The Decision to Work

Why should I work? I know, there are many answers: because there’s work that needs to be done, because I need money, because someone expects me to, because it’s good for me.

But what happens if we raise the question beyond the pressures of the present moment? Not “why should I work, now?” but rather “why should anyone work, ever?”

To that question, there is a spectrum of possible responses, ranging from “everyone should always work” through “sometimes some (or all) people should not work” to “nobody should ever work.” How do we know where to place ourselves on that spectrum? We hear that people in one place or time worked more or less than other people in another place or time. Which of them had the best solution?

As a general rule, it seems that work is primarily done for the benefit of people. There are exceptions: there are kinds of work that are done for the welfare of plants or animals; there are kinds of work that are done to hurt people. But for the most part work is performed to insure survival, improve health, facilitate comfort, or otherwise make things better for human beings.

In that case, it seems we would tend to place limits on work that does not make things better for people. And we do have laws against doing certain things to hurt people, and we tend to prefer work that does not cut too deeply into our leisure and family time. Tentatively, then, it seems a general answer to the original question (above) might go something like this: working tends to make sense when it makes things better for people.

That phrasing identifies a presumption, not a rule. In other words, we cannot say, as a matter of iron law, that someone should always work when doing so tends to make things better for people. There are people who should not work, within various life circumstances (because of e.g., illness); there are ways of making things better that are too trivial to spend time on; there are situations when the demand is so great as to wear down even the strongest and best-intentioned workers. It just seems that, all other things being equal, it is usually good to work in order to make things better for people.

Yet this formulation conceals a trap. We are living creatures. As such, we tend to obey the life imperative: do whatever it takes to insure that you and your loved ones survive and thrive. That imperative is implicit in the foregoing formulation: the people for whom we work tend to be ourselves and our dependents. The trap is that success in the life imperative is open-ended and ultimately self-defeating. If you help yourself and others to survive and thrive, what happens next? Two things: the number of dependents increases, and their demands rise. For one generation, “thriving” meant having shoes and a structure to live in; for another generation, it means having shoes of a certain brand and a house of a certain size, on a particular street, offering special amenities. Not everybody can afford it. Indeed, the gap widens between the most and least successful. And even when the number of dependents does not increase in the sense of larger family size, it increases via taxes, extended lifespans, conscience on behalf of the needy, and rising expectations.

In other words, the trap is that the life imperative tends to outstrip whatever work might be able to provide. The world will fill with people, and they will tend to want more and better. Often, their striving takes place at your expense. They will get what they need by intentional and unintentional means alike: by war, theft, and economic conquest; by the spread of ideas and diseases; by pollution and exhaustion of natural resources. In an increasingly interconnected world, they become your de facto dependents. Their problems become yours. Even if you don’t personally feel compelled to provide for them, the life imperative tends to push matters in that direction.

But why would this be self-defeating? It seems, after all, that it is possible to provide more and better for more and more: that the numbers, health indicators, and lifestyles of people across the world can rise. It is not a zero-sum game, where one person’s gain is necessarily another person’s loss. Many of the world’s billions are better off, now, than the world’s thousands of cave men were, back in the darkness of prehistory. Surely the hard work of countless individuals has brought us here.

And yet where is it, exactly, that all that hard work has brought us? In good times, we see the benefits. But most people have heard of Murphy’s Law: if something can go wrong, eventually it will. Indeed, it never fails: stocks go up; everything looks great; the market crashes; and then people wonder how they could have overlooked the danger signs. It seems realistic to exercise similar skepticism toward the rosy picture of today’s world. After so much hard work, we might pause and reflect: there have been few if any chapters in the history of humanity more clouded by threats to the survival and thriving of our species.

Consider an example. We congratulate ourselves on our success in managing the threat of nuclear obliteration during the Cold War. Yet we came very close to World War III on multiple occasions, and in any event we have not remotely eliminated the underlying problem. To the contrary, we are now transitioning into a world in which desperate and extreme people, capable of suicide bombing, evidently have a good chance of eventually acquiring nuclear weapons. And even that horrific possibility pales against the growing likelihood that someone will eventually be able to develop a pathogen that will kill millions. There are people, and belief systems, that might benefit from the resulting chaos.

In those examples, our hard work has brought us what is summarized in a joke: to err is human; to royally screw things up requires a computer. Cave men never had nuclear and biological weapons of mass destruction; but with hard work, we have found a way. The same is true of industry. People constructing clay pots and farming with mules did not have the ability to ruin the earth’s natural environment but, once again, diligent efforts have brought this into reach. We have machines, now, that can tear the tops off of mountains; we have technologies that can poison whole regions; we have not only the frightening pandemics seen in the movies, but also the stodgy old pandemics of heart disease and cancer – brought on, again, by too much technological power, turned this time against our own bodies. In these and other threats to our collective survival, we might reasonably conclude – from history, Murphy’s Law, and our own experience – that it would be foolish to assume that all will be well. It probably won’t.

Not to put blame solely on the scientists and engineers. At least many of them have good intentions. Unfortunately, they are joined by the doctors who price health care out of reach, and by the bankers who concentrate wealth into the hands of a tiny minority, on a scale never before achieved, and by the lawyers and police officers and soldiers who make these and other depredations possible in many countries. Our best and brightest have been hard at work, seeing to it that humanity’s general pursuit of a better life is reserved particularly for them and theirs.

That’s how work works. In this world, you don’t labor merely for your own benefit, nor for the benefit of those you love. You labor for the superstructure of employers, stockholders, professionals, government employees, marketing firms, and others who spend their days channeling your work, and its fruits, in directions that benefit them. The public tolerates these diversions of output in the belief that such efforts are making things better for everyone. That’s how it seems, when times are good. Later comes the time when so many fools will say, once again, that they don’t know how they could have been so badly suckered.

Experts have been predicting, for generations, that the day was approaching when the large majority of humanity would enjoy a life of leisure, basking in the payoff of converging technologies. How could it be otherwise? The forecasters saw the advent of machines that could replace dozens if not hundreds of workers; then they saw the arrival of automation and then robotics. These technologies were obviously going to put people out of work; therefore, it seemed, there would be increasing numbers of people who would have transitioned to a largely nonwork lifestyle.

And in varying ways, that has happened. But it doesn’t look at all like the predictors imagined. It turns out that the people who have been able to corral the benefits of all that productivity have been keeping the payoff for themselves, not putting it out there for others to enjoy. Indeed, their reasons are understandable, if selfish: they want that payoff and anyway, as indicated above, humanity at large will just keep on growing, in its numbers and demands, until it uses up everything that the wealthy could give it. So what might have been a society of leisure is, instead, a panicked workforce that will do virtually anything to keep its jobs, accompanied by an underclass of un- and underemployed people variously scrounging for their next meal, living with their parents, worrying about their mortgages and rent payments, and progressing out to live on the street.

So that’s how work works. It can be – on the largest scale, it appears that over time it will tend to be – self-defeating. We are working and worrying ourselves sick, presently to feed and satiate ourselves, but with the ultimate effect of making human survival difficult or impossible. That’s not guaranteed, but it’s certainly a lot more likely than it was a hundred years ago, and the odds appear to be increasing; the threats seem to be growing more rather than less daunting.

At the outset (above), I offered two propositions. First, it seems that work should primarily be done for the welfare of people. This would imply that, when work is not ultimately producing the welfare of people, it should cease or be modified. Second, there is a spectrum of possibilities, ranging from “everyone should always work” to “nobody should ever work.” It seems we might be well advised to adjust our place on the spectrum so that, as the advice goes, we are more concerned with working smart than with working hard. It is not smart to construct a system of perverse work rewards – penalizing those who give their time to help others, in effect, while rewarding those who place themselves or others at risk.

Of course, any adjustment in national work incentives and priorities could entail enormous change. Imagine, for example, that the U.S. adopted legislation requiring time-and-a-half pay for anyone working more than 30 hours per week. An emphasis in such legislation might be that people live in a complex society, with many demands on their time; they need more time each week to deal with the paperwork, the kids, and other assorted hassles and demands. Such legislation might encourage hiring of additional workers, rather than the recent trend of requiring more hours from existing employees.

It seems, further, that such legislation might be extended to cover all workers, including professionals and managers. Like any such proposal, one would want to see research on the question, not just a wild leap into the unknown. But for purposes of discussion, it seems that this extension might eventually prompt our best and brightest to value things beyond the workplace and its frequently skewed rewards. Professionals, compelled to spend more time away from the office, might rediscover some balance in their views of family, community, civic responsibility, and nature.

In a different vein, consider a policy decision that the United States will no longer abandon its own people. The present approach is to link employment and survival – to assume, that is, that jobs are good, insofar as they make employers rather than society responsible for keeping people alive. This is, frankly, a way of passing the buck. You are not a citizen of Coca-Cola or General Motors. It seems fairly obvious that government for the people means government that provides at least some minimal protections, whether from a central agency or through locally developed alternatives.

The point of that policy decision would be to remove the air of desperation from the job market. People who are motivated to succeed in good jobs do not usually need to be threatened with complete destitution; the status, opportunities for advancement, and other perks of the job are typically enough. On the other extreme, people who find themselves compelled to take bad jobs ought to be paid enough to motivate them, not threatened with starvation if they fail to perform like a slave or whore.

These suggestions may not be the best ones. There may be others that would have a better effect. Whatever the specific remedy, it does appear that a nation that is working smart will not have shortages of good teachers and affordable doctors, and will not leave its people to die on the street.

I return, then, to the opening question: why should I work? It seems that perhaps I should not work, if doing so makes me a party to a crime, literally or figuratively speaking. I don’t really have a duty to hurt people or lie to them, even if the job market is presently constructed to make me seem immoral if I fail to join in the abuse. The problem in that case is with the market, not me; I do not really have a duty to contribute to the countless dysfunctionalities and little savageries with which people prey upon each other in their working lives.

Or to put it in positive terms, there are plenty of reasons to work; they are just not necessarily the reasons that the job market encourages. If you want people who are driven to excel at what they do, you won’t choose people who have to be there in order to feed their families. You will choose people whose inner compass leads them to share your direction. No prescription will work for every person and every enterprise; but when tens of millions of people spend their working lives doing things that they don’t consider very worthwhile – things that may mean the end of the world, for humanity’s purposes – it seems timely to ask whether things have gone somewhat off track. There are legitimate reasons to ask why one should work, and we do not always have good answers.

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