This is a heavier blog than my normal ones, but a question has surfaced from recent conversations that I want to share.
We create our own reality, so I find it productive to subject things that we take for granted and expose them to some slow looking to see what they are really made of, and how the reality they represent stand up to scrutiny.
Everything we take for granted started as an idea, and take a roundabout route to accepted truth.
Ideas start as a mixture of half-complete notions, images, and associations that coalesce through an insight into being. As soon as they move from the conceptual to the concrete, they become part of the furniture and eventually fade into obscurity as we take them for granted.
Money is one such example. All our currencies, from the Dollar to Bltcoin, are fiat currency. Based on trust, they exist only because we believe they exist and represent our trust in the future worth of the issuing authority. It’s an interesting thought in times of uncertainty.
To the question I want to air.
Work is another such idea. It is taken in common usage to be virtuous, and jobs as the cure-all to economic woes, yet the etymology of all the words for “work” in European languages suggests work as coercion.
Work is taken as the destiny of those without wealth, and as Thomas Picketty points out, return on wealth outstrips return on labour, so it presents a serious long term issue. The industrial era has given us a whole new category of the “temporarily wealthy” – those in the middle, with good incomes, and enough “net present value” to secure the debt that gives the illusion of wealth, but at a price of constant servitude to those who provide it.
If we are fortunate enough to live to an average age, we spend around 25% of that preparing for the world of work. Most of us spend that time learning within a framework and paradigm based on supporting that nature of work.
We then spend the next 60% or so of our lives at work, during which time at least half of our attention focused on it. The figures are clearly approximate but suggest that more than half our waking lives are spent preparing for and doing “work”. That makes it a pretty serious undertaking – is that really what we are for?
There are those very few who not need to work, and more than that whose work enhances the quality of life for them and those around them; the people I think of as modern artisans. Then there are more than that again who work at whatever they need to in order to survive, then an even more significant number of those who do not have access to work of any sort and struggle to survive. As we come to the end of an era dominated by a particular notion of work, I think it does raise a broader question.
As we reach the end of the industrial era, with all that it has brought us and cost us, what do we want our future relationship with work to be?
We Homo Sapiens Sapiens have been around for between 90 and 160 thousand years, a mere 0.00004% of the planet’s life. We are the most creative beings here, with enormous potential to use that creativity to build or destroy, and the direction we are currently heading in is not encouraging.
The question is about far more than debating whether or not we work from home or an office, at a time when technology is capable of replacing many jobs that take place in those offices, and when the nature of the work we do is contributing to changes to our environment that could put our brief presence here to an end.
We do not need to end work, but it is so ingrained in what we do that the debate needs to be about the nature of that work, and it needs to be a calm, considered, everyday topic of conversation, involving all of us, and we need to start now.
The industrial revolution started in conversations in small groups in the coffee shops of London. This conversation has the opportunity to start online. It is something we can turn from idea to currency, one small conversation at a time.
My farmer friends tell me the best time to plant a tree was twenty-five years ago. The next best time is now, and if planting a small tree is all I can do, then I will.