Whenever I go and meet my daughter to walk home with her after school, I invariably see on the roads near the school, lines of cars—sometimes parked illegally, waiting for their adolescent charges (who will probably never be as fit in their lives as they are now) to ferry them home. If the weather is a bit chilly, they will have their engines idling to power the car’s heater. Nearly all the drivers will be staring glassy-eyed at their smart phones and performing that disconcerting, zombie-like flicking of their fingers over the illuminated screen. I can also be fairly certain that 90% of them will not drive further than one mile before they reach their home destinations. It is scenes like this that tell me ‘hard work’ is not the default setting for human beings.
Human beings want things easy, I know—I am one. We only work when we have to. Perhaps this is because the concept of ‘work’ itself only came into existence a few thousand years ago.
For hundreds of thousands of years, work didn’t exist at all – anywhere. Humans, along with other wildlife, existed in a state of now – whatever they did was the exact thing that they needed to be doing at that exact time. Hunter-gatherers are known to be some of the fittest humans on the planet. Their lifestyle of constant varied movements is what the human body is designed for and keeps it in peak physical and mental condition. No gym is needed – hunting is an all-over workout and even digging up roots, gathering fruits and insects becomes a family outing, with opportunities for play and learning as well as physical exercise.
As hunter-gatherers, we followed the rhythms of nature. Recent evidence suggests that we spent just over two hours a day finding food, the rest of the time was spent lazing in the sun and socializes within the group. The system we evolved over hundreds of thousands of years benefited the individual members.
But when humans migrated to territories that didn’t suit their evolutionary design, something strange happened: they had to plan well in advance for future hardship. In evolutionary terms, survival gave rise to work.
Thus, when it became known that some part of the year would become cold, warm coverings for our bodies had to be fashioned before the cold arrived. This meant skins would have to be acquired, prepared and treated in some way. Food would also become scarce in the cold months so processed reserves would have to be organized and stored. This is where the idea of work was born—I will define it as ‘being obliged to do something that is an imposition on what you would prefer to be doing at that instant’. However, our connection with the purpose of the work was still unbroken – we knew that what we were obliged to do would repay us when it got cold and when food became scarce. The work therefore, was an investment for the future to prevent hardship. Its purpose was apparent to all and crucial for our survival – if you didn’t do this work, you would suffer in the near future. And payback of the investment was never more than twelve months away.
Then between twelve and ten thousand years ago, agriculture was developed and all our subsequent problems associated with civilization began.
The point of agriculture is that it produces a surplus, which allows for food reserves in lean times. It also produces bumper harvests in some years that allow for population expansions and which, ultimately, gives rise to civilizations. This in turn leads to specializations within civilizations which leads to an administrative class (it’s no surprise that writing was developed at this time specifically to keep records of harvests, taxes, debts, trades etc), and the emergence of a standing army that maintained order and provided huge status for a small elite.
Agriculture on a large scale requires planning and timing: the harvest has to be collected at a particular time otherwise it would be lost. This means labourers need to be on the field at a time that suited the crop and not the labourer: work was now born on an industrial scale and the individual human served the system rather than the other way around. The system dictated the lifestyle.
As civilizations grew and occupations became more specialized, the work could become harder as its purpose moved away from personal survival or even tribe survival. Probably the hardest work that anyone could endure is slavery. However, slavery is the main motor of civilization and empires depend on it.
As a slave, you have no choices left (other than death) and the tasks assigned to you would often be backbreaking, dangerous and dirty (which is why slaves are needed to do the work). Our term of ‘wage-slave’ is no accident as it recognizes the imprisonment of the worker.
Over time the specialization of the work became more refined until huge teams of people were required to work in their own way for the overall benefit of the system – quarrying, manufacture of building materials, cloth production, transportation, etc. Some lucky artisans could specialize in an activity that they had a particular interest in – pottery or jewelry for example. Here, work was made anodyne because the worker wanted to do the activity; they chose to spend long hours doing the activity but could stop when they wanted to.
A distinction should be made between those that have a choice of doing an activity and those that don’t. Often, highly creative people will spend many hours focusing on a musical composition, mathematical equation, sculpture etc. They often claim that they are a vessel through which the creativity pours, they are driven by their need to express their talent but realistically, they can choose to break off from the activity whenever they wish; this criterion makes the activity ‘play’ instead of work; these people choose to ‘play hard’ instead of being forced to work hard.
After the European industrial revolution, everything changed beyond recognition. Everything now worked for the benefit of capital – an abstract concept even more powerful than religion. Its legacy is most evident in developing countries, notably China. Reports indicate that Chinese factory workers at Foxconn (just one of the thousands of such factories in China) can be sat at a bench under artificial light, for twelve hours a day, doing the same repetitive task with no intellectual connection between the activity and the end product. Their reward is a wage. Without it they won’t be able to eat or have a place to stay. The worker is required to do this limited activity for six or seven days a week whether they feel like it or not. This is seriously hard work that the human body is not designed for (employees sometimes die at their workstation from the stress) and the only people who would choose to do this kind of work are people who have a basic choice of ‘work or starve’. Hard Work therefore can be represented by a sliding scale: the harder the work is, the more ‘inhuman’ it is.
But what about entrepreneurs who choose to work hard on their business?
The business owner chooses to spend so much time on their business therefore it is playing hard, not working hard. However, it becomes more complicated when the reasons behind the commitment are analysed.
Often, an entrepreneur (or any ambitious person) will sacrifice their personal relationships to make their business a success – this is in fact, seen as one of the consequences of playing hard.
But why would someone willingly pass up on the things in life that are supposed to make life worthwhile in the first place to make a successful business? The answer lies in the investment principle.
In the same way we prepared for the cold season, we are told to work for our retirement. However, the payback could be fifty years away – too long in human terms to make any real connection between the activity and the supposed benefit. And it’s not as if we are left to die when we retire, there has to be another reason for the sacrifice. And so there is—money.
Money is the motor that powers the economy. It is also shorthand for all the things we deem worthwhile in life, except in today’s system we are supposed to buy these at a later date rather than experience them in the now.
As soon as we stopped being self-sufficient and started working for others in exchange for money, hard work was invented.
And the truth is, the people who work the hardest in society are invariably the poor, and look where hard work gets them—nowhere. The system doesn’t allow it.
Now, hard work is a necessary prerequisite for a consumerist society. Without the factories churning out useless plastic toys and the like, we couldn’t sustain the current level of prosperity. But we have also lost the sense of what is valuable and what is not; the consumerist system values hard work because a few of its members enjoy spectacular wealth whereas the majority of its members lose their health and well being for very little in return.
The consumerist system makes sure that we appreciate what hard work is so that when we are granted any leisure time we spend it almost exclusively on ‘retail therapy’. The long hours of work are a deliberate policy of the system to exaggerate the need for spending. The human desire for sociability is harnessed and channeled into manufactured devices and gadgets. More technology merely isolates people within their particular bubbles but through advertising they are made to think that consuming material goods will increase their social wellbeing. The smart phone, of course, is just another gateway to access more consumables. This is the dystopian future science fiction always warned us about – a debasing of real human contact through an increased dependence on ersatz connections.
Futurologists always imagined that as society developed and prospered we would have increasing leisure time. This hasn’t happened. Why? Because our prosperity is dependent on hard work. We don’t have an alternative system to hard work. The system has become so perverted that the very thing that is most alien to us is being promoted as the most desirable of traits. Any exhortation to ‘work hard’ is a call to a complex socioeconomic concept that has been constructed for the benefit of the system and not the people who work in it. It’s like promoting disease – it’s unnatural and we should re-evaluate our attitude towards it.
Bronnie Ware, a nurse working in palliative care, kept a record of the biggest regrets her patients expressed before they died. The number one regret of the dying people was in not having the courage to follow the life they really wanted but instead doing what people expected of them. They worked hard for the wrong reason.
Their second regret? They wished they hadn’t worked so hard.