On work

Yonatan Zunger
Aug 6, 2017 · 4 min read
Constantin Meunier, “Mineurs à la Descente,” ca. 1903

Over the past few years, I’ve been thinking more and more about what work means in our society, and some of the profound problems which surround it. Two major groups of problem keep coming up: first, that at work, people are increasingly dehumanized, treated like interchangeable cogs in a large machine; and second, that we seem to be entering a phase of our society where there are more people than jobs, and we don’t know what to do about that.

A while ago, I started thinking about the way the second problem sheds light on the first. Many people talk about things like a universal basic income as a solution to the second, and I think it’s a very interesting idea. But in discussing it, I heard a very important critique of the idea: that taking this and reducing your work would feel shameful. I’ve seen this before with other social programs, and it’s no joke; it’s a major bar to the adoption of anything from food stamps to HIV treatments.

And thinking about it made me think about the non-financial things we get from jobs. Trying to come up with a word for it, the one that came to my mind was dignity specifically, a validated sense that one’s contributions are valued by one’s community. One’s community, including anything from one’s family, to one’s neighbors, to one’s colleagues; valued, in that people see them as important; one’s contributions, as distinct from one’s intrinsic self, because if you are putting a lot of effort into something it’s important to people to feel that this is recognized; and validated, because people can recognize bullshit, and real valuation feels like it.

This is the thing which is missing from many jobs, and which is missing from many schemes like UBI; but it is at least as important to human life as food itself is. It’s also missing from many kinds of work that we fail to recognize and acknowledge as work, from maintaining a household to maintaining the ties between groups of people on a team.

(If the statement about food shocks you: the fact that people would reject food stamps because of a lack of dignity is a rather graphic demonstration of it. In this, I increasingly believe that Maslow missed something very important: that even below physical survival, there is a deeper need for social acceptance, and it manifests in all of the ways that people would rather die than live.)

Given the extent to which work takes up a large fraction of our lives, and the extent to which changes in our economy have been moving more and more work either away from dignity or away from existence, I increasingly believe that this is one of the most pressing issues our world faces.

As a result, I’m making a few changes. The most radical is that I’m turning this into my day job. After 14 (very exciting) years, I’ve left Google, and in a few weeks I will be joining the team at Humu, a company recently started by some friends and ex-colleagues of mine for the specific purpose of making work better. While I can’t discuss the particulars of what we’ll be doing any more than Laszlo already has, I’ll say that this team seems to have a number of concrete approaches to doing this, and an urge to explore more, which I believe have a solid chance of working. (And it’s a company, not a nonprofit, because it turns out that not being miserable along these very same axes makes employees measurably more productive, which means that you can get companies to pay you to make people’s lives meaningfully better. I feel like I’ve found a weird sort of exploitable bug in Capitalism.)

The second is that I’m going to be writing about this a lot more. You’ll see a lot of it here on Medium, but I’m also creating a Google+ Collection where I can post less organized thoughts and interesting articles, and have deeper conversations with interested readers. (For all the complaints G+ has gotten, it’s really good for conversations) My thoughts on this are still very nascent, and I expect that over the next few years I’m going to be learning a lot about it in all sorts of ways; hopefully I can take some of you along for the ride, and we can figure out some ways to make the world better for all of us.

Yonatan Zunger

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Either political analysis of authoritarian regimes, or interesting facts about science, depending on my mood.

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