1990s >> >> no-1040-april-1991

Do you like your work?

Work is a very important part of our lives, but only a fortunate few find satisfaction in it. We know that we have to work, otherwise there would be no food, no houses, and no furniture to put in them. But that is not the reason we work today. We do it in order to get money to buy food, a house, furniture.

It may seem obvious, but we are not ants or bees; we are human beings with the capacity for enjoyment, for experiencing pleasure, but rarely do we do so in work. This, considering how much of our lives is spent working, must be a condemnation of the economic system we live under. Part of the problem is that we neither expect, nor are expected to enjoy work— we are expected to get it done as quickly and cheaply as possible. It is for this that we are hired and paid. We have to fulfil orders, production quotas, sales quotas. These have nothing to do with work, but work has everything to do with them. Work today is characterised by an intense pressure which is destructive of work as a creative activity. This is because it is not the work itself that is the objective but rather its result.

This is our present work culture, the work culture of capitalist society into which we are born. We may not like it, but see nothing strange, no contradiction in it; this is just how things are. But things can be different. Otto Klineberg in the UNESCO pamphlet Race And Psychology gives some interesting examples of how behaviour is determined by culture which illustrate this. In a performance test, he gave to a group of Yakima Indians the task of placing pieces of wood of various shapes into a wooden frame. The subjects were told to put the pieces in their correct place “as quickly as possible”:

   These children . . . never hurried. They saw no reason to work quickly. Our culture places a premium on speed, on getting things done in as short a time as possible; the Indian children had not acquired this attitude. They went at their task slowly and deliberately, with none of the scrambling impatience . . . found among American children.

Klineberg also noted they made fewer errors. The point is that for them the doing was more important than its completion. This is not how we view work. Our whole view of life is infected with the “scrambling impatience” to succeed. Speed has become a neurosis, a disease. Watch people in the street, buses, trains; they can do nothing slowly or considered. Rushing in most cases for its own sake without thinking. Dashing across a road to beat a car; not because there is a need, but because they have to. People play as they work. Going on holiday is an enervating experience from which we often need time to recover.

In terms of human needs and welfare—from the vantage-point of a sane society—most of the work we do is useless anyway. What, for instance, have banking, insurance, law, and government, got to do with human need? They have everything to do with capitalism, because the bureaucratic superstructure of a society based on property constantly expands as the activities required to run it become more and more complex. Think of all that effort going into running this system of extravagant waste. Effort that few enjoy and many find tolerable only until they succumb to the increasing incidence of physical or mental breakdown, which the health service struggles to cope with.

How stupid to have intelligent, talented people driven by an economic system that is served first, and them last. The only reason and justification for taking this critical view of work today is the confidence that we have it within our power to arrange for people to come first, always. Would it not be more sensible—and better for us—if we were to organise work for the benefit of people, rather than people for the benefit of work?

Ian Jones