The usefulness of work is a deep, deep topic with many corners and branches; no single discussion can comprehend it.
To the question of “why do we work?” — The simplest answer, and perhaps the most historic, is to say we work so we may live. Without resources, we cannot survive. Without work (of one sort or another), we cannot acquire those resources. This holds as true for the hunter-gatherer as for the salaryman.
Yet this answer overlooks an edge case, minor in scope but significant in impact: what happens when we don’t need to work in order to survive, or even to thrive?
Anthropology tells us that this surplus in time and resources makes possible advancements in human society. Human beings were nomadic and tribal until chance environmental conditions in the Fertile Valley and a few other places (a.k.a the “Cradles of Civilization”) made crop cultivation and resource gathering so efficient that for the first time, people routinely could spend time and energy concerned with aspects of life beyond taking care of their immediate needs. This freedom allowed natural human creativity to abound, and complex civilizations formed, enabling innovation and creating entire new classes in society such as artisans, priests, and other groups completely supported by the fundamental work of others. No longer did the survival of a tribe require every able body to hunt, plant, harvest, forage. These new classes, these roles in society could not exist without the possibility of extra time and resources, with humanity effectively “getting ahead” of the quest for existence. While not actually critical for human survival, such individuals provided societal enrichment, and allowed humans as a whole to grow, learn, invent, and expand their capacity.
This kind of advancement through resource sufficiency was echoed in other places; for example, of all the numerous American Indian societies in existence at the time of western settlement, those which lived in naturally fertile areas where food was readily available year-round displayed more advanced, organized societies, with complex art, rituals, architecture, and other artifacts, while those cultures in areas where resources were scarce more commonly lived in simple bands or small communities, with the majority of their time and mental focus by necessity going towards the continuation of their own survival. This understanding is a bit of a simplification, since all societies include some kind of art, social hierarchy, etc, but the trend is clear:
If you must work to survive, you work to survive. If you no longer need work to survive, you work to create.
In other words, once we have reached a place at a societal level at which we no longer need to work simply to survive, we continue to find work in pushing the boundaries of our cultural abilities.
With this in mind, we can add another definition for work: we work to contribute to society. This appears a bit more high-minded than working to stay alive, though in the end this reason for working comes down to the same as the first: self-benefit. We work so we may improve our own lives, whether directly or indirectly. We inherently want to find a place for ourselves in productive society.
Elaborating on this concept of societal value also gives us a third concept of work, in that those without work often find themselves without a purpose. While this certainly does not apply to everyone equally, and the merits of “work as its own reward” constitute an entire discussion all on their own, we can say that in general, we work to be fulfilled. Work, in that it fills our days with something productive and beneficial, has intrinsic meaning (we’ll come back to that “productive and beneficial” part in a moment.)
We’ve now successfully identified why we work, but in finding these definitions we’ve also managed to drain a bit of color from what it actually means to “work.”
Work refers to labor, of the body or the mind, with the sense (and dictionary definition) of “fulfilling duties,” “sustained effort for a purpose,” etc. While laboring simply for the love of labor, or because we want to contribute to a better world, we may be engaging in “sustained effort,” but it’s difficult to realistically fit in the same category as our daily grind. This is true especially if and when we are not at all compelled to do that work — i.e. if it’s up to us when we begin and end our work, what we work on is entirely our choice, and we face no consequences for failure.
If we imagine a scenario in which it is completely unnecessary to engage in a job in order to live comfortably, we can no longer say we “work for a living.” If, in such a society, we were to sit in an office all day and engage in busywork, we have not really done “work.” At best, we’ve helped someone else accomplish something meaningful to them (you can’t really call that person an “employer” in such a context); at worst, we’ve wasted our day on make believe. Similarly, if we were to dream up a new tool, idea, book, etc, simply because we wanted to, then we absolutely may contribute to society, but this too is not actually work in the sense of labor. So there is both overlap and conflict between what we understand as work and what we might call usefulness.
Generating a whole exposition on such a simple word as “work” might seem exasperatingly pointless nitpicking, but this exacting way of understanding our labor actually exposes a fundamental problem with how we approach our daily work.
In the modern world, when we wake up in the morning and head into our office, workshop, factory, store, or other workplace, what is it that we intend to accomplish with our day?
Do we intend to help produce a specific end product, like a chair, or a cell phone, or a skyscraper, a piece of software, or even something more conceptual, like a communications protocol?
Do we want to contribute to society, by extracting resources from the earth, or by raising livestock, or by making an app to connect people in a new way? (Note that we already have overlap here with the previous category.)
Do we want to help others, by saving wild animals, or raising funds for a nonprofit, or teaching the next generation? (Again, overlap here.)
Do we simply want to get through our day and receive a paycheck so we can continue to live in as much comfort as we can reasonably achieve? (This option is not necessarily mutually exclusive with any of the previous items).
And particularly, for any item in any of the above categories, would we still go into our workplace and do those things even if we didn’t have to?
R. Buckminster Fuller believed, almost half a century ago, that “one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest…[w]e keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery….”
Let’s pretend for a moment that our society managed to enable this goal, whether by the increasingly popular notion of “Universal Basic Income” (UBI) or some other means like the one described in “The Midas Plague.”
In such a situation, “work,” as we understand it from the descriptions applied above, no longer exists. All we need consider is the usefulness of our labor — and of course, our own happiness, our satisfaction in what we do with our life.
Today, we often don’t bother considering the true usefulness of our work. Certainly if our jobs are obviously pointless, it will begin to grind on us at some point. But as long as we receive a good paycheck, live in comfort, have tolerable hours, and feel useful to those around us through the guise of work, we don’t probe too far into the contribution our work makes to civilization as a whole.
After all, what’s the benefit of asking such questions? We need the job for a living, and it’s easy to justify the benefit of most jobs in some way — even the most grinding drudgework for a huge corporation helps turn out products and improve the economy. It feels painful, and almost worse than pointless, to start examining whether time could be better spend, whether there are more efficient ways to increase the economy, whether our economic measurements are ideal, whether the products created are actually beneficial to our own lives or simply contribute to making the wheel turn.
Going back to another piece of that same Buckminster Fuller quote,
…[the] idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because…he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.
In a world where labor means sustenance, leisure becomes freedom; but leisure alone cannot make life fulfilling. When we achieve true freedom from labor, we can stop worrying about work, and start focusing on being useful and industrious.
It seems quintessential to the human experience that our purpose is to grow, improve, expand, actively improving our own lives, each other’s lives, and the world around us. Defining the usefulness of our work lies at the heart of our future.