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What is Work?

I often say that having a bad day is a choice.  Well, today we’re having rain/sleet/show/dust/thunder and I feel like having a bad day.  So please enjoy this piece from 11 years ago, which I was first pondering the nature of “work.”

A century ago, work was hard and physical. People mostly worked in either factories or fields and produced something tangible at the end of the day or season. Work was all about manipulating the real world and making things.

What a “job” used to mean for many.

The kids who grew up in this world rarely had more than an eighth grade education. What they needed to know was learned through apprenticeship and effort. These particular skills would serve them better than a college education when it came time to fight and win World War II and set up what I call “The American Empire”. In all of their experience, both in work and the world, what they did was physically change the world around them from one form into another.

A few generations on, our view of work is very different. Very few people make things in the USofA, and even few still grow the food we need. Most people find themselves working in a fluorescent world that is climate controlled and constrained entirely by social conventions. The end product is not something you can hold in your hand and easily evaluate with your basic senses.

These jobs require complex training that may include a college degree. They require very specific skills which are defined socially, by market forces, rather than the ability to manipulate specific materials. From this, we get the most over-used word of our time, Technology, which in Greek means “The study of skill”. In the original usage it meant an attempt to understand the various crafts that were present in the ancient world so that they might be used for a more elaborate purpose; today the word refers more to the machines that have allowed a variety of arcane skills to be identified.

Many people have written about how we work these days. Generally, it is from the perspective of the machines that make up this Technology and what they have made possible. From a human perspective, however, the skills that we have defined which did not exist a few generations ago are simply reflections of a world that has moved from being physical to one that is virtual. The machines allow us to define work in any way that we want, and the limits on what we can do are purely social.

I don’t find all the machines all that interesting for the simple reason that the humans who run them have yet to even make a good attempts at figuring out what this “work” thing means when the product is not immediately accessible to the senses that got us out of the trees and standing up in the grasslands. People work 40 hours a week, but no one can say why that’s the right way to do it. In the USofA, we tie health care and other bennies to the production of whatever we make, meaning that flexibility as a contractor can be a death sentence. Vacation time is limited, running about 1/3 other industrialized nations who we “compete” with.

Our definition of work has moved from being physical to being entirely social. We can make work whatever it is we want it to be. What we’ve chosen to make is a farce where people generally appear to be working harder than they are with longer hours than they need to in the interest of appearing “productive”. Without a physical measure of productivity, what’s left is measuring the inputs like time in the office and other things that make us look bizzy. When you think how unlimited the possibilities are in a socially defined work world, that it’s been done so narrowly says quite a lot about the USofA.

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