We live in a global society that predominantly believes earning and having money is the route to a full existence. Not only is that untrue, it’s also the root of our current environmental and health crises.
When I was a little boy, I understood one thing very clearly: When I’m grown up, I will get a job. Everyone needs a job, because that’s how they earn money. Everyone needs money to live and if you have enough money, you’ll have a happy life and get what you want.
As I got older this belief became more entrenched because in our economic setup it is unquestionable. Unless you’re very well off you pay someone else or an organisation to live in the property you inhabit. And unless you have ample time and land (again, a huge privilege today) your only option to be able to eat is to buy food from a shop.
So it’s simple — if you don’t have money you will lack food and shelter — your most basic, biological needs will be unmet.
And from there, by extension, we begin to believe that this applies to most of our other needs as human beings, which capitalist society and consumer culture does its best to shore up.
We’re constantly bombarded by images and messages that remind us that buying certain products enhance our sexual attractiveness, or worse, without them we will be unattractive and unlikely to attract a partner.
Messages that tell us we can’t be confident in our manliness — or womanliness — if our body shape doesn’t conform to a certain ideal, and that this ideal can be achieved if only we buy certain books, subscribe to a certain gym or sign up to a certain diet plan.
Watching our parents struggle with work and money, or seeing our peers get birthday presents we’d love for ourselves — these relational experiences also help to bed in these messages that our sponge-like brains absorb over the course of our development.
It’s these ideas that become unquestioned beliefs in all of us, leading us into our relationship with money, and from there into the world of work and adulthood.
We sign up to university, college or an apprenticeship not because we’ve found our calling or following our innate curiosity but largely because we know we have to prepare to find a job.
We take our first proper role not because it offers scope to explore who we are and what we’re capable of, but often because it just about interests us (if we’re lucky) and because we might be able to please the people we work for because we’re competent enough in what we’ll be tasked with.
And for most of us so it continues — we continue following the path that opens up in front of us not led by our passion but pushed forward by an implicit belief that not taking the opportunity on offer would leave us in peril.
Because all this time, as long as we’re in work, our most basic needs for security seem to be being met — we can pay the bills and put food on the table.
But to do so, generally speaking, requires a repression of our other most basic needs — self-expression, creativity, freedom from control. We’re often left feeling stressed, trapped and doubting our self-worth.
Fortunately, we have consumer society to hand to reassure us that as long as we have money we can plug those horrid holes we can feel on a daily basis.
We plug them with beauty products, new clothes, exotic holidays and self-improvement books. We go on a course, pay for a retreat, sign up for a new macrobiotic diet programme.
At some point we might crack — so many people that I know have had to experience severe mental health issues as a result of living and working in a way that neglects our basic humanity, in order to recognise that this continual self-trickery is a journey with only one destination: the bottom.
If we’re lucky this opens us up to a new world of possibility. We have no choice but to face up to the fact we’re going to have to start reorienting our lives around our needs, rather than our beliefs about work and money.
This sounds like some kind of magical journey of self-realisation. It’s not. At best it’s a painful and distressing process that can put a massive strain on your closest relationships and means a slow journey back towards ‘normality’.
And for many people it can be the end of their sense of being a useful part of society, and lead to health issues they are unable to recover from.
For many of us though, we simply continue to live in a kind of shitty limbo — not really enjoying what we do, feeling generally a bit stressed and unfulfilled, but fearful of anything that threatens the stability that money and work promise us.
Money and needs
We use the word ‘need’ in many different ways, and often with negative connotations (‘Needy’ for example).
But in this context a need is an urge, a motivation that is the root of your feelings, actions and words.
They’re universal — meaning that everyone has a need for friendship or warmth or creativity, at some point in our life.
When a need is not met, we don’t feel good. If we have a need for friendship that’s not being met, we feel loneliness or sadness, for example (I wrote a longer piece explaining needs here)
And the biggest trap we’ve fallen into is believing that work and money can meet any of these needs.
They can’t — and the reason is very simple. Our needs can only be met when someone (ourselves or another) has an innate desire to fulfil them — not when they’re done for the promise of something else, or the threat of it being withdrawn.
So whenever we choose to do something ‘for money’, it can never really meet our needs. No matter how hard you want it to, if you wouldn’t do something if you weren’t paid for it, then it can only meet the need that money represents in this context .
And vice versa — when something is offered ‘for money’, it’s not being offered from a place of real desire to bring something to the world, or to others, but for whatever money represents in that context.
From money to work
Work can make things a little more complicated when it comes to needs, but the principles are still the same.
Like money, we are conditioned to believe that we can’t lead a full and worthy existence without a job or stable source of income.
The complicating factor is that in the new work economy, we are being led to believe that work can be freedom (sound familiar?) That the right job will make us a more exciting, interesting or worthy human being.
In decades past it was nice and simple — it was all about perks, corner offices, exotic business trips.
Now it’s a little more nuanced and tricky, wrapped up in our relationship to the big narrative of climate crisis and social inequality.
So many of us are pursuing roles or ventures not simply for the money or the bonus extras but because we believe it will make us feel a bit more ‘part of the solution’.
Why we’re crashing
In my over-simplistic mind there is a very clear gap that we’re collapsing into, individually and collectively.
The gap is in each of us and it’s the disconnection from our needs.
We’ve trained each subsequent generation over the past couple of hundred years to believe that our safety and fulfilment as human beings can only be met by something outside of our selves — money and a career.
And in our current geo-political climate, now it’s also about being a good or bad person, based on the nature of our work.
The simple idea I’m positing here is that every permutation of this leads to a never-ending cycle of working and earning.
While our needs are something only we can meet through genuine human giving and receiving (to ourselves or between each other), but we are convinced we can largely buy or earn our way to having them met, the only thing that can happen is the equivalent of shovelling dirt into a bottomless pit, hoping to fill it up.
And in a world of ‘always-on’, where we can continually not-meet our needs in front of a computer or smart phone, anywhere, any time, it’s hardly a surprise that subscriptions for anti-depressants have doubled in the past decade or that more and more offices are choosing to install defibrillators.
In an interview with The Economist, David Graeber, professor of Anthropology at the LSE, found something very similar during the research for his book ‘Bullshit Jobs: A Theory’:
“The thing that surprised me was just how hard it was for so many people to adjust to what seemed like comparatively minor problems: basically, boredom and sense of purposelessness in life. Why couldn’t they just say, “Okay, so I’m getting something for nothing. Let’s just hope the boss doesn’t figure it out!”
But the overwhelming majority reported themselves to be utterly miserable. They reported depression, anxiety, psychosomatic illnesses that would magically disappear the moment they were given what they considered real work; awful sadomasochistic workplace dynamics.”
And while we are constantly working ourselves into the ground, to not-meet the needs, that we can feel harder than ever but still don’t know how to articulate, we consume more and more products, services and treats to act as numbing distractions.
No wonder our planet has passed at least four of the nine planetary boundaries.
So… WTF do I do?
If you’ve got this far and you’re still nodding in agreement, you might also be shouting at the computer: “SO FUCKING WHAT, MAX? WHAT ARE YOU TELLING ME TO DO? HOW DO I FIX THIS?”
Put simply, there are no magic solutions. Because our existence is so interweaved, between each of us and the systemic structures we’ve created. There’s no off button.
Any quick-fix solution to a challenge that is so wrapped up in how we relate to ourselves and the world would be unmanageable and unpalateable for any human being to undertake.
Instead it probably starts with being able to better understand your needs. To stop long enough to ask: “What do I need right now?” Instead of blindly reacting and reaching for the most obvious faux-solution, which might be saying yes to the work you don’t want, shouting at your partner or — if you’re like me — chucking another beer down your throat.
Continually learning to set boundaries for yourself based on your needs, being able to sit with the discomfort that comes from doing so, these are the edges of the path.
To understand that when money seems to be the driver for a feeling or pending decision, to stop and recognise the message that accompanies this — whether it’s about security, status, freedom— to take the time to inquire and unpick these stories, before making your choice.
Also not to slip into the mistaken belief that somehow earning money and going to work are bad or foolish, to see them more clearly for what they are, and to learn how they can support you. Not the other way around.
And, most importantly for me right now, to embody this for our children, so that when they begin to explore their place in the world as young adults, it’s not through a mistaken assumption that they are anything less than great as they are.
To close, I realise I speak from a place of relative privilege. I have some savings, the support of my family, and a work life that probably hasn’t been harmed by society’s relative comfort with my gender, ethnicity and sexuality. And at the same time, I don’t have a lot to fall back on. I quit my last job with next-to-nothing and just about make enough to pay the bills each month with no guaranteed future income.
Each of us has our own conditioning and context to contend with, but I think that each of us has also been indoctrinated by a model of capitalist society that has partially unwittingly, partially knowingly, disconnected us from ourselves and each other. Every one of us has work to do in this respect, and wouldn’t it be great if each of us recognised and supported each other in this endeavour, especially when we perceive someone to have lost touch altogether?
I give people the space and tools to understand what they need and find ways to realise better lives — at home, in relationship, at work, in teams. I do this through leadership training, coaching and teaching The Art of Healthy Conflict. I’m firstname.lastname@example.org