In historical times, many societies operated a two-tier system made up of those who controlled and those who worked and were controlled. Work was not thought to be a desirable pursuit. However, another group of people emerged alongside this system. They were the merchants and artisans. Merchants worked for profits, artisans for wages. These were the people who first gave us the idea of work as paid employment.
Today people seem to need to work in the same way that they need to eat and drink. This is what we call “work ethic”. People work for the money they need in order to live well, but there is another reason beyond that basic motivation which makes people want to work.
During the Industrial Revolution, work for most people was so unpleasant that leisure was regarded as a kind of freedom. Yet in spite of the fact that life was so hard and the nature of the work so arduous, people slowly changed from having to work to wanting to work. They now live to work rather than work to live. Work gives people a feeling of being useful. The ethic runs so deeply that people today feel it is their right to work.
Mark Twain pointed out that if work were so pleasant, the rich would keep it for themselves. But however much people may think they dislike work, everyone has a deep psychological need for it. Everyone wants to be valued, and wages and salaries are the visible proof that we matter.
Not all kinds of work, however. No matter how worthwhile or demanding they might be, bringing up children, housework and voluntary employment are not usually seen as “proper jobs”. The only “proper” job is one that provides paid employment. Being paid for a job in our society means higher personal status.
Of course we would also prefer work to be useful, pleasant and interesting – and also well paid. But you don’t really have to enjoy your work to get pleasure from it. The fact that we have to overcome some difficulties that we have to deal with doing routine tasks, in some way gives us pleasure. For example, having to be in a particular place at a particular time, working as part of a team towards a common goal, gives us a sense of purpose. The modern workplace also provides somewhere where people can assert their identity or create a new one.
Without work many people become untidy and lazy, and find they are unable to enjoy the leisure time which is available to them. When some people retire from work, they lose their sense of value and purpose. For most of their lives their personality, self-image and status have been defined by work; without it they lose their appetite for life.
People who suddenly lose their jobs can find the situation particularly difficult. At a single stroke they lose all the advantages and status that a paid job provides. In a culture dominated by work, they are seen by those with jobs as incompetent or lazy. It is little wonder that stress and illness occur more frequently among unemployed people.
I don’t think that we should be unduly impressed by surveys which claim to show that the vast majority of workers, even in what appear to be the most soul-destroying jobs, actually enjoy their work: the workers’ response may just indicate that they are happy to be doing any job at all, rather than a positive feeling about their particular work. But we do seem to have reached a position where people prefer to work rather than not to work.
Money is certainly an effective motivator, but it is not the only reason why we work. There is no doubt that the economic motive can be overridden by other considerations. Being accepted as a member of a stable working group brings its own social reward, which may explain why many workers have mixed feelings about technological advances that remove them from the noise and dirt of the shop floor and leave them in splendid isolation, in charge of a machine which can carry out the tedious work they formerly did. It may also account for the behaviour of people who choose to work even though there is no economic necessity for them to do so – after all, it is not easy to be a playboy when there are so few people to play with!