Saturday, September 4, 2010

Why work?

In honor of labor day, some thoughts on the importance of work.

People without work are destroyed, slowly but surely. One of the primary objects of our collective enterprise is to provide gainful and meaningful employment, as well as providing for each other's basic needs and wants. Under prehistoric conditions, we had plenty of work that was clearly meaningful- sustenance, close community support of various kinds, warfare.

I think that the US (and other advanced economies to a lesser extent) have lost sight of this important psychological point. Jobs really are primary, and economic productivity is secondary. Our agricultural system produces everything we truly need with 3% of the population. What does everyone else do? They basically serve each other with luxuries of various sorts and keep each other employed in the many projects of civilization, however ephemeral.

Would an economy be good where only half of those who wanted to work got jobs, even if it produced everything everyone needed? No, it wouldn't. It wouldn't be "fair", given our inborn sense that everyone else needs to earn their keep in some way. It wouldn't be psychologically sound, given our equally inborn sense that we ourselves exist to serve the common good in some way, however small. And, given the system of home economics we live in, where expenditure requires income, it would be devastating in the absence of huge income redistribution, repugnant to both recipients and providers.

Here is an interesting quote from a passe psychologist...
"... the proletariat demands the obsession of work in order to keep from going crazy. I used to wonder how people could stand the really demonic activity of working behind those hellish ranges in hotel kitchens, the frantic whirl of waiting on a dozen tables at one time, the madness of the travel agent's office at the height of the tourist season, or the torture of working with a jack-hammer all day on a hot summer street. The answer is so simple that it eludes us:the craziness of these activities is exactly that of the human condition. They are "right" for us because the alternative is natural desperation. The daily madness of these jobs is a repeated vaccination against the madness of the asylum. Look at the joy and eagerness with which workers return from vacation to their compulsive routines. They plunge into their work with equanimity and lightheartedness because it drowns out something more ominous. Men have to be protected from reality. All of which poses another gigantic problem to a sophisticated Marxism, namely: What is the nature of the obsessive denials of reality that a utopian society will provide to keep men from going mad?"  -Ernest Becker, 1974, p. 186, The Denial of Death

We need work, though we also need to be fairly paid (valued) for it. Marx certainly understood this in his theory of alienation, though his now-defunct utopia didn't follow the thread out properly. The point of life is not to escape work, though shallow people may think so. No, the point is to do work you love, and if that is not possible, at least to do work that is socially valued, so that you feel a part of the larger society- to feel needed.

Another aspect of work is self-expression. Even if it is something as small as cooking a meal for an appreciative customer, we are expressing our love and care for others. To do so, one typically has to plug into an organization which leverages individual effort into a useful function, whether a manufacturing plant or a hotel kitchen. Part of that integration is gaining specialized skills. Like learning to play a musical instrument, learning a variety of work-related skills provides a person with new avenues to express themselves- it gives them tools, and makes them more human.

In a full-employment environment, employers take on the responsibility of expanding their worker's skills, because employees are valuable and new skills easier to create by education than to find on the open market. In a high unemployment environment, employers slack off training, since skilled workers knock on their doors every day.

This is one of the more insidious problems of the chronically high-unemployment environment that the US has experienced over the last few decades. Employers have sharply curtailed the implicit contract with workers on all fronts, including reducing education and training. Workers are expected to come fully skilled from the school system or other experience gained on their own, including hopping between employers. Training is a dead letter, other than on strictly job-related terms. This doesn't work nearly as well as a more balanced system where workers are exposed to continuing education and don't have to go back to school (or quit their jobs) to gain new skills. The culture at large also loses out when employers treat their employees as mushrooms rather than as flexible learners.

So, while alienation from work is rampant, it doesn't have to be, and one of the most important ways to make work more humane, as well as better-paid, is to even the macro-economic playing field between workers and employers by pursuing policies that lead to full employment. Needless to say, this is not what is happening in Washington right now.

"The rise in acceptance of Monetarism and its new classical counterpart was not based on an empirical rejection of the Keynesian orthodoxy, but was instead, according to Blinder, “a triumph of a priori theorising over empiricism, of intellectual aesthetics over observation and, in some measure, of conservative ideology over liberalism. It was not, in a word, a Kuhnian scientific revolution”."


  1. "No, the point is to do work you love, and if that is not possible, at least to do work that is socially valued, so that you feel a part of the larger society- to feel needed."

    Very true, but I'd argue experientially that both are needed. A friend and I were having a conversation relevant to this a few years ago. We were both around 30, both doing roughly academic jobs which we enjoyed, jobs that paid reasonably well, had a fair amount of personal direction. For my own part, it was virtually the perfect job. However, we were both struck with vacuous feelings - feelings that something important was lacking from our lives. My realisation was that this feeling stems from not fulfilling immediately perceptibly useful roles within society. I perform my work due to personal motivation based entirely around my own intellectual satisfaction and, no matter whether my work has long-term benefits for society or otherwise, there is a day-to-day satisfaction from societally beneficial work which is immediately lacking.

  2. Thanks, Evil!

    Yes, I agree. There is no perfect compromise. If one wants to serve people directly (nursing, social work, doctoring) that may take away from the ability to do more deeply transformative work (science, writing, activism etc.).

    And people's temperaments vary, some wanting no more than being a mother or father, others with vast abstract ambitions to alter the philosophical landscape. It is fair to say we all have internal conflicts and regrets on that score.

  3. Hey - I am certainly delighted to discover this. cool job!