What do you do? I’m a mechanic; I’m a horticulturalist. It’s the first question we ask others, and the way we define ourselves. What’s your job?
A group of kindergarten students were asked to write down who they were. “I am a…” was the sentence to complete. At just five years of age, over half of the students saw themselves as a job – a policeman, a pilot, a hairdresser, a bus driver. Two children saw themselves as an animal – a snake and a dog. One was a speed camera (yes, you read that correctly). Only a few children replied that they were simply themselves: “I am a little girl”, “I am Luca”, “I am Ethan”.
Are we our jobs? Is our identity in life tied to how we support the human colony, whether we add up numbers, pile bricks, dig holes or fly planes? And if we aren’t our jobs, then who are we?
British-born Samuel Smiles was one of the first self-help gurus back in the mid-1800s. Smiles, a government reformer, used self help – and in particular the “rags to riches” narrative – for the purposes of rallying the working and middle class in support of industry. Smiles’ 1859 book self-Help was stuffed with examples of poor people from humble origins who were propelled to success through hard work, diligence and a commitment to the work ethic.
Smiles’ advice was clear for those seeking a clear path up the social order: rise early, keep your head down, and work, work, work. Self-Help sold over a quarter of a million copies.
Professor of history Peter Stearns reflects on the sheer volume of newspaper columns, books, magazines and pamphlets dedicated to the virtue of hard work from the 1800s onwards. Example after example appeared of go-getters whose successful lives were shaped by work; like Robert Douglass, who started a business in candy making and was widely known for his ‘efficiency’.
“By the 1830s, hymns to the beauty of hard work became commonplace. These virtues were trumpeted in readers for children, which drove home the point that hard work would allow a person to be the author of his destiny,” Stearns writes in From Alienation to Addiction. “It was hard to escape their influence.”
Self-help reformer Smiles referred to workers as noble soldiers, whose work – on the factory floor or wherever they ended up – contributed to the well-being and progress of a nation in equal measure to the great men of history. “National progress is the sum of individual industry, energy, and uprightness, as national decay is of individual idleness, selfishness, and vice.” Industry is righteous, idleness is evil and selfish. A new reverence of industry and work was born.
Smiles wasn’t alone in pushing a reverence for work. Around the same time that Smiles’ book came out newspapers were concurring with the industry line. “Idle men and women are the bane of any community,” wrote one Massachusetts newspaper. “They are not simply cogs upon society, but become, sooner or later, the causes of its crime and poverty… Every family motto should read: ‘Be something. Do something. Bear your own load.’”
The views of Smiles and other publicists in the early days of the industrial revolution (a time when workers were very much needed in factories) contrasted markedly to philosophers in classical Greece and Rome who advised avoiding ‘work’ at all costs. For Greek philosophers idleness was a virtue, not work. The aim of life was to employ leisure time for self-development activities such as learning, the arts and political activity. In fact, the Greek word for leisure, skholē, is the root for the English word for ‘school’. Leisure time was time to discuss, time to study.
Although the English-speaking world has rallied behind the industry line that hard work can propel one up the social ladder, Europeans are less convinced. “By the late 19th century, and still today, Americans were far more likely than Europeans to exaggerate opportunities for upward mobility based on diligence and efficiency,” writes Stearns. Many Europeans continue to believe that social barriers cannot be overcome by individual effort alone.
While it’s true that longer hours at the factory, laboratory, office floor or studio don’t grant you social power of any sort – such as influence on society’s values, wars, infrastructure, schooling and so forth – it does offer a kind of pseudo-social power, or prestige, through the mass-produced items that you buy. More hours on the job means more stuff, and some of that stuff – like expensive cars, or inner-city pads – can make someone ‘appear’ more socially powerful even when they’re not. And for most people in modern society, this seems to be a good enough trade-off.
It’s called ‘instrumentalism’ when, rather than defining life, work becomes an instrument with which to achieve a better life. So work may no longer have a point, it may not develop you personally, it may not be useful, you may not even know exactly what you are doing, but that’s not the point. Work is money and money can be spent on things.
For many today, a job is chosen not by careful analysis of the specific features of the working day (what exactly will I be doing?), but on the salary and the bonus scheme. It’s commonplace to hear the statement – “I would have taken the job, but they didn’t pay any more than what I’m getting now.”
And because of our fixation on a ‘better life’ – the antidote to the drudgery of work – leisure time really has to do it for us. More than ever before, we plunge into the escapism of movies, the challenge of marathons, the luxury and comfort of five-star hotels. We need fine wine, we need dinners out (at least two a week) – we need it all just to survive. Just to get through.
“If one asks these people who are today consuming liquor, travel vacations, and books whether they feel unhappy and bored, then they answer ‘Not at all, we’re completely happy.
We go on trips, we drink, we eat, we buy more and more for ourselves. You aren’t bored doing that!’” said German psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in his lecture Problems of surplus in 1970.
However, he argues, unconsciously that this new type of person is passive, empty, and isolated. He calls them the “eternal infant” who not only waits for his bottle, but for whom everything is a bottle. “The person who becomes anxious in this system consumes. But also the person who is lured to consumption becomes anxious, because he becomes a passive person, because he always only takes things in, because he does not actively experience anything in the world.”
It’s true that work is often unpleasant, dull, automated and uninspiring. But does work really have to ‘do it’ for us? Can’t the ends justify the means?
William Morris, an English textile designer and author, seemed to think not. Just because work provides a livelihood, argued Morris, doesn’t make it good, or worth doing. “In short, it has become an article of the creed of modern morality that all labour is good in itself – a convenient belief to those who live on the labour of others. But as to those on whom they live, I recommend them not to take it on trust, but to look into the matter a little deeper.”