It seems most of us hate what we spend most of our waking time doing—our jobs. And a lot of us who don’t hate our jobs don’t hate them because we get to choose when or how much we engage with them.
Those of us who have grown up within global capitalist culture (by definition all of us reading this blog) have a pretty clear idea of what work is–using our time, effort, and abilities to do something in someone else’s interest, in exchange for money that we use to satisfy our own needs and wants. Those of us who have grown up within global capitalist culture also know some things about work that are not actually true; these untrue ideas affect our individual opinions and choices, the choices of employers, and government policy. Two of our most significant misunderstandings about work are that people in general are naturally disinclined to work, and can only be made to perform work with explicit rewards and punishments, and that we will work harder, longer, and with more eagerness if our work gains us more money to satisfy more of our needs and wants.
In 1975 Jean Liedloff published The Continuum Concept, describing her insights from living with the Ye’kuana of southwestern Venezuela. Her book is now largely considered a childrearing manual, but Liedloff had more to say than just about how the Ye’kuana raised children; she suggested that as a result of evolving within the environments we inhabited humans developed certain beliefs, attitudes and behaviours shared by people in all cultures except ours.
One set of beliefs, attitudes and behaviours concerns people’s relationship with work. The Ye’kuana believe that people are naturally engaged in their community, and motivated by a desire to belong to and be valued by it. People who ‘don’t want to work’, for whatever reason, (we can imagine many reasons why people in these cultures might ‘not want to work’—for example, someone they care about has died or they’ve had a traumatic experience) are treated as if they are sick or hurt—as they’re temporarily unable to contribute to the community, others ensure that their physical and emotional needs are met and leave them alone until they feel able to participate again. ‘Not wanting to work’ means not wishing to engage with the community, which is unhealthy, but being unhealthy is not the same as being bad, immoral, or lazy–it means you need time to heal, and your community allows you the time and space to do so.
The idea that we work chiefly to satisfy our individual physical needs is so thoroughly ingrained in our worldview that it’s difficult to realise how untrue it is anywhere else. Imagine some !Kung women, or women who lived in the place you lived a few hundred or a few thousand years ago, going out to gather the day’s food. But they’re in a resource-poor area, and all most of them end up with is a few roots, a few bugs, a few twigs to gnaw on to stave off hunger. One woman, however, due to being a little more diligent, a little more energetic, a little more observant, and a little more lucky, finds a gigantic tuber. Now imagine they’ve returned to their settlement, and the woman with the tuber tells the rest of the group, ‘I found, dug up and carried this tuber, so it belongs to me. Because I earned this tuber, through my own skill and hard work, I’m going to cook and eat it myself; the rest of you can subsist on what you have obtained through your own efforts.’ This is unimaginable–she would be jeopardising her connections with the people on whom she depends for survival, and would risk starvation the next time luck went against her. On the other hand, though, the woman wouldn’t get no benefit from her skill and hard work; she would in fact earn something more valuable than the tuber–the praise and appreciation of the people around her, and a strong and secure position within her group. Contrariwise, imagine a band of hunters returning from the forest empty-handed. Would they be told that because they didn’t bring a contribution they’d be denied the food contributed by everyone else? These examples demonstrate that work is social–in these cultures, which are the vast majority of human cultures over space and time, people don’t work to provide for their individual needs; these needs are provided for by others in the group/family/tribe/nation. They work to contribute to the good of the group and share in the group’s fortunes. When we work in our culture, we get what we should have by right as members of a human social group–a roof over our heads and food on the table–but we don’t earn what should be the result of our work–the respect, praise and approval of our social group and the assurance that we belong in it.
Work, in any human society but ours, is taking action on someone else’s behalf in exchange for belonging, approval and status. In ‘gathering-hunting’ societies, why do the hunters hunt? They don’t eat all that meat–they are literally bartering the carcass for belonging, approval and status, which are incredibly powerful motivations–understandably because, up until very recently, and almost everywhere, they were a matter of life and death. No one works for herself; work is an inherently social act; in fact, ‘working for yourself’ is dangerously selfish—dangerous because it does nothing to contribute to building and maintaining the social links that keep us alive and safe.
Those of us who believe people work for themselves fundamentally misunderstand what work is, and are thus likely to make other mistakes about work–like thinking that the best way to motivate people to work is to give them personal rewards, or that most people are inherently lazy and don’t want to work. ‘People will work harder/more enthusiastically if we reward them with more stuff (or punish them by taking away their stuff if they don’t work).’ Since people are motivated to work when the benefits they provide to others are rewarded with belonging, approval and status, rewarding people with more stuff is beside the point. In a healthy society stuff and work are two separate things, and one does not influence the other. ‘People are inherently lazy and don’t like to work.’ Since nothing is more important to us than how we stand with the people around us, and work is an important way to affect that standing, in a society where work is appropriately rewarded we are almost always eager to work.
The place we see how work is exchanged for belonging, approval and status most clearly in our own culture is among the super-rich. They are clearly not working to meet any individual need, or even want—despite controlling literally unimaginable wealth, however, they continue to lie, cheat and steal to maintain and increase this wealth in order to signal belonging (to the elite) and gain approval not just from their peers but from all of society. A particularly revealing demonstration of the importance of this motivation is the recent anxiety expressed in the media by several representatives of the super-rich to social expressions of disapproval of them. One wonders why it should matter to them so much what the non-elite think of them? Clearly, however, it does matter–a great deal.
People desire money not (or not only) to meet their individual needs but to gain the psychological and emotional rewards of belonging, approval, and status. As Adam Smith pointed out in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, people act in certain ways so that other people whose opinions matter to them will approve of them, consider them important, listen to and support them, value them and their opinions, identify with them and allow them to be identified with in return.
It is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow, that we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty… Nay, it is chiefly from this regard to the sentiments of mankind, that we pursue riches and avoid poverty. For to what purpose is all the toil and bustle of this world? what is the end of avarice and ambition, of the pursuit of wealth, of power, and preheminence? Is it to supply the necessities of nature? The wages of the meanest labourer can supply them… What then is the cause of our aversion to his situation, and why should those who have been educated in the higher ranks of life, regard it as worse than death, to be reduced to live, even without labour, upon the same simple fare with him, to dwell under the same lowly roof, and to be clothed in the same humble attire? Do they imagine that their stomach is better, or their sleep sounder in a palace than in a cottage? The contrary has been so often observed, and, indeed, is so very obvious, though it had never been observed, that there is nobody ignorant of it.
From whence, then, arises that emulation which runs through all the different ranks of men, and what are the advantages which we propose by that great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition? To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation, are all the advantages which we can propose to derive from it… The rich man glories in his riches, because he feels that they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world, and that mankind are disposed to go along with him in all those agreeable emotions with which the advantages of his situation so readily inspire him. … The poor man goes out and comes in unheeded, and when in the midst of a crowd is in the same obscurity as if shut up in his own hovel… The man of rank and distinction, on the contrary, is observed by all the world. Every body is eager to look at him, and to conceive, at least by sympathy, that joy and exultation with which his circumstances naturally inspire him. His actions are the objects of the public care.
Since we all live with a serious mismatch between the needs work should fulfil and the needs our work fulfils, it’s little wonder that our work instincts are so badly distorted that many of us would rather not work than work. Because we have misunderstood the meaning of work, our workplaces are generally structured so that if we do find belonging, approval or status from our work it’s at best indirectly related to the work itself. Many of us unconsciously understand what we truly need from our work, and make efforts to do work that directly benefits others, with or without the appropriate rewards this activity should provide. But even then often the rewards are still indirect–although I have always insisted that my job at least indirectly benefit people, even if I don’t know them or exactly how they benefit, I don’t work because I like or care about the people whose interests I serve, or because I want them to recognise me as part of their group.
Even with an imperfect understanding of why we work, some employers attempt to provide the benefits we naturally want from work. Some jobs explicitly offer belonging and status; workers in many traditionally low paying jobs are visibly important to the people they work with–sick people, children, disadvantaged people. In other cases employers offer facsimiles of status and belonging, such as ‘employee of the week’ or connection to the ‘corporate family’. And of course in many workplaces colleagues informally and unconsciously offer each other these rewards, by instituting cultures of praise and gratitude and by creating a feeling of work team or office solidarity, factors that most people identify as the most significant in their choice of workplace or satisfaction with their jobs.