If you arrive at the office after about 8:30am around here, you get to park out at the far end of creation, and thus have plenty of time to think as you hike in towards your building. Finding myself in this position a few times last week, I fell to thinking: several thousand people report to these buildings every day and spend a good portion of their energies and waking hours here, but no physical product ever leaves this building. All the manufacturing is done elsewhere. And although there are definitely things we accomplish in our groups, they're often rather abstract. For instance, I built a new set of data models for my team a few months back -- which was generally recognized as a major undertaking. But there's no product to look at, just a couple of databases which are updated every week and then dumped into Excel for people to work with.
Thinking about this, I found myself wondering if this is at the root of a number of the difficulties that our culture seems to have in thinking about work: what its purpose is and what its value is. Imagine a society at its simplest level, where everyone is either involved in food production or else is only one step removed from someone who is (e.g. a priest/shaman who receives offerings from farmers/herdsmen, a craftsman who makes goods which are traded for food, etc.) In that sort of situation, it's pretty clear how much work is needed to sustain a person, who's getting enough, and who need the help of other in order to survive. Whether you're directly producing food or producing secondary goods/services, it's very clear what you are doing.
Our own society, however, is much more highly fragmented through many layers of specialization, and our standard of living provides many other things besides basic food, shelter and clothing.
Because there are so many layers of specialization, the connection between the work that you do and the production of some specific thing that people need or want (and which provides clear value to the work) is often unclear. As a result, we often perceive the work we do in a rule/contract sense rather than in terms of production. Even for people direction involved in manufacturing, since modern manufacturing is very far from a craftsman model, the experience is of: "I show up and do this set of actions repeatedly, and try to make sure that I do them to these specifications so that I'm not disciplined -- in return for which I'm paid X amount per hour" rather than "I built ten lawnmowers, each of which can be sold for $250."
This seems unfortunate, though I know of no particular escape other than, "look for a job where the distance between you and what you produce is as short as possible". When it's not clear to us what we're producing, work too often becomes a matter of, "I show up and follow the rules as much as I have to in order to avoid trouble and in return they pay me X" in which it's unclear, "Why am I paid X instead of X+10?" and "Why do I have to follow these stupid rules anyway?"
It also starts to lead to questions of, "Why should we all have to work anyway? Isn't that just a social convention?" For all it's charms, the classic '30s play "You Can't Take It With You" seems a prime example of this mentality setting in, the plot being that the head of an eccentric family (with plenty of money yet no apparent source for it) realizes one day that there's no point to all this work, and why shouldn't he just go off and do whatever makes him happy. (What makes him happy is going to college commencement addresses and the zoo.)
It also leads to the idea that having to work to support yourself is somehow a conformist and unfair idea. I seem to recall that in Nickeled and Dimed the activist author Barbara Ehrenreich complained it was unfair that society didn't provide more support for "those who justifiably want to opt out of the tyranny of the work day". By the point someone can make that kind of statement, we've lost any concept of work actually being something that is necessary to support oneself. It's become a social convention, which independent spirits should be exempted from.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are those for whom work, or more properly "career" has become definitional. For these, the first job out of college, the solid resume builder, the MBA, the consulting period, and the first executive position are the sacraments of a secular priesthood which is almost as divorced from what work is really for.
Because at the end of the day, the purpose of work really is simply to produce: to produce food and goods and art; to produce for necessity and for pleasure. And so while work should be clearly centered on the production of whatever it is we do, work should also be firmly placed in context as that activity which provides the things we need in order to continue and enjoy life. Not the purpose of life, and yet one of its conditions. Not the fulfillment of it, but the means of producing the tools for fulfillment.
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