Why work? What is work about?

Why work? What is work about?

Why work? What is work about?

Occasionally we may ask ourselves, "What is the purpose of work?" This question was recently asked by a presenter at a learning forum, and the responses were to:

  • Earn a living
  • Develop myself
  • Be creative
  • Pursue my career
  • Get out of the house
  • Be a busy mum, working rebalances me, it gives me ‘me’ time
  • Be with others/meet other people

Do these strike you as the kind of responses you would get by asking other people who work the same question? They seem familiar and many of us could relate to at least one of these responses. What strikes you most about all of these responses? What is similar about them?

You could say they are all about ‘me’ and from this you could say the purpose of work is all for my benefit looked at in this way.

But is this really what work is all about? Let’s consider this for a moment.

Aeons ago, manual labour, or toil, was the mainstay of work. Whether you ploughed the field, hunted for meat and fish, built and maintained shelters where you lived, looked after the very young, cooked, or cleaned, labour was arguably simple. Each knew their role and also knew why their labour or toil was needed. If you didn’t hunt or forage there would be no food, if shelters weren’t built or maintained there was nowhere to sleep.

Villages would each have simple systems for sharing the work, and a rhythm that worked with the natural way of the world – seasonally, knowing what to do in daylight or during the night time and so on. Manual labour here is physical work, and comes from the Latin word for hand (‘manus’). This labour was all about simple tasks related to basic human needs.

As time moved on, villages developed into towns, and towns into cities, agriculture was introduced, and as dwellings became a little more sophisticated, more materials were needed, more labour was needed, and so on. The organisation of work required co-operation amongst the group and a leader was selected to organise and direct the group.

In time, labour was used in exchange for things such as food, water, clothing, and later on, ‘wage’ labour came in whereby the worker earned a ‘wage’ paid to them on completion of their work, and the many systems, processes, policies and so on that we now have in modern day work places. There is more to say about work as it has changed over the years, but for now this is sufficient.

You could say here that the purpose of work ‘back then’ was very simple – it meant labour that was related to basic human needs.

There are today around 7.305 billion of us on earth at this time

United States Census Bureau International Agency for Research on Cancer
Population Estimates [i]

Let’s add in one further aspect ...

  • There are today around 7.305 billion of us on earth at this time[i], and, the surface area of planet earth is 510,064,472 km2.[ii]
  • There are approximately 64 million who live in the UK.[iii]

For all of these people, occupying an enormous number of households, all occupying one same planet, work is needed, and there is much work to be done.

Organisation is needed, as is infrastructure. Utilities are required, many organisations provide utility services:

  • Places to buy commodities/things that are required for our modern day living
  • Places to support our health
  • Places that deal with our rubbish/waste
  • Places that look after our elderly, educate our young and so on

All of these ‘services’ are work, they are modern day labour, toil, and, many of these services are much needed in our busy towns and cities all over the world. Labour here is related to human needs (though arguably in many parts of the world they are not ‘basic’ human needs anymore). Without labour, or work, there are many things in our modern day living that would fall apart – no transport, no policing, no food, no waste disposal, etc.

So what then might we say work is about?

Is it, as is presented at the beginning of this article that work is all about ‘me’? Can you imagine a hunter/gatherer saying that they were working because of their creative needs? Or to develop a career? Sure they may have had their moans or ups and downs but, sure as eggs is eggs, they knew that their labour was much needed for their community. Can we say the same about us today?

So, is work all ‘about me’? Or is it, as it was aeons ago about serving, providing for, and supporting each other, and our villages, towns, cities and communities?

Is it not that everything we do, think, say, act upon at work, affects another in some way? And that on Planet Earth we all have our part to play in either supporting ourselves and all of life, or harming and imposing on it?

Perhaps it is time to refocus – and bring back a renewed sense of why we work.

One where, through the fact that we share life with all of humanity (which means every woman, man and child on earth) we can feel that the work we do is much needed, and that in our work, we are supporting the whole (or not, depending on how we choose to work)?

We may also come to realise that deep down, we actually enjoy work!


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