You don’t have to look very hard to see just how deeply society links work and self-worth. Our fables teach children that work means life - the industrious ant survives the winter while the lazy grasshopper starves. We extol the virtues of labor in idioms like "an honest day's work" and sayings like "haste makes waste.” We equate hard word with spiritual worth in proverbs (literally in Proverbs) like “In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty.”
There’s a good reason we have these expression and stories; the community’s survival relies on people doing their jobs. It's why we've designed so many extrinsic motivators for work - from salaries and promotions to gold stars and letter grades. We want tangible proof that our work has value to society.
But beyond the fear of societal ruin, a job well done (another great idiom) just feels good. It is intrinsically motivating. And when the social benefit and the inner joy find balance - magic! Your body and mind feel good, born from the inner satisfaction of personal success and the quantifiable contribution to something greater.
The Daily Grind
But if work is so satisfying, why are an ever increasing number of Americans unhappy at work? For one, the nature of work has changed dramatically in recent decades, growing increasingly abstract. Consider - In 1860, over half of the American labor force was in agriculture. Now it’s less than 2 percent. 1860 may seem far off, but when talking about social change, it’s like an atomic blast - fast, hot, and destructive.
If you want to put it in the context of one person’s lifetime, in the early 1970s 1 in 4 Americans worked in manufacturing. Today, it’s less than 1 in 10. That’s fewer than work in healthcare, retail, or business. All told, over 80 percent of Americans work in the service industry, largely making intangible things that contribute to a bigger, slightly less intangible thing.
And as work becomes more and more intangible, the assigned extrinsic value becomes more and more important. I can’t point to the miles of rail I helped lay, but I can point to the money in my bank account or the size of my car.
Old Challenges Made New
To be clear, the paycheck is not a new idea; the concept of wages likely goes back to the Neolithic Period. Likewise, this isn’t a romanticized notion of a past where everyone owned the fruits of their labors. Historically, few people truly owned their work, just as few owned their land. Wealth inequity is as old as wealth accumulation.
But we underestimate the radicalness of social change at our own peril. Ultimately, it’s a matter of tempo. What is the tempo at which our biology can change versus to the tempo of change around us? When they sync, you have a music. When they don't, you have disharmony.
The measure of a Person
The coupling of one person’s labor to a machine few understand and fewer control makes our tangible contributions to society so abstract as be practically invisible. Or, to paraphrase Eliot, we measure out our lives with coffee spoons.
Over the years, as abstraction has invaded our lives, we’ve come up with lots of ways to give it intrinsic definition. We talk about “climbing a career ladder” or “building a future.” No surprise that these idioms give the abstract (career, the future) physical properties (climbing, building).
And it all works fairly well. It’s not perfect. There are many workers struggling with the shift from more tangible industrial work to the service industry. But when you look at how many Americans have access to clean water, reliable food stocks, health care, education, and other living standard indices, society as a whole is in a better spot than it was in 1860. Plus, abstract work can be very fulfilling. The service industry creates many social goods.
But there is danger in the system’s complexity. What any one person does at work is a very small cog in the insanely complicated machine of modern capital and finance. And like all complicated machines, when something goes wrong, it's a huge task to figure out what broke, why it broke, and how to fix it (see also, subprime mortgage crisis).
And for more and more people, the machine is feeling broken, our faith in it misplaced or abused.
So what to do? To start, we must acknowledge - as a society - that meaningful work isn't always (or only) quantifiable on a spreadsheet. I'm reminded of Leo Lionni’s wonderful children's book Frederick about a mouse (the titular Frederick) who prepares for winter by collecting memories of the summer.
His peers (who are all collecting food) mock him for laziness until the dead of winter comes and the others find that Frederick's memories (expressed through art) have immeasurable value - helping keep the group warm through the very long, cold winter.
Perhaps more than ever, as the old tangible forms of work disappear, we need to weave this lesson into our social contract. We must build a society that values its Fredericks, and we must start by updating our attitudes about education.
Training children for jobs is practically a guiding tenet to schooling, but it must end. As Maria Montessori warned in The Absorbent Mind:
“The child is not an inert being who owes everything he can do to us, as if he were an empty vessel that we have to fill. No, it is the child who makes the man, and no man exists who was not made by the child who once he was.”
In other words, respectful education prepares children for life. It doesn't train children for job success; it nurtures their creative and intellectual powers, divorcing them from any external mark, and doing so keeps alive their intrinsic love of work.
A chance to get it right
If it's any comfort, these are not new problems. Lionni published Frederick in 1967; Montessori The Absorbent Mind in 1949. Eliot’s “Prufrock” goes all the way back to 1915.
But all the more reason that we must engage. This problem isn't going away on its own. Industrialization, automation, modern finance -- their effects aren't ending. But as parents and educators, we can play a critical role in helping society redefine its attitudes about work.
In fact, it could be our generation's truest, most authentic and important work.