The Necessity of Work

Why do I have a job? Why do you? Why does anyone? If you’re lucky, what you do for a living is something you enjoy, or at least don’t have any strong negative feelings about. Otherwise, you might feel indifferent about your source of income, or even hate it but feel stuck with it because it’s the only way you can survive. Maybe you need multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Why is all this necessary?

It’s time to question the construct of work. It goes without saying that, without people working jobs, the economy–indeed, daily life–would stop functioning. Automation technology has not yet reached a point where it can replace all of our labor needs. It is unlikely that it ever will. However, that doesn’t mean that the expectation that all adults must work is philosophically sound, either.

So, then, why do we work? For most, it’s about receiving a paycheck, isn’t it? That paycheck is used to acquire all the necessities of life: food, clothing, shelter, transportation. It’s also used for our comforts and luxuries. Few things in life are free–you need money to pay for them. Almost all of us are expected to hold down a job in order to do so. The question then becomes: why is work the only (or at least the only broadly acceptable) way to earn money? There are a few ways to argue the issue:

  • In a world of finite resources (like ours), without an intermediate lever (prices, requiring a medium of exchange, such as money) to control resource distribution, demand will outstrip supply, exhaust all resources, and kill us all. Labor is the “supply” that each of us can sell, and so it should be that each person must sell enough of their labor to buy what they need to live. Work is not necessarily an obligation, but a necessity if one wishes to acquire the resources to survive. This is a pragmatic model and underpins our economic system.
  • A society in which no one works cannot function as no one’s needs will be met. As in the previous approach, in a world where no one works, all will die for lack of resources being produced to feed and sustain them. A society in which all able-bodied adults work ensures the mutual survival of its members. Under this philosophy, work is an obligation and part of a social contract. You work because we must all work.
  • Work is a matter of human dignity and spirituality. Work, as a form of struggle or suffering, builds character and is good for the soul. Without work, we would idle, and idleness is itself immoral. By this definition, work is a moral good, and both a personal and social obligation. This is more of a religious/spiritual/moral model of work.

In practice, a mixture of these three philosophies of work informs our attitudes. Finite resources require that we have an efficient means to distribute them. A system of compensated labor makes those resources available to people based on how good they are at working. Social and religious pressures make not working untenable: you are either not pulling your weight as a member of society, or you are literally damning yourself to hell–possibly both at once!

As a non-religious person, I reject the religious argument out of hand. The social argument is more compelling, in that a society does indeed depend on many interlocking features in order to function, and setting the expectations of individuals in a society is crucial. Social expectations affect behavior more than laws do–even extremely draconian laws will not eliminate behavior that is sanctioned by the prevailing culture. However, it is too easy of a conclusion to say that, if we all have social responsibilities, working for a living is one of them. One can agree with the former while not having to follow to the latter. What is the goal we intend to achieve? It is here that we must analyze the argument from finite resources.

We live in a world of scarcity; that would be very difficult to dispute. Food is plentiful but not unlimited. The same can be said for water, shelter, and other necessities. The issue is less that there is not enough to go around, but that what is available is very unevenly distributed. This is not merely a reference to income and wealth inequality within a particular country, but the conditions of such inequality globally, which has resulted from numerous factors.

Before digging deeper into that, though, let’s take apart one of the basic myths of working: that one is paid what their work is worth. It is a common meme, yet doesn’t hold up to even the slightest scrutiny; otherwise, wouldn’t people be paid roughly the same amount for the same job from one place to another, one country to another? Even adjusting for local cost-of-living factors, workers outside of Western countries are cheaper, sometimes dramatically so. Is their work worth less? Do they not work as hard? Of course not. Their productivity levels are roughly the same as ours. They aren’t paid less because their labor is worth less, but due to structural factors that influence pay levels. If a country is relatively impoverished, jobs that offer even slightly better conditions and pay are highly sought after, even if such jobs would pay ten times as much in the US or Europe. In a world where employers can take their jobs wherever they can pay the least to their workers, the value of work is a joke calculation.

This has had real effects in the United States, where the bottom quarter of the population has seen their incomes stagnate over the past few decades, and the middle class is quickly shrinking. If such shifts could be blamed on a specific cause, it would be the devaluation of labor more generally. But both locally and globally, we have seen income and wealth stagnation–even erosion–at lower income and wealth levels, while those with the highest incomes and assets have seen their fortunes skyrocket. It can be difficult to put the numbers in scope, but try this on for size: 1% of the world’s population–that is, about 70 million people–control 48% of the world’s wealth; most of what’s left belongs to the rest of the top 20%; the bottom 60% has only 5.5% of the world’s wealth. To be fair, 20% of the world’s population is a lot–nearly 1.5 billion people. But consider that 4.2 billion people have to share only about 1/20th of the wealth on Earth, and it becomes obvious that the top fifth have much, much more than their fair share.

It might go without saying that if you are able to read this, you have a good chance of being in that top 20%. But at the extremes, the numbers are even more stunning: the 80 richest people on Earth have as much wealth between them as the poorest 3.5 billion.

An inequality argument might seem out of place in a philosophical piece about work, yet it is necessary to reconcile what we believe about work with the reality of the world around us. Most of the wealthiest people on Earth did not earn their fortunes, but were born into them. The surest way to get rich is to already be rich. It perhaps goes without saying that the very wealthy, themselves, need not work. Certainly, they do not work in order to survive, as they don’t need the income. The idle rich are more envied than demonized, while the poor–idle or not–are written off as lazy.

If the purpose of a social contract surrounding work habits is meant to encourage people to work and compensate them for doing so, how does this state of affairs help promote it? If one’s work becomes worth less and less every year, does this not undermine the alleged value of work itself? And as the same finite resources increase in price–rarely with corresponding increases income for those who must work–does this not discourage people from working? If the social contract is to be honored, then aren’t employers called upon to fulfill their end of the bargain? A faithful contract, after all, requires willing parties who make a mutually beneficial agreement. In our current context, we work for income, we pay taxes, we use our income for what we need, and the taxes we pay are used for various purposes (ideally) intended to benefit us all. When one side of that contract continues to receive less and less for their contribution, while another receives more and more, how long can it hold?

It becomes essential, then, to question the underlying purpose of work. When a tiny fraction of the population possesses so much, while others are left in grinding, inescapable poverty no matter how much or how hard they work, basic economic functions break down. Of course, there are the lucky few who manage to elevate themselves from modest means–even poverty–into the ranks of the world’s billionaires. Their successes are more often than not the result of good fortune, the effect of being in the right place at the right time. One has a better chance of becoming rich by winning the lottery. But criticisms of the wealthy are often dismissed as envy or jealousy, and countered with questions of who gets to decide whether someone “deserves” their wealth. The question of deserving is quite cynical in the face of the poverty that exists in much of the world, and even in our own country, as if one should be ashamed to dare ask a wealthy man who could not spend his fortune in a hundred lifetimes what he needs with so much when others have so little. The issue is not one of persecuting the rich, but recognizing that such profoundly unequal distributions of wealth and resources are both inefficient and inhumane.

The word “inhumane” is brought to attention because it is at the heart of the matter. The basic question is one of resources. Who gets what? When some have incredible wealth that they did not earn, and others will remain destitute no matter what they do, and such concerns are handwaved with platitudes about the dignity and value of work, aren’t we being inhumane? Are we not deceiving ourselves with the illusion of a just world that will somehow build and manage itself, if we all simply keep our heads down and do our jobs? This belief teaches us the lie that economic systems are just, and will provide for us so long as we work. What’s more, it suggests that the outcomes of economic systems are themselves of moral quality. The prosperous are right and good; the poor deserve their fate. But this is nonsense. Economic systems are the invented machinery of human minds and activities, possessing no more moral agency than a pile of kindling. If anything, our belief that the prosperous earned their wealth through hard work and sacrifice and the parallel notion that the poor have earned their squalor have led us to confuse cause and effect, and allowed inequality to fester and grow unbidden.

To truly combat this, our attitudes about work must change. Work is not a good in and of itself. Caring for one another–that is a true good. What we need is a country and a world that sees to the needs of its people, in a fashion that is human and dignified. Those who are able to work should be taught and encouraged to do so, and to use their skills and talents to the best of their ability. And they should be rewarded for it, not just with the basic necessities of life, but with reasonable comforts and entertainments, as well. Those who are unable to work, or who find themselves in an economic environment where their skills are no longer needed, must still be provided for and not treated as outcasts or parasites. We should also recognize the value of work that goes unpaid, as we too easily dismiss the worth of work that doesn’t come with a paycheck. The work done by parents, by housewives and househusbands, by people who volunteer for their community and country–all of that work has value, as well. There will still be many jobs that need to be done which are tedious, menial, and unrewarding for the person performing them. There is no reason those jobs cannot be better compensated, enough to both recognize the valuable service the work provides and properly support the person doing the job. And what few may deign not to work at all, to live lives of idle leisure, there would still be a place for them–no one should be starved or made homeless for lack of a desire to work, even if we may personally object to it.

Clearly, this is not the world we live in today, nor is it likely to happen soon. But it is helpful to keep a vision of the future in mind, as something to aspire to. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s not impossible, either. We can have the kind of world we want–a better and more humane one.

But only if we work for it.

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About the Author

James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

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The Necessity of Work

by James time to read: 9 min
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