Oh, the slavery of work! We either love it or hate it, and often both impressions exist side by side. It pays the bills and provides for some of life's greater pleasures, yet it commands our time and attention. Work helps develop our minds and distinguishes us within the social order, yet it takes us away from the ones we love. It is a labourious drudgery, and yet it can bring us immeasurable gratification and happiness.
Ask me today what I think of work and I might tell you it is a millstone around my neck. Ask me tomorrow and I might flash you a smile while I extoll the virtues of my daily labour. Like the wind, our opinions of daily work shift and swirl. It forms part of our identity and allows perhaps unlimited creative expression.
Nevertheless, work is an inescapable aspect of life. Without it, in whatever form it comes, we lose meaning and purpose of life. Boredom, listlessness and indifference take over and the door to feelings or worthlessness and depression opens. We must, therefore, find a balance. That is not to say that work should be an imposition, an activity forced upon us against our will that we must learn to accept–no. Instead, work should be that thing we do during waking hours, a vehicle of creative expression, an alternative to the ambiguity of language, a yin to the yang of rest and recuperation.
So how can we resolve the dichotomy of work? Let's first explore some definitions of work and then examine what poets, philosophers, writers, and social investigators have reported.
What Is Work?
For every person who works, you may find they offer a slightly different definition. Barringer (2005) 1 said of work;
Work is quintessentially performative; an expressive act of doing or making; the purposeful exercise of body or mind; the overcoming of obstacles with a particular end in sight.
Studs Terkel in his 1974 book Working 2, said that work is;
… by its very nature, about violence–to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.
Peter Warr, Professor of Psychology at the University of Sheffield, says in his 2007 book Work, Happiness and Unhappiness3 that work;
…in its essence, is an activity with a purpose beyond the enjoyment of the activity itself. It can be arduous and/or tedious, involving effort and persistence beyond the point at which it is pleasurable.
I like Barringer's definition because it recognises the creative, self-determined, self-motivated, and self-directed aspects of work. It sees daily work as a positive challenge, one that you and I can use to grow and develop. The concepts of work that imply its inherent negative aspects, do nothing for personal growth and merely shine a light on the negative aspects of how things are. On their own, they do nothing to relieve the adversity that work represents to so many.
Historical Accounts of The Slavery of Work
In 1974, Mike Lefevre, a steelworker from Chicago, recounted his feelings about work to Studs Terkel. Although it has been over forty-five years since his account, it could be yesterday.
You can't take pride anymore. You remember when a guy could point to a house he built, how many logs he stacked. He built it and he was proud of it. I don't really think I could be proud if a contractor built a home for me. I would be tempted to get in there and kick the carpenter in the ass, and take the saw away from him 'cause I would have to be a part of it, you know. It's hard to take pride in a bridge you're never gonna cross, in a door you're never gonna open. You're mass producing things, and you're never gonna see the end result.
Mike Lefevre's account reflects the nature of work for many people. They believe themselves to be mere cogs in a giant machine, unimportant really, disposable, invisible.
A poet's perspective
English poet and writer, John Masefield wrote in 1911 4.
To get the whole world out of bed
And washed, and dressed, and warmed, and fed,
To work, and back to bed again,
Believe me, Saul, costs worlds of pain.
D. H. Lawrence wrote of the slavery of work in his poem Wages (1929)
The wages of work is cash.
The wages of cash is want more cash.
The wages of want more cash is vicious competition.
The wages of vicious competition is–the world we live in.
The work-cash-want circle is the viciousest circle
that ever turned men into fiends.
Earning a wage is a prison occupation
and a wage-earner is a sort of gaol-bird.
Earning a salary is a prison overseer’s job
a gaoler instead of a gaol-bird.
Living on our income is strolling grandly outside the prison
in terror lest you have to go in. And since the work-prison covers
almost every scrap of the living earth, you stroll up and down
on a narrow beat, about the same as a prisoner taking exercise.
This is called universal freedom.
A Psychologist's Perspective on The Slavery of Work
The father of Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud wrote in Civilisation and Its Discontents (1930)5
And yet, as a path to happiness, work is not valued very highly by men. They do not run after it as they do after other opportunities for gratification. The great majority work only when forced by necessity, and this natural human aversion to work gives rise to the most difficult social problems.
Is this true? Perhaps to a certain extent. I believe the majority of us are forced by necessity, by a social imperative to work. The nature of the work matters less than the ability to earn as much as possible. So, abstract measures of wealth become the motivating force.
The Perspective of a Slave
Booker T. Washington, African American activist, author and poet reported in Up From Slavery in 19016.
I was asked not long ago to tell something about the sports and pastimes I engaged in during my youth. Until that question was asked it had never occurred to me that there was no period of my life that was devoted to play. From the time that I can remember anything, almost every day of my life has been occupied in some kind of labour; though I think, I would be a more useful man if I had had time for sports.
Social reformist and abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845.
I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the North, to find persons who could speak of the singing among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy.
Freedom From The Slavery of Work
Are workers in contemporary society really free? Can we choose our work and can we come and go at will? I don't believe so. Instead, we remain slaves no matter the colour of our skin. The only difference between the blacks of the cotton fields of the Southern United States prior to January 31st 1865 or labourers of any skin colour at any time in history, and modern day workers, is payment. We are, arguably, still enslaved albeit under different conditions. In todays modern society we are manipulated and cajoled, rather than whipped and beaten, but no less used and abused.
Noam Chomsky agrees.
If a person works, if a person does beautiful work under external command, meaning for wages, we may admire what he does but we despise what he is. Because he’s not a free human being…because his labor, you know the sort of central part of your life, is being done at somebody else's orders….why should you work on command? I mean, if you work on command, you're some kind of slave. Why not work because it's coming out of your needs and interests?
I believe that work at it is today, on a broad scale, adequately represents the current stage of human development. Our adverse relationship with work represents our naivety about who and what we are. Those moments when we love it represents our understanding of who and what we are. We dip in and out of ourselves so to speak; we are lost and found.
Work is not supposed to be all sunshine and light. It should have challenges and we should enjoy those challenges. Therefore, I think it's more about who we bring to work and the attitude and worldview we adopt, rather than the work itself.
That doesn't mean we should accept doing work we hate, but it does mean choosing the most helpful response (to oneself) to whatever we find there. It does mean taking charge of our own futures and, as Chomsky inferred, taking control of our own work.
- Barringer, T. J. (2005). Men at work: art and labour in Victorian Britain (p. 611). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Terkel, S. (Ed.). (1974). Working: People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do. The New Press.
- Warr, P. (2011). Work, happiness, and unhappiness. Psychology Press.
- Masefield, J. (1916). The everlasting mercy. Macmillan.
- Freud, S. (1930). Civilisation and its Discontents (trans. J Strachy 1961 Ed.).
- Washington, B. T. (2013). Up from slavery. Simon and Schuster.
David Terrell says
This is in response to the quality of your writing and the uplift that I often feel in response to your in-depth work (pun intended). I’m noticing that much of your essays give reasons for despondency. Even when you have a high opinion of your subject, which should mean a positive essay, most of the paragraphs of an individual essay are devoted to negative concepts. On this one, I think your main thesis is that we should “[take] control of our own work.” What I’d like to see is what that might mean for our senses of ourselves as fulfilled human beings — or whatever you chose to say. I hope this is not a conflict between an American view (even a Californian view) and a European view; I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Irish and European writers writing optimistic essays.
Thanks for reading David, and for the time to write a response. Perhaps you are right. Maybe there is a darker feel to this article, however, on balance I’d like to think I give air to both aspects. After all, I regularly like to note in these writings that there are two sides to the coin. Have you read the recent article on resilience I published? The one on Autotelic Personality or The PERMA Model of Wellbeing? There’s one from a while back looking at Abraham Maslow’s aspects of Peak Experience.
When I write, I am conscious of not trying to save the world or anyone in it. In other words, I avoid over-optimism. I believe it to be a position that blinds us to the truth of reality, i.e. the coin has two sides. Likewise, I realise that an over-pessimistic approach is exhausting. I try to find balance but maybe that doesn’t always work out. Regardless, your message has made me think, and that’s a good thing. I value the conversation, so thanks for being here.