Why We Need Work

Dreams of ease are a denial of human possibility

Posted Aug 03, 2015

Not long ago, humans lived in the company of animals, who provided energy for our more difficult tasks, defended us from intruders, and reciprocated our gaze.  Nowadays, those companions are machines. 

At the turn of the twentieth century, the automobile – with its sights, sounds, smells, and feels – replaced the horse.  A hundred years later, a new generation of metal boxes  – that talk to us, show us pictures, play music, perform computations, pay bills, monitor health, and in a thousand other ways inform and entertain us – becomes the architecture of the normal.  As past humans bred, managed, and sold their flocks, so we tend our machines.

Not unlike our ancestors, we have grown dependent on these creatures.  We live amidst them, adapting our own practices to their rhythms. We feed them and clean up their droppings.  Each day when we awaken, we find them waiting, implacably, for our attention.  Although we prefer to believe that we are their owners and controllers, we suspect that the relationship is more complicated than this.

It can hardly be doubted that mechanized technology will extend its grip.  Increasingly the operations of societies – in health care, education, science, militarism, politics, legality, and business – rely on computer-linked, automated devices.  It is our future to be monitored and processed.  We sense that our connections to this system – including the types of work it grants us – will be altered. We do not know how these changes will occur.         

Despite these nebulous fears, most of us recognize the advantages of a machine-brokered world.  We enjoy the services our boxes provide.  We admire their calculative abilities, perpetual motion, and steely resolve.  This is especially the case with the domestic appurtenances we consider our own.  Who wishes to go back to the old days – when there was wood to be chopped, a tiresome relative stationed on the front porch, and nothing to see on Thursday nights? 

You may call our devices “distractions” or “artificial stimulants,” if you like.  Say that we are “technologically entranced.”  After all, one of the purposes of the machines is to free us from the dull and ordinary, the suffocating locality that our ancestors deemed enjoyable.  Much like the automobile, the computer – and the telephone, radio, and television that preceded it – helps us gets out and about.  What we desire most is to go places on our own terms and timing, to see and hear things unfamiliar.  A wider world – now truly global and, at some point, interplanetary – beckons.              

Historically, many devices were escorted into our imaginations as “labor-saving.”  Lawn mowers, washers and driers for clothing, toasters, leaf blowers, and the like took over some of the functions of hand work. Ideally, or so the credo went, this process allowed users to re-direct their time to chatting with friends, playing tennis, writing poems or, most wonderfully, to occupying a reclining chair.   

Much of this is true, but it must be acknowledged as well that machine culture has raised standards not only for the tasks in question – that is, how lawns, shirts, heated bread, and driveways should be maintained – but also, and more insidiously, for the purportedly free-time pursuits of tennis playing, socializing, poetry production, and residing in chairs.  These too are to be done well.  Instrumentalism shifts its focus.  Leisure becomes status-conscious and frenetic.    

It should also be noted that people must somehow find the means to pay for their labor-saving contraptions.  Keeping up with the Joneses is one thing; keeping up with the appliances is another.  Commonly that means added hours at an external job to substitute for the obligations of domesticity. Time is not saved but switched.  Whether we approve of the trade-off or not, its implications are clear.  We may work for our loved ones, but we do not work with them. 

Of course, all this presumes that individuals are confronted with the prospect of doing their own chores.  Clearly, this is not the case.  In the past, wealthy people housed and managed servants.  Today, it is more common for privileged groups to outsource work of this sort – lawn-mowing, cleaning, childcare, house-painting, and the like.  The representatives of these “services” arrive unceremoniously, buzz about, and leave without evidence that they personally inhabited the premises.  Ideally, this activity is done while the owner-occupier is away.  The perfect residence, it seems, is a hotel.  A check in the mail completes the deal.

Once again, all this raises questions about what those who would be freed from the burdensome and menial are to do.  Is work of this sort to be shirked?

In this regard, two views of work – both familiar enough and both religious in their inspiration – should be noted. The first is that work is the so-called “Curse of Adam.”  The world’s new inhabitants might have lived forever in paradise.  But that prospect was poisoned by their appetite for something else.  Eve – mythologized as humanity’s junior partner - was guiled into partaking of the fruit of knowledge.  Adam’s crime, the greater according to Milton in Paradise Lost, was knowingly – and thus willfully – choosing the same path.  Together they were banished.  Unending toil is the cost of wanting to be more than you are.  

The second view is central to the Puritan tradition.  In that context, work is a blessing instead of curse.  It is the means – along with worship – by which people fulfill themselves and reveal their merit.  This matter is of special concern, because none of us, or so it is believed, can know his or her true standing before God.  Work, ideally in a “calling” that signifies Godly favor and direction, is the way we reveal compliance with that will.  Less expansively, worldly success - at least of the hard-earned type – is a public symbol that convinces our neighbors (and ourselves) that we are on the path to glory.  Disciplined work and worship are the steady commitments that mark the pilgrim’s progress.

As the reader may already have concluded, the concept of work is used in this essay in its most expanded meanings.  Industrial ideas of work, which make that activity equivalent with contractual obligations and money payments, are a narrow, historically specific example of this.  To recall the most famous illustration of this theme, Karl Marx idealized labor, which he understood to be the process by which persons create goods and services to address the needs of their families and communities.  People should recognize what is needed and commit themselves to that.  They should be allowed the satisfactions that come from beholding - and controlling the destinies of - their own creations.  Problematic, or so he believed, are work-settings where laborers have lost control over their own activity, its outcomes, and the rewards that are their due.

There is no intention here to intrude upon the reader’s politics.  More conservative persons will agree (with Marx) that individuals have rights to control their own labor and benefit from it.  Liberals will agree (with Marx) that humans have obligations to the wider communities that support and enrich their creativity.  And both groups may acknowledge that persons should take on difficult tasks, expand their abilities, and claim the satisfactions that come from seriousness of purpose.

In earlier blogs, I wrote of play and communitas.  Those essays described the importance of momentary involvement, of being released from ordinary obligations to explore the continually unfolding meanings of relationship. Both of these pathways – the first stressing the role of individual assertion, the second the role of “otherness” in our existence - are crucial to self-realization.  Both playing and communing celebrate freedom, whether this is the freedom from interference or the freedom that comes from being empowered by others.   Humans need to move into these moments and experience them as best they can.

However, work is a pathway of equal, or perhaps even more, importance. To work is to accept the legitimacy of obligation, self-imposed or not.  We do not work for momentary satisfactions (let play and communitas do that).  We work to accomplish ends that carry us into and through the later circumstances of life.  Typically, that means acknowledging things that “need to be taken care of.”  Many of these tasks are inglorious affairs that we have little desire to do.  In that spirit, we take the kids to soccer practice, wash dishes, pull weeds from the driveway, and take our place in the dentist’s chair.         

As much as we might like to inhabit another vision – perhaps lounging on the deck of our new home as we gaze at the ocean across an unpopulated beach – it would be our undoing.  What work teaches, and what the Puritans emphasized, is the value of charting a trajectory for one’s life and of maintaining that trajectory.  Additional lessons are provided in terms of effectiveness and efficiency.  Some practices, we learn through work, are better than others. 

Ideally - and here work departs from ritual - that trajectory is set by the worker. Ideally also, others besides the worker are benefitted.  At such times, work is no scourge or curse. Those who are steadfast, dutiful, and serious should not be discredited.  Nor should we accuse ourselves of being boring or uninspired when we live much of our lives in this fashion.  

In multifold ways, workers make the world.  In our moments of carefree expression, we should credit ourselves for the unglamorous activities that helped us reach this point.  And when we are being most thoughtful, we should thank those whose steady, uncelebrated efforts provide the foundations of every person’s happiness.