What is this thing we call work?

Originally, posted here.

With more & more people across the globe revisiting their career choices & working conditions, it is apposite to bring new eyes to this facet of life called “work”. Since most theories surrounding work (motivation, incentives, passion, capitalism, etc.) have been formulated by the West based on (if at all) social experiments conducted on people in the West but considered applicable universally, we will abstain from comparing & contrasting theories or consulting experts. We shall employ primal skills & techniques, viz. our mind & eyes, to understand this.

The substance in an entity or idea is, often, suspect when it demands & enjoys incontrovertible sanctity.

So be it with work. Very few, if any, challenge our notion of work. We find means to make it more palatable (work-life balance, vacations, etc.) or manageable (laundry & fitness facilities in-house) but we do not pillory it & ask stern questions of it.

Our entire education system (globally) does not allot time to the vital question of what is this thing called work which will demand the majority of our lives. I struggle to explain why one would learn noble gases & calculus for a year but not have had any class on how to approach work. Even the reforms of popular note in education don’t critically examine the notion of work.

Very little public debate (not the kinds about raising-minimum-wage) or discussion happens about it while people across generations, across geographies go about working. Those who dare ask the question “Why do we work?” are reminded in hissing tones that there is no other way to get bread on the table.

But is that necessarily true? The earth yields enough food (even if we only consider vegan options like cereals, vegetables & fruits. If you are interested in other kinds of data as well, look in the comment alongside this paragraph) to provide the necessary nourishment to all human beings on this planet. Even if we consider the standard wastage of 33%, there is enough to feed everyone nutritious meals (2400 kcals).

Today, we work to keep the economic & international trade machineries alive

Nearly all principles of popular Economics are based on myths. These are kept alive to suit the needs of a few at the cost of myriad creatures (human beings included). Today’s job is plagued by imagined motivations like the following:

  • If we don’t get to it first, someone else will (since there is only limited stock of that THING)
  • We need to put in as many hours as soon as possible so that we can be successful quicker
  • Someone will have to lose out
  • Some jobs are more important than others (like an investment banker’s job over that of a farmer)
  • We need to slog it out now so we may enjoy later (post 60, perhaps)

I shall now proceed to break these imagined motivations. And the best way to do it is as follows:

The vitality of an entity or idea is, often, best understood in its absence

Let this world be without work. Let no one work. Everyone wakes up & sits watching the wind in the trees (there will be trees as there is no one cutting them). Now what?

The first few who simply cannot sit idle will get up & do what they simply love to do. It might be singing a song or tending to someone who is coughing a lot (disease isn’t work) or building things etc. Others who watch them & realise that no one is stopping them will either assist them or go about doing things they like. Still others who don’t have any original ideas or aesthetic pursuits might find means to be useful (clear the roads, sharpen the tools, help squeeze the dyes out of the fabric). In short, people will:

  • Find means to escape inactivity
  • Find means to express themselves (via aesthetic or applicational, i.e. scientific or technological, interests)
  • Find means to be relevant & useful to those around them

If everyone knew how to grow their own food & weave their own clothes, this society would work because it needed to, vastly different from today’s society that surrounds us. Beware of rushing to debunk this as a call for mediocrity or a Luddite call to burn all things novel. Far from it, this society produces what is necessary & vital, each one working to the best of their abilities & drive (something a trade & economics driven society cannot guarantee). It differs from the prevalent society in creating fewer to no imagined drivers to work. But isn’t this how we probably started out aeons ago? What went wrong?

A civilised society’s work does not suffer from the 3 Vs — Velocity, Volume & Vulgarity

For sake of coherence, I will introduce them in the reverse order of appearance.


 

Vulgarity

If we work to best utilise our time, genius, skills and/or our need to be useful & relevant, then why would we even allow that act to become unbearable, either for ourselves or others?

Abysmal working conditions, torturous hours, stress & unsafe work environments can only exist if there exists an implicit unquestioned power vested in the hands of she who creates work opportunities.

In a civilised society, no man exploits another

In a civilised society, this is found lacking between “boss” & “subordinate”, between richer country & outsourced country, between strata of societies & between historically privileged & unprivileged groups. Since food, clothing & shelter are available in abundance (without slipping into the volume abyss), there is nothing that can be threatened in any man, to employ as a lever to subjugate them. In other words, since I have necessary food, healthcare, clothes & means of protection from Nature, I only seek to work to be of use & not because my life & existence is under threat. This prevents an Apple, in the USA, from deciding the wages of labourers in China.

For any individual to decide what is enough for another, is utterly vulgar & uncivilised

Any characteristic of work that indulges in the above, is completely missing in a civilised society. This is also applicable to non-human inhabitants of that society.

Another vulgar trait that is completely absent in a civilised society is defining a task’s requirement in terms of hypothetically efficient ways to getting it done.

The imagined demands of efficiency & productivity are the reasons why not every member of society is able to contribute

In order to honour these demands, we would ideally need a robot which needs negligible maintenance & can run off solar power or, as the Tigress says “dew of a single ginko leaf”. Since that is not (yet) feasible, we often settle for the next best — a single, able & healthy male member of the privileged class who has no familial responsibilities & has no interest in life other than his labour, happily surviving on pizza & soda. This specimen will work for as many hours as possible, even sleeping in the office couch, using the office shower & practically living in the office, always available to resolve issues & will not require a maternity break or attend to child-rearing or be involved in social & political causes (hence, the need to make him a member of the privileged class) or simply connect with family & Nature. He will travel to any city & any country at any time of the year for any duration.

While it is his choice, to make it an ideal that others should live up to will make it enormously difficult for mothers, disabled folks & people with other interests in life other than working on a task. Our very job descriptions & expectations silently, crassly exclude significant portions of society from participating.

Retro-fitting diversity & inclusion in the workplace is intrinsically a sham

One cannot hope that after defining a business consultant’s job to require crazy travel, 13+ hrs per day, willingness to entertain clients (parties & the like), continually sharpen the saw — after saying this is what the job demands, to look at the candidate in front of you who is a nascent mother of a 9 months old child & say, “We are passionate about diversity & women in business. Would you be interested in this job?” & expect her to not worry about how will she manage it.

Eliminating this approach (of defining job descriptions irrespective of the societal needs) ensures that work, in a civilised society, is performed in order to improve the quality of life in that society & not for mindless production or imagined necessities. This is feasible because there is no compensation (and, by extension, fair compensation) in the picture. People work because they want to. If they want to work on manufacturing your ship or Hummer, they will. If you make the work conditions unacceptable (because you have to meet your notions of productivity & demand/supply), they might not. No one gains because of THEIR choice to work like a horse. No one loses because they only wish to work X hrs. This isn’t a theoretical utopia. It is adopted in several tribes & villages/communities.

Work in a civilised society is a conscious choice

Performing work with eyes shut to all that surrounds us leads to a variety of catastrophes like the impact of the meat industry (not a problem if all you wanted was to consume meat that you reared & butchered exclusively for your family or neighbourhood, something I would never recommend) or candidates for catastrophe or large-scale production of ammonia.

Work that depletes our natural resources mindlessly or treats them as if they are only present for human consumption, will create artificial work which cannot be avoided (conservation, medicare, nuclear plant leak plugging, creating new synthetic substances to replace the one we got used to but are now gone etc.). On similar lines, any work done in the military space is uncivilised as all it propagates is a spiral into an unsafe world.


 

Volume

We have, hopefully, built the necessary foundation to address the oft raised concerns of volume & (shortly)velocity. If you have never mass produced anything for yourself or your family, would it be safe to say that the need to mass produce is at best an artificial one for you? It is beyond all logic to consider mass production a necessity & then pay (comparatively) obscene amounts for bespoke, hand-crafted objects (shoes, suits, motorbikes, chef knives, fountain pens… name it!).

If most of us like to work & create & express, why hand over that joy to machines? If a million people need something … we don’t have million people in our community/tribe. If we did, more people would contribute to producing what the society needs — on a need basis. Not for import & export (when you need a lot of hand-waving to explain why a country exports & imports the same commodity, you know you aren’t doing something right) nor for growing the job market of middlemen.

A society’s needs are rarely ever in bulk. Why should, then, work be en masse?

Mass production helps to lower the price of production & commodity. To drive productivity up, efficiency must increase which means either people work longer, harder, cheaper or are replaced by machines which produce items for people who are out of work & can’t buy them. Or you create an artificial hierarchy of haves & have nots so the latter may lose their jobs & suffer while the machines produce for the former (as is the current practice). Added to this, is the whole slew of bullshit jobs that need to be created so that others can work in mass production.

Thousands of villages in Asia produce what they need & tend to their needs. A sojourn there would help anyone realise that the people residing there are largely happier, freer, more connected, richer in ethnic skills & relevant to the environment in which they live. Toss in the assured healthcare (different from medicare), shelter & nutrition, what more could they ask for? A majority of them are working, happy with their labour & what life has given them (personally conducted surveys in many such villages).

What is true of a village is true of the world

Why does it work in the village? They share. They do not worry about some vague smoky concept called economy. They produce what they need. They aren’t trying to fuel the economy nor have many of them heard of the GDP. They are busy living & enjoying life, something that never factors in traditional Economics. People in the villages aren’t producing anything en masse. If you haven’t already, I would earnestly encourage the reader to watch the TED talk by Jon Jandai on his experience living simply.

A society that doesn’t indulge in mass production & volume-driven demands of work, produces enough, because they have a concept of enough. When you produce enough, you are less likely to waste. When you waste less, you respect the environment you live in. The developed countries are notorious for their wasteful practices & lifestyles, but even mindless people in India where so many starve to death, waste millions of litres of milk as offering to the 500,000+ temples in that country.


 

Velocity

Velocity is essentially the drive to hasten beyond the necessary bounds. Who decides what is necessary? Experience & a keen ear to the ground.

Sustainable work in a civilised society does not chase time to market targets or other contrived numbers which are not organically driven by the tell of the task itself. An onion can be cut in 45 seconds or quicker (15 seconds?) if the chef is in his zone & has a sharper knife. One could have a chopper that can go through 1000 onions to a clear size in 45 seconds, but why do I need 1000 onions cut in 45 seconds?

Why must we respect the romantic virtue of patience & slowing down? Because the Natural is sustainable, for the individual as well as for the environment. We wouldn’t be running out of coal or worrying how long will our resources last. People wouldn’t burn out & there would be less cardiac arrests. We wouldn’t end up creating more problems & then adding to them with short-term solutions.

We, as a species, aren’t prescient by design or education

We simply are not educated or trained to assess the repercussion of a choice over a 30, 50, 100, 400 year time frame. We are most likely to only know the impact of our actions over the next few months. Given this crippling inability, to usher in (potential) destruction at an unmanageable or un-contained pace is unwise. A small village that lives off the forest for fire & furniture is unlikely to deplete the forest as any of those scary machines could, so that we could export toilet paper! The village is more likely to replenish the forest than toilet paper companies are. The village folk are also more likely to do without (something) than an affluent person in a developed Western country who has no clue of the real cost of what he flushed.

In summary, work, as practiced today, is mostly based on myths & artificial needs. Currently, we all indulge in a lifestyle to uphold those myths lest the powers that be & gain from it crush us. We needn’t work like that. There is no reason that we need to support wispy notions of an economy. We would then need governments merely to ensure that an agreed upon modicum of decency & civility is maintained (we can lay our roads). Governments & wise senates would then be organisations for fostering & furthering the practice of acting civilised.

What it really takes is turning the notion of labour & work on its head & asking the following question:

What must/should/can I do in order to bring value &/or beauty to myself/family/society without jeopardising the environment in which I live or being a parasite?

The answer to this is sufficient tangible basis for indulging in work that has the following characteristics:

  • Evident (or tangible)
  • Relevant (to the society where the work is undertaken)
  • Accommodating (helpful)
  • Sustainable
  • Estimable (as in, holding value)
  • Least impactful (on the environment)
  • Inclusive (across race, sex, geographies & ability)
  • Enriching
  • Substantial

Which nicely fits into ERASE LIES, which we really need to do.

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