How Awful is Work, Really?
Employment has changed for the better but our ideas of work lag behind.
Posted Aug 17, 2017
People talk about work as though it were before the Industrial Revolution. In reality work today is much better but our perceptions have not kept track. Why do we continue to see work as physically demanding, dull, and limiting when it is rarely so?
Work on farms used to be hard, even brutal. Farmers lived literally by the sweat of their brows. Their callused hands and aching backs were a constant reminder of the toll taken by a day of hard repetitive labor.
Much of that grim labor was replaced by machines, or migrant workers. Our perceptions of employment are nevertheless formed by that dated notion of work.
Contemporary urban work is very much better than work on farms in the past. Even so, many people view work in a negative light and are forever daydreaming about their next vacation.
Here are some antiquated perceptions of contemporary work that demotivate many employees.
Work Must Be Difficult
Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins referred to hunter gatherers as the original affluent society (1). By this he meant that although their needs were simple, those needs could be satisfied quite easily using locally available resources.
One aspect of hunter-gatherer affluence was the fact that they were mostly well-nourished and in good health even though they did comparatively little subsistence-related work. They rarely put in more than five hours of work per day (2). In short, they were healthy and leisured like the elites of today.
With the dawn of agriculture, humanity was introduced to the sad horror of grueling work. Agricultural workers did over twice as much work and had minimal leisure time. They suffered from a lack of dietary diversity, had diminished physical stature, and lower life expectancy (3).
If anything, work conditions worsened early in the Industrial Revolution with the added burdens of epidemic diseases, pollution, and serious industrial accidents
Ultimately, workers rebelled against the tyranny of Robber Barons leading to legislated improvements in work conditions and safety. We nevertheless associate work with physically and emotionally challenging conditions that are tolerated purely for the purpose of making a living.
Work Is Boring
Perhaps the biggest complaint that one hears about work is that it is boring. If play is fun, then work, its opposite, must surely be boring.
In reality, many people are more focused, and more involved, in their occupations than they are during leisure time. Their job provides mission and discipline that may be absent form time off.
Psychologists have raised many possible reason that work is perceived as boring. One is that being controlled by monetary payment can transform activities that we enjoy into drudgery. In other words, having to work for pay can turn play into work. This tyranny of work is aggravated by having to put in a regular work day whether we feel like working or not.
Practically speaking, hard workers suffer less from boredom because time appears to speed by. That may be because they are more focused on what they are doing rather than their own ennui.
From that perspective, boredom is more of a problem for lazy people. Conversely, busy people rarely get bored.
In addition to being perceived as arduous and/boring, work today is perceived as bothersome because it subtracts from family and social life.
Work Subtracts from Our Social Lives
For most workers, coworkers are the last people they would want to bring on vacation. To the extent that we are forced to mingle, and cooperate, with people we would not choose as friends, work provides a unique social experience that is full of potential for both conflict, and comedy.
Sharing an obnoxious boss may be a powerful bonding experience whether workers are aware of this or not. Even so, bad bosses can shred worker morale.
One of their worst sins is a habit of rubbing employee noses in their privileges. They brag about the size of their boat, take random days off to spend time with family, or play golf, or leave at lunchtime to attend their little darling's soccer game. Such antics underline the sacrifices that underlings must make in terms of family and social life from which bosses are magically immune.
Another common complaint about work is that it is humdrum, or dull and repetitious, unlike the exciting lives of creative people like musicians, writers, and entrepreneurs, who are out there doing their own thing.
Work Blunts Creativity
Changes in technology force employees to master new skills and expertise. This point is highlighted by two well-known truisms of the job marketplace.
The first is that those who are unemployed for a long time progressively lose employability due to the constant acquisition of expertise by those in the workforce continuously. The second is that new hires in most high-paying jobs are expected to have coding skills.
Together, these phenomena highlight the dynamism of the modern workplace. The capacity to respond to altered circumstances with fresh skills and solutions is a recipe for creativity.
Modern work certainly beats farm labor and it may even be better than the experience of the original affluent society. That is not to deny that there are some serious problems with how contemporary workers are treated. In particular, they often feel powerless and insignificant in an economy that is increasingly riddled with inequality. Not everything about work is improving.
1 Sahlins, M. (1968). Notes on the original affluent society. In R.B. Lee and I. deVore (Eds.) Man the hunter (pp.85-89). New York: Aldine.
2 Kaplan, D. (2000). The darker side of the “Original Affluent Society.” Journal of Anthropological Research, 56(3), 301-324.
3 Rudge, C. (1999). Neanderthals, bandits and farmers: How agriculture really began. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.