On The Teleology of Work

The author at “work” — Peter Johnson

For a number of years I’ve been trying — unsuccessfully I might add — to write something coherent on the topic of the teleology of work.

My first attempt was at a book on the subject. This came about amidst the sense of achievement which followed the completion of my 2014 publication Making Light Work. I began the writing with a gung-ho enthusiasm, but the fire went out only a little way into the first chapter.

Since then, even the more modest goal of a blog post on the subject has eluded me. If you are reading this article, you will know that I have finally succeeded in this aim. If I fail yet again, only the internet bots will know (if a draft blog post is only read by bots, does it exist at all?).

So, teleology. The reason why. The big reason why. The final reason why. It is a weighty topic and I’m unsure if in my slightly burnt-out state I am capable of doing battle with a subject such as this. I will try however. If only to assess my intellectual capabilities at this point in time.

Making Light Work could be said to have been about the how and the what of work. Indeed, the entire cannon of work psychology (which I suppose I can claim to be my specialist discipline) is focused on these areas. On the completion of my book, I found myself in possession of a conviction that any theory of work which does not explore teleology cannot be said to be complete. All this talk about values (me) or purpose (Pink) is merely skirting around the large teleological elephant in the room.

The teleology of work is challenging because it takes us far beyond the traditional byways of occupational psychology or management science. We can find ourselves in the unfamiliar territory of philosophy or even theology.

Let us, then, dip a toe into these fathomless waters.

We work. We work in various ways. Some of us do algorithmic work (repetitive: for example on a production line). Others perform heuristic labour (knowledge work). There are environments in which we we are subject to top-down management, and others where we are granted autonomy. Theorists such as myself (and we are many) argue that autonomy is a necessary attribute of work, especially for knowledge workers. We argue that autonomy grants such workers the freedom to apply their knowledge in ways which they judge useful. In this formulation of the how of work, autonomy is partnered with values in order to manage the judgement part of that conception. The psychologist Shalom Schwartz concluded that values are the means by which people judge good from bad, so this makes sense.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of unresolved issues in such theses and they are as follows. The first is — what about the algorithmic workers? Do we just abandon them to the near-slavery of extreme Taylorism? Does their lack of education or low social status mean that they are denied the luxury of purpose, autonomy or values at work? Another issue relates to the idea of values or purpose in autonomous working. These are high end concepts, they should extend work theories beyond the mechanics of production and efficiency. It is problematic, I think, to invoke such lofty ideas and simply insert them into a capitalistic model of making stuff. They resist such basic utility.

Also — in all of this verbiage, who are we, the theorists, talking to? Is it the worker or the manager? Moreover, in what ways are our thoughts bounded? As regards the latter, I lean towards the view that we are unconsciously bounded by the liberal or neo-liberal ideas of work that predominate in the west at the present time. I’m not saying that this is good or bad, just that it’s a limitation or boundary on our thinking. When we talk of the future of work are we thinking of silicon valley, start-ups, corporations — as opposed to the sweatshops and factories that power our purposeful lifestyles?

In respect of our assumed audience, I believe that one could make an evidenced argument that our imagined readers are captains of industry. Do we not see in our minds’ eyes future leaders of digital corporations, or CEOs of traditional enterprises, arms raised in the joy of epiphany, having seen the light of purposeful work? I would wager that very few of these authors are addressing their words to sweatshop owners or the down-pressed pieceworkers who assemble our smartphones and ultrabook motherboards. I mean, where does purpose fit in the lives of these workers?

It is for these and other reasons that I decided that it would be fruitful to explore the teleology of work

in respect of the knowledge workers to whom we say, ‘find work which aligns to your values’ or of whom we ask ‘what is your purpose?’, we might be guilty of a facile utilitarianism. We wish our theories to sound complete; for them to be aligned with that which sounds human and deep. Perhaps in our way, we are as guilty as Taylor who hitched his ideas to a cod-scientism in order to gain credibility. We are making an attempt to show that our ideas of work are grounded in humanism.

However, astute readers of theories of this nature may note the arbitrary point at which this humanism ends. They (the theories) do not bloom into the full richness of human experience. They end at the point where humanism is convenient and useful to the means of production. For example; in the idea that it’s OK for algorithmic workers to be treated like slaves, or for the values of western knowledge workers to be rounded off at the point of productivity and efficiency.

In other words, in such theories, our discussion of values abruptly ends at the circumference of the job. Beyond the gates of the enterprise, the society and wider — global — humanism which most definitely exists, is rarely considered. For example, the overarching goal of many organisations is profit. Theorists often do not challenge this when discussing values and purpose. Work for profit in a capitalistic sense is a-priori and accepted as self-evident truth in much writing in this area. Nevertheless, is this correct? Should the values or the purposes which are the subject of our theoretical efforts extend their scope into the higher-order ends of work?

This then, is the territory which teleology occupies.

It is an uncomfortable area for work psychology and management science. It crosses over into sociology, labour relations, philosophy and theology. Those who choose to study any of the subjects beloved of university management schools and who do not consider the bigger, teleological picture are a little like astronomers who do not consider physics or physicists without a grasp of mathematics.

The core question which the teleology of work poses to theorists and workers alike is “why do we work?”. It examines the answers to that question which can include: “for the money”, “for duty or some higher purpose” or some combination of the two. Teleology goes further however, and breaks through the accepted first world discourse about questions such as these, to address issues such as “what when there is no inherent higher purpose or value in the work?”. The teleology of work is definitely complex, but it is also a fun and important area to explore.

I like to think that a full consideration of teleology might lead to revolutions — not only on the social scale, but on the personal. It may result in individuals eschewing the everyday assumptions about work to an exploration of alternative meanings of work; meanings which might lie far beyond the traditional western conceptions.

By way of example, and to end, I’d like to introduce a — rather profound — teleological description of work. This example occupies the space between theology and philosophy and is taken from classical Indian texts of over two thousand years ago. Karma Yoga (or the yoga of work) describes a pathway to individual self-actualisation through work — any work — by simply dedicating that work, in mind, to higher ends. According to this philosophy, one might be employed as a ditch digger or as an architect of complex palaces, nevertheless the work is to be performed selflessly and without attachment to outcomes. It is not so much the work that matters in this notion, it is the mindset in which it is performed. For the author or authors of these ancient ideas, the teleology of work was clear — it was the means by which spiritual liberation could be achieved.

I regret not writing that book in 2014. However, the reasons why I was unable to are understandable (family, earning a living and suchlike). It also would have been a difficult project and I am not certain that there would have been much in the way of contemporary templates which might have guided the endeavour. Nevertheless, I think I would have relished the exploration of work teleologies - from the ‘making money’ or ‘sense of identity’ which are commonplace today, to the ‘spiritual liberation’ of the ancient Vedic sages. In between these two extremes I expect that there would have been much to say.

Perhaps I’ll write it yet. However, at this point I know that I have at least managed a blog post on the topic, which is progress — and that will suffice for the moment.