Work and Jobs

In feedback from my last post about anthropomorphism I was struck that two commenters pointed out a connection to the kinds of jobs and livelihoods that the current system makes available, and more specifically how these modern jobs are miserable, monotonous, and demeaning

This connection is new to me, so I was intrigued. How are the more anthropomorphic forms of God related to the jobs and livelihoods that we find ourselves pursuing? On the one hand, itʻs not too hard to see how a monotheistic, hierarchical spiritual structure is mirrored in our top-down, centralized power structure.

But how do anthropomorphic gods lead to miserable jobs? Is it because we make ourselves deeply and insidiously unhappy when the result of our labors is to isolate humanity from the rest of life? Is it because we cannot be happy serving a mechanical, extractive system which is so clearly life-destroying? Is it because we know in our bones that we are not working for the good of a beloved community or even for ourselves but instead for a demented social order?

Reading Nate Hagen and D.J. Whiteʻs essay “GDP, Jobs, and Fossil Largesse” helped to make the connection become a little clearer to me. In their readable and lively essay Hagan and White make a distinction between work and jobs. Work is something that started with life itself – chasing down food, finding a comfortable nook to sleep in, etc. Jobs are specific to humans.

Work is something we share with ants and amoeba. Work is what you do, either as an individual or as a society, to stay alive and thrive. Jobs, on the other hand, are a much more recent phenomenon. Jobs are a way of distributing wealth and power. Jobs reflect and uphold a social order. “These days in this culture, a “good job” is defined by how much it pays, not by what it accomplishes,” Hagen and White point out.

And when we come to define everything by the mono-crop of money; when we have reduced the meaning of everything to a single measure, to a reductive economic monotheism, then how surprising is it that the jobs that serve that system are monotonous and make us miserable?

Is there a solution? Nothing easy of course. But  being aware of the distinction between work and “jobs” is important.  Too often we confuse one for the other, both at the small scale of thinking about the work we do, and at the larger scale of thinking about the systems we live within.

5 Replies to “Work and Jobs”

  1. you may remember this:
    “Keith remembered these fields long ago when a drought had been followed by constant rain, and the wheat – they had planted mostly wheat in those days – wasn’t ready for harvesting until late July. A bright summer moon had coincided with a dry spell, with a forecast for more rain, and the farmers and their families had harvested until the
    moon set, about 3 AM. The following day was a Sunday, and half the kids were absent from Sunday school, and the ones who showed up
    slept… Keith still recalled this shared experience, the communal effort to pull sustenance out of the land, and he felt sorry for urban and suburban kids growing up without a clue as to the relationship
    between wheatfields and hamburger buns, between corn and cornflakes.

    In fact, Keith thought, the further the nation traveled from its agrarian and small-town roots, the less it understood the cycles of nature, the relationship between the land and the people, the law of cause and effect, and ultimately, he reflected, the less we understood about our essential selves.”

    from Spencerville (p 19) Nelson DeMille

  2. Economic monotheism… mono-crop of money… apt expressions!

    For me, they both link back to the foundational concept of property: ring-fencing off a chunk of the commonwealth in a way that monopolizes resources and dictates people’s roles in relation to those resources.

    It appears we don’t do a “job” unless there’s money involved. Even, er, Steve Jobs, marketing genius or whatever. He passionately and eloquently advocated not stopping until you find the work “you love to do”, and he, lucky fellow, evidently did find it … but if he hadn’t have been getting paid, in money and glory, would it really have been worth all those years of being an intolerant bad-tempered *hole in the workplace year after year?

    The reality is, if we’re not getting paid then we don’t do the job. Which means most of us wage hounds are continually doing something we wouldn’t actually choose to do. (We need or want the mono-crop and what it buys, but that’s different.) Pushing against deep and powerful instincts, day after day, year after year. That can’t be good.

  3. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word ‘drudge’ means “to perform menial or servile tasks, to work hard or slavishly, to toil at laborious and distasteful work”. It was first used in 1548. Those who were at the bottom of the social hierarchy were called drudges. I can see how social inequality would make people chaff against menial, low reward work when they see a rich person live so much better for so little effort. An economic system that allows a few to garnish the profit from others labor is a system in which the laborers will feel abused and come to hate their work.

    Going back further in history I think the development of agriculture (irrigation and large scale grain fields) marked a period in human history when humans first became farm laborers, parts of a machine, a labor force with less freedom to work as they chose. This was a time when the rise of the city states, warlords/kings and their minions held power over the people who toiled in the fields. It is easy to imagine that people who worked the fields were less happy with their life after large scale agriculture replaced small scale animal husbandry, hunting, fishing, and growing small plots of food plants.

    Perhaps the first use of humans as machines was the use of slaves to build large structures such as the pyramids. I wonder if the Easter Island people all shared in the labor of setting up the Moai and if this was an act of social/religious significance shared by the community or work done by slaves? Perhaps when humans domesticated animals for food and then for labor it created a mindset that we were better than animals. It isn’t difficult to see how humans who thought this way could extend that mindset towards other ‘lessor’ humans and begun using them for slave labor.

    When I think of work vs jobs I think most people can accept doing most tasks as long as they see the necessity of it and know that everyone else must also perform the same. It’s fair work. This was what Mahatma Gandhi tried to teach his followers through the example of his own efforts to spin the thread and weave the simple cloth needed to clothe them. He stressed the necessity of simple work and simple living, that everyone must perform the labor necessary for living. Even something as mundane as household chores are tolerable as long as everyone pitches in. When the job falls on one person alone it begins to feel like drudgery.

    But I can also see in my own life how easy it is to procrastinate doing things such as school work, paying bills, balancing checking accounts, or taking out the garbage. Chores I tend to enjoy less than cooking or gardening. Procrastination might even be human nature! As I face a pile of dirty dishes in the sink I think of the old saying “Hard work has its own rewards.” It speaks to a mindset that encourages me to apply my effort even when I don’t look forward to the task but know that I will feel better when it’s completed.

  4. I’ll need some more pondering on this one before I can get to a place where I’ll stop conflating jobs with work. And there are lots of things in Hagen and White’s essay that cause me to recoil. The general thrust – that we would do well to search out something other than GDP for a scorecard works well for me. But there are many angles in their argument that I find either unnecessary or down right wrongheaded. Still, I am grateful Michelle chose to point out their work, and it appears there is a major piece (1,000 pages!) still to come, so perhaps the whole effort will be better prepared.

    But back to the semantics around work and jobs – Michelle puts the dichotomy thus:

    Work is something that started with life itself – chasing down food, finding a comfortable nook to sleep in, etc. Jobs are specific to humans.

    And that starts off fine for me – even at a biochemical level we talk about ATP -> ADP as a chemical reaction used to accomplish biochemical ‘work’. Jobs, for me, are merely more specialized bits and pieces of the overall work we do to live our lives. Many jobs may seem as more esoteric attempts at feathering the nest… how does a giant flat screen TV put more food on the table or protect one from the elements?? But if viewed as one part of a communication channel, say delivering a warning that a cyclone, hurricane, tornado, volcanic eruption, or wildfire approaches… then it serves to help keep one safe from harm. Loud vocalizations between members of a orangutan tribe would serve the same function. Even beavers use their flat tails to slap the water surface as a means to warn others of a predator. So the TV might be seen as a super fancy early warning system – but not necessarily something that is created by a ‘job’ as opposed to ‘work’.

    And so far as allocating different types of work among various individuals – specialization occurs among other members of the animal kingdom too. A bee hive serves as a great example here. Various worker bees serve rolls to search out food sources and communicate where they are, others build out hive structure, still others operate as nurses to feed and nurture the brood, and still others defend the hive like so many military soldiers. So having a hierarchical system where specific tasks are delegated to some and not to others is not a uniquely human activity either.

    Perhaps the human element might be the judging of some tasks are more or less enjoyable and the subsequent drudgery of performing these tasks and the allocation of workers to perform them as a status issue. Is status a uniquely human phenomenon? For the bee story we define the mother of the hive as the queen. But this is our projection of what is going on. We lay out the status structure as we observe the hive. Perhaps the bees care not for a semantics of status – even the queen will be deposed once she is not doing her work up to snuff.

  5. Richard, Chris, Jody, Clem, thank you for these very thoughtful comments. Clearly there is a lot to think about in this area. And once you get beyond the broad brush-stroke of the distinction, things get complicated, and nothing is black and white.
    I would say that work and jobs generally overlap at least a little bit but that some jobs involve a higher percentage of work than others. And that there is very little correlation between the value of the work and the money earned. This has been true for a very long time. For instance, traditional ʻwomenʻs workʻ – e.g. cleaning, cooking, child and elder care, doing the damn dishes again – is very high in work content (unremunerated except maybe in love and satisfaction in carving out a small realm of order and nurturance). Teachers, small farmers, laborers of all kinds do a whole lot of work for little pay in money. Even an honest politician could be said to do a lot of work for little pay. (Not sure how many of them there are out there but I do believe some still exist.) And then you have those on the other end of the spectrum where there is work involved but not such a high percentage. Where maybe we could muddle along without that sort of thing, such as those super expensive lawyers that work at a certain multinational seed company.
    And then you have to look at the whole system and what the goal is in that system. For my job, cattle ranching: if you are a carnivore that appreciates free-range beef it might look like a lot of old-fashioned work happening, but from the perspective of a vegan Iʻm doing something completely useless.

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