“So what is it that you do?”
This timeless cocktail party question is all too often the first thing out of my mouth when I meet someone. What a loaded grenade to lob casually at someone you have never met? Its a question full of cultural expectation. We might as well say, “So, what is your status in society?” or “How do you contribute to society?”. We still seem to think that people must have a neat little productive place in society if they are to realize their potential as a human being.
In a world where we are way richer then we have ever been, why is productive work still so highly valued? In a 1932 essay, looking at the economic depression around him, Bertrand Russell reflected on just this question:
From the beginning of civilisation until the Industrial Revolution, a man could, as a rule, produce by hard work little more than was required for the subsistence of himself and his family… A system which lasted so long and ended so recently has naturally left a profound impress upon men’s thoughts and opinions
Clearly, there is some deep sociological programming behind this. Since we started coming together into tribes, we have needed to make sure that everyone was doing their share. The most successful groups would be those that could harness their collective work and if possible even produce some surpluses. Over time, the most successful societies evolved a strong belief in the virtue of work.
Passages from many holy texts underline the connection between belief and work. The Bible says “Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth… do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men” Colossians 3:22-24. Similarly, the Quran equates idleness with a disconnection from the world and from god.
The need to keep the people busy and productive was an absolute necessity for the rudimentary economies of the past, but in the world of today is there really any need to maintain such a preoccupation with occupation? I would propose that in fact, many problems apparent in our society could at least partially ascribed to a pathological need to keep working as hard and as much as possible.
Even in 1932, Russell could clearly see that the inflexible work day might lead to problems as technology displaced jobs:
Let us take an illustration. Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralising. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked.
Does that sound eerily familiar to anyone else or is it just me? Imagine if you want, a slightly different scenario, and the pin company is a well oiled machine with a crack team of pin management. The pin managers, well aware of the constant demand for pins, maintain their production level and rather lay off half of their workers. At the same time they take the money they were paying those workers and increase their own salaries. A savy business move, and one that I would be unsurprised to read about from any modern company.
Now at this point I realize that this post is in danger of running off on a socialist tangent, but that is not the point I am driving at here. I don’t mean to suggest that the efficient pin managers should receive no gain, nor that all the pin makers should seamlessly transition to working only half the time. Rather, I simply question whether the outcome of such a scenario might be improved if the collective expectations of work were not quite so high.
Perhaps we all could benefit if we just relax a little bit more? This is not to say that the need to work is completely behind us, rather maybe we don’t need to neurotically worry about working quite so hard when we are living in the magical world of the future.
Yes, we are already living in the future.
Reading the news about national debts, economic downturns, and job rates – you would think that we are on the verge of not even being able to feed ourselves. Don’t be fooled, we are richer then we ever have been, I can’t stress this enough. Next time someone tells you about the economic downturn and the need for austerity, keep in mind that there has been a massive increase in production, per-worker productivity, and total wealth over the last 30 years. Where has all this wealth gone?
Some might suggest we should blame the rich for sucking up all the profit, but maybe it also has something to do with our mentality about work. Maybe, because we are so attached to cultural norms, we have collectively chosen to reinvest our gross productivity into getting even more work done, much to the delight of the capitalist classes who reap the benefit.
Maybe we should just relax.
Our devotion to the work ethic is what loads questions “So, what do you do?” with unnecessary expectation, or leads us to disregard our time in education as not the “real world“. Yes, we should all try to figure out what it is that we can do to contribute to our community, but do we really need this neurotic fixation with profit and productivity? Maybe we should just turn down the knob marked “work ethic” a notch or two. Does anyone really think that it is laziness that is going to take us down as a society?
Even if we disregarding the impact that working too hard might have in terms of reducing the number of jobs available to the cost of encouraging innovation in the work force, there is also the problem of our energies might be channelled into downright destructive pursuits. In some respect, we seem to be a manic society, neurotically obsessed with getting things done while not really considering what the consequences of our work are.
In my last post, I talked about the likelihood that menial jobs in the labour and service industries are rapidly becoming automated. A world where goods keep going up but the amount of human work necessary keeps dropping is not that of tomorrow, but that of today. Does it not seem particularly sick to keep such an absurdly high pressure for people to work in this type of world.
But what would be the benefits of relaxing our expectation for people to work? If we didn’t feel such a strong compulsion to work hard, would we perhaps hold out a bit longer for more favourable job offers? Would we demand better social benefits? Would we spend longer in school, and pursuing our true interests? Would we lead happier lives? Would we perhaps reconsider what it is that we are channelling our work towards? Now, I don’t suggest we stop teaching our children the value of hard work, but maybe we should stop expecting them to become wage-earners as soon as humanly possible.
Perhaps in the future when someone asks you “So, what do you do?” they will expect response about how you spend your leisure time in interesting ways, instead of what sort of drudgery you do to make money? Come to think of it, maybe this change is already happening. Ultimately its up to each of us as individuals to reassess our relationship with work; collectively, these individual views add up to our cultural beliefs. When a cultural belief shifts, it becomes a lever which can move the world.