If you dig deep enough, everyone has a working story of the “why” behind their work.
Our modern stories of why we work come from a long but rather recent history of work beliefs. Some of these are rooted in religion and others are founded on a more secular view of the world. I’ve identified nine “schools of work” that are worth exploring to gain a deeper understanding of why most of us work. While many people offer quick responses to the “why” behind our work, few ever understand that these beliefs are relatively new and that they have become so deeply embedded in modern culture to make them almost invisible.
- Catholic Work Ethic
- Protestant Work Ethic
- Gospel Of Wealth
- Modern Protestant Ethic / “Meaningful Work”
- We Are Gifted (and should be paid for them)
- We Are Called To Things (and may not be paid)
- Modern Hustle Ethic
- Everything is Work
I’ve purposely left our further conceptions of living such as monasticism or asceticism that are not as based around work. I’m mostly concerned with using this exploration to go back in time so that we can understand some of our modern obsession with work, namely, the modern holy grail of “meaningful” work.
Why do we think work has to be meaningful? Was it always that way?
The Two OG Work Beliefs
The Catholic and the Protestant view are the two dominant work beliefs that underpin our modern beliefs around work. The Catholic view, coming from the bible, says that work is suffering or work is literally “toil.” It is something to be endured as payment for the original sin.
Protestantism emerged in the 1500s through a complex series of events which I will not attempt to do justice. Lets just say that Martin Luther thought the Catholic Church was getting a bit of an ego and thought that there was more than one way to have a spiritual life (not to mention him finding fault with the whole pay to play aspect of the Catholic church).
#1 Catholic Work Ethic
This view comes from the bible and is that idea that work is “toil” that shall be endured as repayment for the original sin.
From the bible:
To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.– Genesis 3:17
We see this at play when people say something like “you can’t just not work!” or some of the more vicious political attacks against people who are “takers” from the system.
…and more here:
‘Catholic view of work’ sees work, while not the worst sort of thing one could do, as middling and bearably tolerable at best.
He who shall not work shall not eat – St Paul
labour is only necessary naturali ratione for the maintenance of individual and community. – Max Weber summarizing Thomas Aquinas
‘Catholic view of work’ sees work, while not the worst sort of thing one could do, as middling and bearably tolerable at best.Andrew Taggart
People: Jesus, St. Paul, Thomas Aquinas
#2 Protestant Work Ethic – The “Calling”
Starting with Martin Luther in the 1500’s, the Protestant reformation flipped the catholic idea of work on its head and starts to see the pursuit of work, a “calling” as an end in itself. Max Weber writes about how the Protestant reformation had to educate people on this new approach to work:
Labour must, on the contrary, be performed as if it were an absolute end in itself, a calling. But such an attitude is by no means a product of nature. It cannot be evoked by low wages or high ones alone, but can only be the product of a long and arduous process of education.
This attitude emerged as part of a shift towards industrialization and often people had to be convinced to give up their “traditionalist” way of life which was a bit more leisurely than the new model. Religion played a central role in this education:
the chances of overcoming traditionalism are greatest on account of the religious upbringing.
This shift in thinking about work is still with us today and shapes much of our thinking around how someone should be valued in society.
But at least one thing was unquestionably new: the valuation of the fulfilment of duty in worldly affairs as the highest form which the moral activity of the individual could assume. – Max Weber
The only way of living acceptably to God was not to surpass worldly morality in monastic asceticism, but solely through the fulfillment of the obligations imposed upon the individual by his position in the world. That was his calling – Max Weber
All true Work is sacred; in all true Work, were it but true hand-labour, there is something of divineness. Labour, wide as the Earth, has its summit in Heaven. –Thomas Carlyle
Associated People: Martin Luther, Calvin, Max Weber
Money, Money, Money: The Whole Thing Gets Flipped
In the 1800s, when industrialization took off in many countries around the world, you had a number of people get crazy rich. While Jeff Bezos may be giving some of these people a run for their money (literally), I don’t think anyone will match the wealth and power of the Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Rockafeller and Andrew Carnegie.
With the emergence of so much money, there had to be an explanation of why it was reasonable to have (and dsipense) so much damn money.
Luckily Andrew Carnegie wrote a book about it.
#3 Gospel Of Wealth / Capitalist Ethic
Prior to the massive late 1800’s massive capital accumulation for its own sake was not seen as a normal thing. One might say this is due to the fact that the structures to accumulate enormous capital (standardization, factories, industrialization) were not in place yet. However, it was a common notion that labor was seen as more important than capital in terms of the overall wellness of society. In this you can see the remains of the catholic work ethic that values work for work’s sake.
Abraham Lincoln shared the labor over capital view:
labor is prior to and independent of capital. capital is only the fruit of the labor and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration
As the capitalists started to accumulate massive welath, they needed to flip this story.
Enter Andrew Carnegie
He literally wrote a book titled “The Gospel of Wealth” which if you think about the historical context of work beliefs is a pretty crafty bait and switch.
While the title seems quite bold, the contents of the book were mainly about how rich men were better asset allocators of wealth and he described the best ways to deploy that capital through Philanthropy.
If you look around New York City you see all sorts of public lands donated from families of this era. They may have been more aggressive in contributing money directly to causes (still today there are many cases in which individuals tend to donate more on their own than government would ever allocate).
The big bait and switch, however, was that money became the goal. Any accumulation of money was a good thing. You can trace this shift directly to Milton Friedman in the 1970s and the modern day venture capitalists and Wall Street billionaires.
Money is seen as a good in itself. Anything can be validated under the logic of “if I’m getting paid for it, it must be worthwhile.”
Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs.– Max Weber
Today the world obtains commodities of excellent quality at prices which even the generation preceding this would have deemed incredible.– Andrew Carnegie
In a free-enterprise, private-property system, a corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business. He has direct responsibility to his employers. That responsibility is to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while conforming to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom– Milton Friedman
Person: Andrew Carnegie, Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand
The Modern Work Ethics
In the modern world, we are not tied directly to religious conceptions of work, yet they still play an enormous role in how people approach their work.
The internet has enables many different niche tribes to emerge that share different ethos about work. Let’s
#4 Meaningful Work – The Modern Protestant Ethic?
The Protestant Work Ethic that Weber described was one that emerged in line with religion. While there has been some skepticism about the causality, it has been observed that this work ethic often was tied to a set of virtues such as thrift and patience. Over time these virtues were stripped away and we were left with the a stripped down version of the Protestant ethic:
By the 1960s, that modernist tendency had evolved into a credo of self-fulfillment in which “nothing is forbidden, all is to be explored,” Bell wrote. Out went the Protestant ethic’s prudence, thrift, temperance, self-discipline, and deferral of gratification.
The modern protestant ethic is science based, backed by countless studies showing that when people view their work as a calling – everything is better. The most famous study is is from a group of four researchers led by Amy Wrzesniewski. Their research differentiated between people who see their work as a job, a career and a calling:
In accord with our predictions, we presented, evidence indicating highest life and work satisfaction for respondents who see their work as a Calling
This conception has become central in many people’s lives. While some may argue whether this is good or bad, many jobs have gotten a lot more tolerable and interesting and many people use the structure of work, especially the full-time job, as a vessel for meaning and fulfillment.
This belief, that work should be meaningful has led many to move past their own personal “gospel of wealth” and say they are willing to “forego 23% of their entire future lifetime earnings in order to have a job that was always meaningful.”
I’ve come to believe that each of us has a personal calling that’s as unique as a fingerprint – and that the best way to succeed is to discover what you love and then find a way to offer it to others in the form of service, working hard, and also allowing the energy of the universe to lead you.– Oprah Winfrey
For, in the end, it is impossible to have a great life unless it is a meaningful life. And it is very difficult to have a meaningful life without meaningful work.– Jim Collins, Author
Meaningful work only has upsides. Employees work harder and quit less, and they gravitate to supportive work cultures that help them grow. The value of meaning to both individual employees, and to organizations, stands waiting, ready to be captured by organizations prepared to act.– Harvard Business Review
People: Oprah Winfrey, Amy Wrzesniewski, The modern Knowledge Worker
#5 Your Work Is A Gift (and should be paid for)
A spin-off of the modern Protestant Ethic is one focused mainly on our inherent “gifts” Perhaps the earliest origin in many people’s lives are the “gifted” programs in schools. These are people that have talents above and beyond others that need to be nurtured.
This concept is then mapped onto a modern conception of work that we should seek to be paid for these gifts. If you’ve been around LinkedIn, you’ve probably seen the following chart.
Except the chart is wishful thinking. Kyle Kowalski, who is the creator of a badass site exploring work called Sloww, went throught a detailed history of how an innocent Japanese concept got muddled with the Wstern obsession with getting paid. He quotes Laura Oliver:
Finding the answers and a balance between these four areas could be a route to ikigai for Westerners looking for a quick interpretation of this philosophy. But in Japan, ikigai is a slower process and often has nothing to do with work or income.
I’ll let you explore the whole thing here, but let’s just say that this worldview doesn’t have much philosophical backing.
This is the principle behind much of the self-help “creativity” industry — the notion, promulgated in best-selling books like Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear,” that every person contains vast reservoirs of creative potential. To access your creativity, Gilbert maintains, is to self-actualize. This, she writes, is “the central question upon which all creative living hinges: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?”
People: Elizabeth Gilbert, LinkedIn Meme Posters
#6 There Is Work You Are Drawn To (and perhaps you might not get paid for it)
The less wishful thinking version of the “we’re all born with certain gifts” mindset is the artists mindset of creating as a gift or offering to the world. The difference here is that the “true” artist accepts that the world may not return money for such gifts.
This belief system can be loosely related to the modern Protestant Work Ethic that we all have a calling.
At that center we work because we love our work, and we love our work because we have chosen the right work, the work to which we belong.– David Whyte
In right livelihood, then, I suggest that we orient ourselves toward our need and desire to give. I suggest that we look at the world with eyes of, “What opportunity is there to give?” and “How may I best give of my gifts?– Charles Eisenstein
The last element that makes it art is that it’s a gift. You cannot create a piece of art merely for money. Doing it as part of commerce so denudes art of wonder that it ceases to be art. There’s always a gift intent on the part of the artist– Seth Godin
Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.– Marie Curie
#7 The Modern Hustle Ethic
The modern hustle ethic has been enabled by technology and our ability to work 24/7 with America as its mecca. However, the origins of the word hustle has meant different things, from running a scam to the ethic of the US west in the 1890s:
The key-note and countersign of life in these cities [of the U.S. West] is the word “hustle.” We have caught it in the East. but we use it humorously, just as we once used the Southern word “skedaddle,” but out West the word hustle is not only a serious term, it is the most serious in the language.“Our Great West,” N.Y., 1893
This work ethic is central to the modern startup ecosystem in silicon valley and is directly tied to the unicorn-or-bust model of success. To people that embrace the hustle, WeWork is their modern church:
“a wealthy man thinks that he owes it to public opinion to devote his leisure to some kind of industrial or commercial pursuit, or to public business. He would think himself in bad repute if he employed his life solely in living.” – Alexis de Tocqueville on Americans
Hustling is putting every minute and all your effort into achieving the goal at hand. Every minute needs to count. There is so much hustle in my day I don’t even have a second to spare to “hang out” and catch up with the people around me.” – Gary Vaynerchuk
“Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week,” – Elon Musk
People: Gary Vee, Elon Musk, Jack Ma
#8 Everything Is Work
There are two sides of this school of work. One camps says that we need to broaden the scope of work such that we see all the hidden work which the market does not pay for. The other side says that work is creeping into every aspect of our lives and identity (and we must resist this).
This first wants to broaden the scope of work beyond a full-time job for pay. It includes work on a relationship, the work of raising children, the shadow work of automation, the “inner work” of self-improvement, the “interpretive labor” of mind-reading your boss, the emotional labor of customer service jobs and so on…
A recent Guardian article summed it up in a cynical manner:
But the general enthusiasm for describing things as work is more widespread. Marriage, we’re endlessly informed by relationship gurus and divorcing celebrities, is work. Parenting is “the hardest job in the world”. Even leisure has been remade in the image of work, as we strive to reach 10,000 daily steps on our wearable fitness monitors; or check off experience after experience on “bucket lists” – a form of to-do list you’re not even permitted the pleasure of moaning about, because they’re meant to be fun.
The reason for broadening the scope of work is that we can make visible all the contributions of people in our society, especially the marginalized who may not be set up to succeed within the current system.
In 1972 there was a social movement pushing for “Wages For Housework” in Italy that sought to broaden the definition of labor that later was popular for a period in the United States. This argument has hung around and has been used by Universal Basic Income proponents arguing that paying only what the market will pay for ignores important social functions like raising children and caring for the elderly.
The second view of this school of work and the much darker side was originally highlighted by the Philosopher Josef Pieper and more recently, Andrew Taggart, who finds that work has become central to life. Taggart calls this trend “Total Work” and describes it as “is the process by which human beings are transformed into workers as work.” There is no purpose to life beyond work. We work such that we can rest so that we can return to work. He worries deeply about the loss of spirituality and connection to something deeper than the material world.
And, most important of all, rearing a child is, as the self-help books emphasize, a ‘great and responsible assignment’– Normal Chaos Of Love
it has to be a job, a profession: that is to say, the deployment of institituionally certified skills according to approved proceduresAndre Gorz (on what is seen as “work”)
I wanted to do something useful with my life; work that had a positive effect on other people or, at the very least, wasn’t hurting anyone. But the way this economy works, if you spend your working life caring for others, you’ll end up so underpaid and so deeply in debt you won’t be able to care for your own family.From ‘Bullshit Jobs’ by David Graeber
People: Andrew Taggart, Social Activists,
This has emerged in the last 100 years and is loosely tied together by a group of “post-work” thinkers and philosophers. The fundamental argument is not against work per se, but against the current structure of paid employment as a way to enable people to live a life worth living.
Post-workers argue that paid employment is a terrible vessel for people to make a contribution to society. Philosopher John Danaher makes this point:
“It’s not that there is no place for determined effort, self-improvement and ambition in the well-lived life. Mastering skills, making a contribution to one’s society, and achieving goals are all key elements of the good life. They are also, as the philosophers Anca Gheaus and Lisa Herzog point out, things that are made possible through paid employment. But is the workplace really the best place to pursue such ends? I don’t think so.”
In addition to arguing against a wage-based society, there have been many “post-workers” who have predicted an inevitable end of employment due to technological progress. In the 1930’s John Maynard Keynes predicted that in 100 years we would solve our “economic problem” of meeting our basic needs as a society and we would have to shift our focus to what to do with all our free time. In the 1960’s a famous report to Lyndon Johnson highlighting the “triple revolution” of cyber, weapons and human rights stated boldly:
it is essential to recognize that the traditional link between jobs and income is being broken. The economy of abundance can sustain all citizens in comfort and economic security whether or not they engage in what is commonly reckoned as work
The predictions about the emergence of a post-work society continue despite the continued survival of the wage-based society. Why the disconnect? Perhaps we can look at humans themselves. In Keynes famous essay, he hedged a bit on his prediction of post-work, noting that humans have “insatiable desire.” With increased wealth, we have not seen less work, but more consumption.
In the 1930’s Bertrand Russell also reflected on the obsession with work:
immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached.
A post-work seems unlikely given the power of all of these different schools of work beliefs. Doesn’t it?
“real work is no longer what we do when at work”– Andre Gorz
Decades from now, perhaps the 20th century will strike future historians as an aberration, with its religious devotion to overwork in a time of prosperity, its attenuations of family in service to job opportunity, its conflation of income with self-worth. The post-work society I’ve described holds a warped mirror up to today’s economy, but in many ways it reflects the forgotten norms of the mid-19th century—the artisan middle class, the primacy of local communities, and the unfamiliarity with widespread joblessness.“A World Without Work” by Derek Thompson
Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.– John Maynard Keynes
People: Andre Gorz, John Danaher, John Maynard Keynes