Doing Nothing," understands the resentment many feel toward people like Lechner.

In fact, he says he was inspired to write his book after becoming annoyed with his son, Cody.

"My son moved into my house. He was 18, and he was gonna take a year off before college and he was just laying on the couch. And I would just be furious," Lutz said.

"And as I started looking into it, I realized that anger at slackers is very, very common. We learn early on that working is good. Work, work is important. People who work are good. People who don't work are less good."

Beggarow has a different perspective.

"If you can help people, and get by on what you can get by on, I don't see where that's a slacker, in my opinion," said Beggarow, who has done charitable work on behalf of Hurricane Katrina victims.

"I'm not saying it's easy to do. You kind of got to balance things here," he said.

Even Lechner has some balance in his life.

To pay the bills and his tuition, he sells stuff on his Web site and has a Hollywood agent.

In his slothful avoidance of the real world, he turns out to be quite … industrious.

Just don't expect him to graduate anytime soon.

"All I'm doing is becoming as educated as I can -- experiencing life and enjoying what everyone keeps referring to as 'the best years of your life,'" Lechner said.

"And I'm not kidding. They are. And if it goes 13 years, if it goes 20 years -- they're still, to me, the best years."