I published the below piece with a Medium publication, An Injustice! I have permission to publish it again here on my blog. This piece is about some collective societal beliefs around modern work. My hope is that you find it useful in articulating some of the beliefs which underpin our relationship with work (but the focus is less on the individual and more on society). Enjoy!
Let me tell you a story about a missionary and a Samoan, whom he discovered lying on a beach:
Missionary: Look at you! You’re just wasting your life away, lying around like that.
Samoan: Why? What do you think I should be doing?
Missionary: Well, there are plenty of coconuts all around here. Why not dry some copra and sell it?
Samoan: And why would I want to do that?
Missionary: You could make a lot of money. And with the money you make, you could get a drying machine, and dry copra faster, and make even more money.
Samoan: Okay. And why would I want to do that?
Missionary: Well, you’d be rich. You could buy land, plant more trees, expand operations. At that point, you wouldn’t even have to do the physical work anymore, you could just hire a bunch of other people to do it for you.
Samoan: Okay. And why would I want to do that?
Missionary: Well, eventually, with all that copra, land, machines, employees, with all that money — you could retire a very rich man. And then you wouldn’t have to do anything. You could just lie on the beach all day.
This is not my story — it appears in David Graeber’s book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. When I read it, I found that it struck a chord.
Certainly, it points out some societal nonsense. Why would we erect an artificial barrier to enjoying our lives when the means were already there?
But it also touches upon something quite perverse: a belief that only those who work are deserving of the resources required to enjoy life, or perhaps even to live at all. And specifically, it is a plunderer’s work that will qualify. The missionary is not suggesting that the Samoan make some copra to give to his sick, elderly neighbour. He wants the Samoan to turn a profit from the natural resource just lying there for the taking.
It is no stretch to say that modern work is broken. Any system which incentivises the growth-driven behaviour which literally threatens our survival — and indeed, has already made good on that threat for a few — is bound to have some flaws baked in.
So, let’s look at some of the beliefs which are driving this system. Like how we believe that work is inherently virtuous. That we must deserve access to resources. That people who don’t work enthusiastically at dead-end low-paying jobs are lazy and deserve everything they don’t get.
Just maybe it is time to stop beating up on the non-industrious. Perhaps the world really does owe everybody a living.
You must work to deserve a living
Here is how it works (but you already know this because of the stomach ulcers).
We need some basics to live with a minimum degree of comfort and dignity. Such basics include water, food, shelter, clothing, education, healthcare and clean, unpolluted air. To secure all this good stuff, we have compensated work.
Some of us can skip the work part because we have inherited or accumulated enough wealth to act as a rentier. For those who cannot work, there is welfare. Relying on welfare is not encouraged, so think of it more as a net with holes. One with a form fetish and which really resents us having to use it. Which means that the majority of us must earn, though compensated work, what we need. Either that, or we are financially dependent upon somebody else.
So what dynamic do we create when work (of particular types, of course) is responsible for securing our most basic needs?
The dynamic is more of a clash, really. It is a clash between the needs of living (to imbue life with meaning, dignity and beauty, and to walk away when those features are absent) and those of survival. This invariably involves the first bending to the second.
At its ugliest, it is a clash between different survival needs. Like knowing that your polluting factory will probably give you cancer, but you need food today. Or having to compromise on safety to pay the rent, hoping the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire scenario is not due to repeat in your neighbourhood.
The result, to put it bluntly, is a slavery by consent. It is true that when we consent to this particular exploitative job, nobody forced us to say yes. Nobody forces us to stay. But it is slavery when there are no viable alternatives.
Of course, some of us won the geographic lottery and benefit from something called workplace standards. By and large, those standards keep us from being exploited, contracting mesothelioma and being sexually harassed. Well, more or less.
But is the dynamic all that different? What needs, values or ideals are we forced to compromise because we are terrified that we will lose our pay-cheque? Perhaps we forgo pursing a personally meaningful career; we become a banker and not a juggler. (And yes, the juggler may well have more social utility than a banker.) Or we put up with sexism in the workplace, knowing that a complaint will jeopardise our future at the company and anywhere else. Or, as a government, we rush out of a COVID lockdown to meet the needs of the economy, at the expense of community safety.
Ultimately, we know that things can turn out really, really bad. We see it all the time. Homelessness is not a disappearing problem. It is growing. In this environment, security doesn’t come from having a job and a full belly right now. It means shoring up as many resources as possible for the future and buying multiple passports in the countries which haven’t yet polluted all of their water. And this type of security is illusory and ravenous; it is always out of reach and will always demand more.
What if we were to decouple work from compensation? This could be achieved through something like Universal Basic Income. Or perhaps through establishing absolute human rights to things such as a secure and safe place to live. Or you could tackle it from another direction, and do what the modern monetary theorists sometimes suggest and establish a universal right of employment to all, by having the government give an open-ended commitment to provide job seekers with access to a living wage in exchange for performing public service work.
Many would argue that this would be the collapse of society as we know it. Well, good.
People who are fearful and insecure do not make good decisions. Nor do they think long-term. They are more compliant, less critical. This is why politicians love to use fear. To illustrate with just a minor example, in Australia, the Opposition Leader outlined a plan to support the introduction of electric vehicles. Our coal-loving Prime Minister attacked that plan on the basis that it would deprive people of the enjoyment of their weekend jaunts in SUVs, invoking (ahem, fabricating) the fear that, “Bill Shorten [the Opposition Leader] wants to end the weekend”.
Our biggest fear of all is that we cannot provide for our families. Think what that fear could be used for.
So, what would be possible if you knew that the net had no holes and would graciously catch you and your family for the foreseeable future, no matter the circumstances?
Well, there are trials for such things so you can collect the data and find out. The results of the trials to date, captured in books such as Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists, are extremely promising. The trials just keep getting aborted prematurely by conservative, right-leaning governments.
I like to imagine that the quality of jobs would improve, because companies would be required to properly incentivise people to work for them (rather than assume that they are desperate and will accept whatever they are offered).
What else could happen? We could save lives. Economic dependence has the tendency of enabling or creating abusers of those less powerful, and keeps the abused in such situations.
This is well documented in the case of intimate partner violence. As the law professor Dana Harrington Conner states, “economic dependence is the link that binds a woman to her abuser” and “[f]inancial insecurity increases the danger levels, limits avenues of escape, and reduces the likelihood that a survivor of intimate partner violence, once liberated, will remain free from her abuser.” (Dana Harrington Conner, Financial Freedom: Women, Money, and Domestic Abuse, 20 Wm. & Mary J. Women & L. 339 at 397 (2014))
Just to keep the daydream rolling, workers in the coal mining industry could free themselves of the contradiction which comes from earning a pay-cheque to support their families by engaging in activities which also hasten their demise. I suspect the fast-food industry would lose some of its cheap labour and finally charge the prices which reflect the true toll on human health and the environment. There would be less desperation to fuel the sex-industry. There could be less stress-related disease. More community activity. Time to study, create, day-dream, gossip and cook. It’s worth a trial, don’t you think?
What gets in the way of having the alternatives truly explored is a set of beliefs which shoot the proposals down prematurely. Beliefs that say that if people weren’t forced to work, they would do nothing. They would get divorces and become alcoholics (which, ironically, captures the outcome for many of the over-worked). If people weren’t incentivised to do the shitty jobs, they wouldn’t get done. Our quality of life would plummet.
I highly doubt this, but that’s why we have trials, research and clever people that like to think about complex stuff. But I will say this. Do not mistake a belief for a fact.
Beliefs can be questioned, if the mind is open enough. Questions which in this case include:
- How many people are genuinely happy doing nothing all day? At the very least, they are likely to be caring for family members and engaging in the uncompensated work that still needs to be done.
- How many of our jobs are truly essential and how many create and then purport to meet an inadequacy, like selling make-up to apply to our legs to make the skin look as perfect as plastic?
- Related to the above, how many of the jobs that we force people to do are about producing stuff or providing services that we don’t really want and don’t have time to enjoy?
- Could we achieve a better quality of life by having less stuff (or at least, stuff that doesn’t break so readily and could be fixed more easily)?
- Are there other ways to incentivise and ensure that the essential work gets done, in a way which is not exploitative?
- If our true aim was to incentivise people to get the essential work done, why don’t we pay these jobs in proportion to their social impact?
- Isn’t it telling that many of the “essential” workers identified during the COVID pandemic are forced out of economic necessity to work multiple jobs at multiple sites, furthering the crisis when they get sick?
It is virtually impossible now to survive on self-production, barter and social credit, as we used to do. We need money. No wonder we get crazy about it. The question is what we are willing to allow in its name.
Work is inherently virtuous
Work has acquired a moral veneer — good people work and lazy people don’t. Usually you will find lazy people lurking within the ranks of the poor, young and welfare recipients. Or perhaps they belong to a certain national or ethnic group. And so, we can safely deem that the economically disadvantaged people within these groups deserve to be there (it’s safe because these groups aren’t listened to if they disagree).
To the genuine credit of people, many of us don’t want to be a burden and we want to pay our way. The powers that be like this attitude; it creates wealth which they are rarely obliged to share. What isn’t questioned, or at least nowhere near enough, is whether we are a burden because of the work we do, not because we don’t do enough. (And this is not to cast judgment — we are obliged to work this hard because of the dynamic discussed above.)
Because there will be groups of people trying to clean up the Great Pacific garbage patch. And there will be groups of people making the disposable plastic which ends up in the Great Pacific garbage patch. Where is the qualitative assessment of our work?
As productivity exponentially increased over the last century, we had the option of working less. A lot less. But we said no. We choose to work the same if not more, creating more products and services and commodifying yet further features of our lives in order to plug the gap.
There is a spiritual toll in reducing everything in life to its value, and increasingly, neglecting to service those things which defy value, namely, our values. But there is an existential threat looming large which renders our belief that work is inherently virtuous particularly pernicious. It turns out that infinite growth on a planet with finite resources is setting us up for an adjustment. A nasty one.
In the 1970s, the famous Jay Forrester of MIT warned that:
“Ahead looms the question of how growth will be stopped. Will it be by some inherent system pressure [i.e. pollution, population, resource depletion etc.]…? Or will it be by self-imposed pressures and restraints? Many alternatives lie before us for stopping exponential growth. One choice not available is for growth to go unchecked.”
Which led him to conclude that: “Our greatest challenge now is how to handle the transition from growth into equilibrium.” (J.W. Forrester, World Dynamics, 2nd ed, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Wright-Allen Press, Inc., 1973 at 112–113).
Our period of growth will end, but just maybe we can choose the brake.
If you are guessing that I’m hinting that we should work less, you would be mostly right. Some work we can cut out. Other work we need more of. Yet still more work needs to change in nature. Overall, I believe we should work less. And this just might be one of the most effective things we can do to save ourselves.
What about the rising costs of living and all that? Properly put, this is not a production problem, but a distribution problem. If wages are stagnant and productivity increases, then the benefits of that productivity are going somewhere. They like to fly upwards.
To achieve a shift from growth to equilibrium, we would have to focus less on the conditions which would create the most overall wealth and more on something else — we can decide, but just maybe it should be the conditions which create happier, healthier people. All people, not just those within our borders. Otherwise, there will be no true security. But let’s stop with the nonsense that work is by definition virtuous.
Laziness is a vice…or is it?
One unfortunate side-effect of the rampant individualism of today, appearing in the hierarchy just below selfie-sticks, is the tendency to blame individuals for outcomes wrought by structural wrongs.
A person who responds to work badly — and by that, I mean they are fatigued, depressed, anxious, nervous or disengaged on a chronic basis—might be inclined to consider themselves lazy, broken, or responsible for the situation they find themselves in. Others will certainly form that view.
Yes, there is a time and place for individual responsibility. But extreme focus on the individual can blind us to the signals which point to the flaws of the structure. Flaws which might include incentives to be pathologically competitive (think law students hiding library textbooks from each other). There might also be a flaw in the setting of goals; maybe wealth creation as a goal is not good for us. Or perhaps the flaw lies with an assumption, such as the capacity of the free market to deliver us from all evils and drive the engine of human progress, whatever that means (probably the production of selfie-sticks).
So, instead of labelling somebody a millennial snowflake, let’s consider instead whether they:
- juggle a million different pressures, including scarcity of time and finances, leading to cognitive overwhelm;
- do things which are inherently against their nature, like peddling fear to sell products to pensioners who cannot afford them;
- compete in a false meritocracy;
- are treated like machines, not humans (we do not switch on at 9am and power down at 5pm, but wouldn’t that be nice);
- feel trapped, because the future looks hopeless;
- feel depressed, because they feel trapped because the future looks hopeless;
- need some rest and play;
- are grieving, especially if that grief doesn’t fall within a standard category or time frame, putting them at risk of being diagnosed with a mental disorder (like me — I lost my beautiful green coffee keep cup a week ago and I’m still not over it).
Many people expend great effort to work through the difficulties above. This is something to admire. It is also such a waste; the effort required to get out of bed each day could be diverted into personally meaningful and creative work.
Also, let’s consider the message here: it’s okay to be miserable provided it pays financially. This is connected to another alarming outcome: the existence of an inverse relationship between the social utility of a job and its pay. If you find your job personally fulfilling, chances are it will not earn you a liveable wage. Sorry, poets.
So instead of using laziness as a way to justify the harsh treatment of whole classes of people, we could gather the data to rework our structures, systems and paradigms.
Unquestioned beliefs keep us stuck
When we understand that we are operating within a belief system, and not an inevitable and unquestionable state of affairs, we create distance. Distance which might provide relief, allow us to change things or to change ourselves.
The transition from growth to equilibrium is coming. We just don’t know what it will look like. The brake which is applied might be brutish, such as finding that we have polluted too much of the land required for agriculture. Or it could be gentler, like if we cut back on unnecessary and soul-destroying work. But reforms of the equilibrium type are only possible if we revisit the set of assumptions, values and beliefs which drive modern work.