Being back in the office after a couple of weeks away always gets me wondering how we ever came to the conclusion that work is a good thing. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that food doesn’t grow itself. (Or cook itself, either.) But how did we come to identify labour as something good in its own right, separate from what it produces?
I don’t personally know many people who like what they do for a living so much that they would continue to do it if they no longer needed the money. This is as true for professionals as for those in the trades, service workers, or those whose work supports professionals. It might even be more true for professionals than anyone else. I’ve heard of factory workers, for example, who keep their jobs after winning a lottery. I’ve never heard the same of, say, civil servants.
A good friend of mine likes to say, “If it wasn’t work they wouldn’t have to pay me,” and another who says, “It’s called ‘work’ for a reason.” This suggests something unpleasant about work – and in general there is something distasteful in it. How many of us actually look forward to Monday rather than Friday?
Oscar Wilde used to say that work was the curse of the drinking class. The beauty of that was not only that it skewered Victorian temperance, it also put the Victorian notion of the work ethic in a truer perspective. So often, those who valourize work don’t actually have to do much of it, at least by “working class” standards. If work is a good and noble thing, why is “working class” a pejorative? We tend to like “work” and “workers” better as ideas than as actualities.
There are likely some people – artists, actors, musicians, athletes – who truly enjoy doing what they do professionally. This is likely just as true for those who are barely able to scrape out of living as it is for those who make ridiculously large sums of money. It has to do with what they’re doing, not their reimbursement. People like to say, “Do what you love and the money will follow,” but it often doesn’t work out that way. No one’s going to pay me to ride my motorcycle – or write this blog, for that matter.
Now, I wouldn’t want to given the impression that I think work is a bad thing, or even that I dislike working. I don’t. Or at least, not all the time. My own job can even be rewarding, every now and then. But I don’t think it’s very honest of those whose jobs involve things they love doing to suggest that work – as distinct from their work, and regardless of its remunerative result – is necessarily a good thing. In mot cases, we can think of things we’d rather be doing, and which (if we’re honest) don’t seem any less productive.
My guess is that this idealism of work was propagated by those who benefit from the work of others, and that the rest of us have fallen in line, because not working would be starvation and homelessness. Not working is only an option for the rich.