Work; we all have to do it – with the exception of an apparently fortunate few who exist on the foundations of hereditary wealth. These people still survive and enjoy themselves upon the fact that someone has worked in the past in order to provide the means not only for themselves, but also for future generations. This kind of wealth is rare, when we consider the proportion of people the world over who have had the bare minimum for survival over the course of thousands of years, generation to generation.
Who is the more fortunate? The obvious response would be that the Porsche driving, caviar scoffing ‘gentry’ clearly have the better lot. They certainly do not worry about where there next meal is coming from, unless you count concerns over whether or not the wife made a reservation for that restaurant the boys in the office were raving about. I suspect though, that the human mind has the capacity for a great deal of worry, regardless of its situation in the world and its societies. Hedge fund managers don’t strike me as the most content breed around.
Nomadic communities still exist in the world today, albeit in rarefied cases. They are arguably the most extreme example of hand to mouth living. Work, in those communities means something very different to what we understand by the word in the west. This is reflected in the vast cultural differences that can’t be missed. It may be however, that those cultural differences are the reason that such different practices surrounding work have become manifest. Cause and effect however, is never simple or distinct when considering such matters.
The fruits of a nomads labour are unlikely to take the form of cash. They bypass fiscal currency and go straight to sustenance. The hedge fund manager would by no means stand for such an arrangement. Imagine spending forty plus hours a week in an office and at the end of the month being presented with food, water, shelter, clothing and social support. It’s not possible. Our societies in the west have developed in such a way that we distinguish our livelihood from our wealth.
The nomads work so that they may see the product of that work and its positive affect upon the community. The return is direct and the material wealth is attained by the work itself as opposed to the money generated by the work. Who is to say which way is better or worse? A member of either community discussed would surely argue in favour of their own way of life. I do not know enough about the life of a nomad to develop this point too much further but I very much doubt that they are as unhappy as many of us suppose they might be in their ‘poverty’.
That leads me on to the idea of what exactly drives us to work. The answer seems simple again; money. We all want, or rather need money. Things are set up in such a way that we can’t do without it. There are few legal ways of attaining money that do not fall somewhere under the vast umbrella of work. It is therefore par for the course that once we are old enough, we work; like it or not. For most people, work is not a pleasant experience. If it were enjoyable, there would be very little need for someone to pay us to do it.
Of course there are many for whom their work is their passion. For these people, money is usually not so much of a problem as those who grind away dejectedly for it. The dejected may work passionately on something outside of their contracted hours which brings no money. Often the idea here is that the work which is driven by passion may one day be able to generate enough money to replace the job that they would rather not be doing. We revere in some ways those who make this a reality although it can be hard to repress jealousy for those in a more favourable position than ourselves, even though they may have worked a great deal harder than us to get there.
As I mentioned before, not everyone is in a privileged position as a result of their own work. The typical regard of these people from the workforce seems to be something of hatred, jealousy and disrespect. It’s understandable on one level and yet irrational on another. How one person’s lack of a particular action can have such a profound effect on the mental stability of another person is something quite incredible.
In my own experience, work almost seems to be a way of justifying your existence. This makes perfect sense from the perspective of self-sufficiency and not taking so much from others as to cause them unnecessary burden. The mega-rich and early-retired are also subject to judgement, only they have no need to put a strain on the resources of others. Something in the human psyche seems to be unable to accept that another should be justifiably lazy when ‘I’ has to work. There may very well be an evolutionary explanation for this.
Research suggests that altruism is a trait shared by a number of other primate species and that it has been passed down from our ancestors over the course of our own evolution. One theory essentially suggests that our ancestors who were cooperative and useful within their communities were in turn cared for in a state of mutual reciprocity by other altruistic members of the community. Our ancestors who possessed these traits got along well and subsequently passed on their genes, generating ever more cooperative members of society, while the lazy members of the community fell by the wayside and for whatever reason, did not have the opportunity to pass on their lazy genes.
Natural selection is supposedly an ever continuous process. It is clearly not therefore perfected. There are a great number of lazy and uncooperative people in the world today who will continue to pass on this trait. There is also a great deal of contempt for these people from those who choose to cooperate with society’s blueprint, which dictates the need to work in spite of the desire not to.
I do not slate those with a lack of motivation. I can relate to the desire not cooperate with a system which suggests that I should spend the vast majority of my time doing what I do not want to do. By spending so much time in this way I have in the past picked up some fairly negative ideas about life. I would wake up in the morning furious about the misery that awaited me, and I go to sleep depressed about the misery that I had endured. The problem no doubt lay with me and not the world I live in but I know for a fact that this hopeless outlook is shared by many.
To enjoy ones job (the work which sustains us), must feel like the greatest blessing. Do you ever come across people who appear to have life under their thumb? These are generally the people who spend their time doing the things that they want to do. To get paid for these things means that they must be of value to someone. I suppose the point there is that we should spend our time passionately working on something of value.
How do we define value? One conception of a things worth is whatever someone will pay for it. That means then, that some people value their time at five pounds-fifty an hour. They exchange their lives for this sum, to go on living, so that they may sell their time for a small sum again and again. Before it begins to sound overly depressing, it’s worth mentioning that the time we are allowed for our own endeavours can be made all the more sweet by how limited it has become through the need for money.
Money is obviously not the only thing of value. In fact, money does not inherently hold any value. It’s the concept behind its worth that leads people to believe the paper in their pocket or the number on their bank statement means anything. It only means something because we have all collectively agreed that it does, for convenience sake. Even the richest people fret over their life’s meaning, the money does very little to help that except in the way of temporarily masking the uncomfortable existential curiosities that bubble to the surface of our consciousness from time to time.
There was an article written not so long ago which accumulated from hospice staff, what peoples top regrets were on their death bed. There was no mention of working harder or making more money. In fact, people regretted having devoted excessive amounts of time to the now understandably meaning-limited pursuit of money over their families. The important things all lay outside of the world of work. In light of this, it really is uncomfortable to consider that things are structured in such a way that we simply do not have the means to devote sufficient time to ‘the important things’.
Cultures with less money often seem happier than those with excessive wealth. That is a huge generalisation I know, but one I believe to be true – True or not, my point is that the old proverb ‘money can’t buy happiness’ rings true. How much emphasis then, should we place upon salary when choosing a career? Surely the principle factor should be lifestyle. One study has shown that perceived life satisfaction increases alongside salary up until around seventy thousand pounds per year and then plateaus as the salary rises. Interestingly, there are endless examples of people who compulsively hoard money far beyond the point of ‘optimum income’.
Making far more money than you need strikes me as a behaviour which stems from the belief that money will eventually buy happiness, even if the process is largely a stressful and unhappy one. In Japan, Karoshi a word used to define ‘death by overworking’. It is so common that they had to come up for a word for it. Surely when things like this happen it is symptomatic of a problem regarding societies approach to something, in this instance work. Granted, it was the individuals, who worked themselves to death, but you cannot disentangle a thing from its context and that includes a person and their surroundings.
In the corporate world, the individual is a pawn, the welfare of which can be sacrificed for the good of the company. Every decision made at the top is ultimately for the betterment of the company and the one thing that betters a company best is profit. The individuals within a company work hard to generate cash, a slice of which they can take for their efforts but most of which goes to ‘the company’. Money goes round and round from company to company every day. Some people do exceptionally well from this arrangement, after all they have devoted their lives to serving the company and so deserve to be rewarded. Those at the bottom, who slave away for very little, are kept in the system by the corporate promise that this is only the first rung of the ladder. Stay on for long enough, work hard enough, sacrifice greatly and you too could be as well off as those above you are now.
The model clearly works, people everywhere abide to it and in doing so become extremely rich. Then they reach around seventy-thousand pounds per year, where science suggests they should be happiest and, what else is there to do but push on and see how far this can be taken. How much money can I earn? That’s an interesting question made all the more interesting by those flashy examples out there that have more than most people can even dream of. When you’ve dedicated absolutely everything to this corporate game why would you stop? When you dedicate all of your time to something it becomes all you know, and people stick with what they know (generally). So they stick with the company, which is good for the company, because they are good at making money, which is good, others will look up to them and want to be just like them, all they need to do is climb the ladder…
At this moment in time I find myself on the bottom rung of a similar ladder which I am slowly and reluctantly climbing. Why? I need the money. Something about the whole thing seems a little wrong, a little soulless and empty, but it needs to be done and I wouldn’t be getting paid if it was enjoyable right?
There are of course people who find a great deal of meaning in making money. It gives them a sense of purpose, and the process brings them happiness. That’s a fortunate thing, perhaps even more fortunate for their offspring who have a good chance of being provided for in exchange for very minimal effort. Or it may be that the sons and daughters of such people will inherit the ambition to accumulate material wealth in the same way that their parents did and that they will, in spite of the fact that they have more than enough already, multiply the wealth given to them indefinitely.
Some will be born with nothing and die with nothing, still others will be born into poverty and work their way to riches. In the west, this is made possible by a system known as capitalism, and although it does a very good job of keeping the rich, rich and the poor, poor, its basic promise is that with enough hard work, anything is possible for anyone regardless of background. The only requirements are sincere dedication and a true sense of ambition…