The History of Work
June 29, 2018 - Monocle Research Department
When meeting a new acquaintance, after finding out their name, the most common question that is asked is, “What do you do?” This phrase, although linguistically rather ambiguous, is well understood to mean, “What is your occupation?” Socially it seems then, work is the most important thing you do, with the title of your job ranking right up there with the name your parents gave you, in terms of how you are immediately identified. This is not a new concept, however, for historically names have often been linked to occupations, such as in the case of the English surname Smith – the most common last name in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and the US – meaning “one who works with metal”. The same concept can be found in South Africa in examples like Snyman, derived from the German surname Schneider, meaning tailor, or literally “the one that cuts”, or the Dutch surname de Jager, simply meaning “the hunter”. For a long time then, it seems that our work has defined us. “What do you do?” is a kind of social short-hand for the far more complex question of “Who are you?”
Although what we do has for centuries been central to who we are, the meaning that society and individuals attach to work has certainly changed over time. In the biblical Book of Genesis, in punishment for eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the serpent is made to crawl on its belly, Eve is forced to suffer the pain of childbirth, and Adam is doomed to endure a lifetime of hard labour. Work then, along with pain and shame, was from the beginning a distinguishing factor between life in paradise and life as we know it and, in terms of Judeo-Christian belief at least, never meant to be enjoyable.
Aristotle took the first step in formalising the idea that work could be something more meaningful or fulfilling. He maintained that there were two distinct types of work: work for necessity and work in leisure. He believed there could be no happiness in working for necessity, as the value of this work was only extrinsic – working not for work’s sake, but to earn money and to provide necessities to live. Work in leisure, he believed, was the only way to gain happiness from work, as the value of this was intrinsic – work for the sake of work, with the freedom to choose one’s pursuits, such as playing music, practising philosophy, drawing, or partaking in sports, for example. These activities Aristotle deemed virtuous, while those deemed extrinsic in nature were always going to lead one to become a slave, or at best, a hired worker. This idea of work in leisure, however, is limited to those who are already very rich, Aristotle admits, and it would surely be unsustainable if everyone only partook in leisure activities. To have food, for example, someone must do the hard and unvirtuous work of harvesting the crops, without which, even the rich and the leisurely would have nothing to eat.
Centuries later, during the High Renaissance of the early sixteenth century, the Florentine artist Michelangelo brought a new mindset to bear. He was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel for a substantial sum of money by Pope Julius II and was given complete freedom to design what he believed would best suit the project. Alongside his compatriot, Leonardo da Vinci, these talented individuals were paid, and paid well, for their skills, while also adding value to the world through what they do best. This was in complete opposition to Aristotle’s understanding that no work for money could be fulfilling, and yet, during the radical shift in thought and culture brought about by the Renaissance, the concepts of work and pleasure seemed to naturally align. Today, this idea of being remunerated for one’s talents and creativity is central to our thinking when it comes to work.
Even after the Renaissance, however, the problem of the common labourer persists. Not everyone can be a sculptor and a painter, so how can the ordinary worker find fulfilment in his menial labour? Long since the time of Michelangelo, and with the advancement of machines, the proliferation of factories and the automation of many different tasks, it seems this problem has only compounded. Because of individuals like Adam Smith and Henry Ford, the concept of the division of labour has changed workforces around the world, setting in motion an idea of persistent and accelerating economic growth for nations. Now, one worker would not produce a whole car by himself but would be responsible only for one small component of the thousands of cars that would move through the production line. Although brilliant in terms of exponentially increasing productivity, for someone like Karl Marx, the division of labour is one of the biggest shortcomings of the capitalist system.
For Marx, capitalism, and its manifestations such as the production line, alienated workers from their work, and in turn, eliminated any chance of finding fulfilment therein. Marx was not opposed to being productive or hard working, as he himself was known to work 12-hour days, but he felt that any meaning that could be garnered from a hard day’s work was lost if you were merely a cog in the machine, performing tedious and repetitive tasks. Interestingly, this type of thinking survived well past the Cold War, with many workers today, especially among younger generations, searching desperately for higher meaning and fulfilment in their work.
The way people perceive work further changes not only across time, but across place too. The perception of people in Communist China, for example, will be vastly different to how those living in liberal democracies like the US, the UK and South Africa see work, which, in turn, will differ from citizens of very social-leaning democracies like Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. In this sense, a society’s culture, traditions and government play an integral role in shaping how those living in a society view the idea of work and their relationships to it – and these too are always evolving over time. With these epochal shifts in mind, to think that the current framework in which all economic activity takes place will last forever is naïve. Theories, systems, and modes of work are changing now faster than ever, thanks largely to the accelerating forces of technology and globalisation leaping across national boundaries, breaking social barriers and shattering old ways of working.
With the pace and scale of technology advancing in our modern times, another challenge has also emerged. There is now a rising fear that not long from now, the maturation of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics will perhaps replace wholesale entire workforces across industries. Whatever the future may hold, we can be certain that how work is understood today will be different tomorrow. For this reason alone, we must consider questions like, “How do we see work today?”, “What will change tomorrow?” and “Why does it matter?”