How has work become essential to human dignity?

(written for a class called “economy and society” as a short response to Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Time Bind)

The simple answer to this question is that work makes you feel needed in society. But this may seem like a tautology — human dignity could be defined as the feeling that you are needed. The more interesting question that Hochschild explores in The Time Bind is, how did work evolve to reward its workers on a psychological level?

One of Hochschild’s major arguments revolves around how a new model of family and work life developed where tired parents flee the stresses of home for the harmony and managed cheer of work. While Hochschild focuses on the work/family crisis, I find her analysis of how capitalist corporations managed to create highly inventive cultural systems with communal values and ties the most compelling. Hochschild writes, “In many ways, the workplace appeared to be a site of benign social engineering where workers came to feel appreciated, honored, and liked” (43). It is this ingenious capitalist social engineering that started to reward employees with appreciation, camaraderie, and a feeling of being needed.

As Hochschild argues, this was a result of a key strategy for a corporation to compete globally: to create and manage a strong company culture. Before, culture wasn’t a quality of a corporation, much less something that you could create. Companies that established values created a work environment that cared for employees wellbeing, and concealed (and perhaps erased) the underlying cold, economic machine. As one Amerco employee put it, “In America, we don’t have family coats of arms anymore, but we have the company logo” (21). This couldn’t be more true today: walk around San Francisco and you’ll see tech company logos branded on every conceivable piece of fabric: t-shirts, jackets, socks, backpacks, etc. Companies pride themselves on their unique culture and values. From Facebook’s distinct white posters with capital bold red text espousing values like “FORTUNE FAVORS THE BOLD” to Bridgewater’s gospel of “radical transparency”, every corporation is expected to establish company values and a company culture that employees enjoy working in. In the end, it’s about making work not just tolerable, but worthwhile and enjoyable.

While the work/family crisis may very well still be troublesome, I think a work/life crisis may be more in order. Admittedly I don’t have the statistics on it, but anecdotally I’ve noticed that in companies with unlimited vacation policies, few people really take advantage of it. “Unlimited vacation” is more so just a meaningless benefit more and more startups offer, and in these fast-paced competitive work environments there aren’t many breaks where it seems appropriate to take time off.

Today, even people without families or similar obligations choose to work extremely hard. Sometimes it’s just the sheer amount of work that is associated with the nature of the work culture, as with many finance and consulting jobs, and sometimes it’s the innate value of the work that entices people to work more (the whole “change the world” narrative), as with many tech jobs. When so much of our lives revolve around our job and work, I’m afraid people will forget what it means to live. Is life to live, or is life to work? Soon enough, to live will be to work.

Curious to hear what others think: is work/life balance a lost concept?