How many of us like what we do for wages? Leaving aside arenas of obvious brute coercion and slavery — which I think we can all agree ought to have ended long ago and should not have been acceptable to a thinking species to begin with — how much wage work do we do willingly? How many of us go off to work gladly for a majority of our work days? Once there, how many of us want to stay there even one minute longer than absolutely required? Even forgoing the reward of overtime wages to get out the door! Who among us would prefer to spend more time at work, and how many would tip the scales of work-life balance to a near vertical incline pointed toward home if given any choice whatsoever in the matter? Shouldn’t a general aversion to something be a sign that perhaps we ought not to be doing it? Why do we not question this more as a society? And why do we give stupid rote answers when whenever anyone dares to raise the questions?
For example, laziness. Really? I don’t for a minute believe that our dislike of wage jobs can be ascribed to laziness. This is not an aversion to work. To the contrary, most of us hate slack time. We are easily bored, fretful even, when we are at our leisure. Most people do not know how to be still. We find it a challenge to do nothing. We have to be trained to meditate, after all. We are increasingly enthralled by our screens, it is true, but we still tend to prefer doing real things, making real things, being actively engaged through our bodies and minds.
This aversion to wage work is not a reluctance to be busily engaged in tasks, not even tasks that are menial, difficult, and exacting. Most humans spend hours happily doing things just as demanding as wage work on our bodies and our minds. In fact, most of us demand more labor from ourselves in the pursuit of pleasure than in the pursuit of wages. We willingly give our time to changing diapers, pulling weeds, washing dishes, house-training our dogs. When we have those leisure hours, we tend to fill them with what is legitimately work, weaving and building and crafting things of art and beauty and utility. We throw ourselves so deeply into these tasks that we love that we do not even notice the time spent doing them. We want to do this unpaid work, and we resent wage work primarily because it takes us away from the work that we want to be doing, not because we’d rather be doing nothing. We don’t like doing nothing. We like to work. But we like to work to our own benefit.
We resent our jobs for getting in the way of doing work for ourselves, for taking time away from our real working lives, for taking us away from our homes. Because home is where we do all the real work. All the work that actually needs to be done. All the work that supports our existence. All the work that is integral to the body. All the work that makes up a life. In our present system of wage work, we do very little that needs to be done at work while we pay others to do the labor that our bodies need. Doesn’t anyone else find this absurd? Wouldn’t we probably do a better job taking care of ourselves rather than paying someone else to do that for us so that we can spend time doing wage work? Wage work which often involves taking care of someone else’s needs, almost always those who make higher wages than whoever is doing the work. Which should be an indication of both why we dislike wage work and why we continue to do it nonetheless.
This deep dissatisfaction with our wage jobs is not laziness. It is named laziness in order to compel us through opprobrium to do what others want us to do — that is, create profits for them. Those who would wrench these hours of labor from us have created a culture that enforces work, not through the enticement of earned wages, as it is advertised, but through the need to avoid humiliation. We spend a great deal of emotional and intellectual energy normalizing wage work done for others and vilifying unpaid labor done for ourselves, and we have thoroughly internalized the system of stigma that keeps us chained to and defined by our jobs. From cute-but-nasty quips — “That’s why they call it work and pay you to do it” — to the intense shaming of those who are less able to bully their bodies into doing the jobs that are open to them, wage work is buttressed with violent disrespect. To the point that we dare not go against this system. Indeed, most of us find gratification in giving our lives to this insanity, working our days away and denying our own needs. My generation in particular, GenX, has made a fetish of our ability to grimly endure abusively long wage work hours. To be sure, we grumble about our grueling schedules and lack of a life beyond employment, but we grouse with a smug pride. Pride in our ability to keep doing what we don’t want to be doing, day in and day out. And we are vicious in our condemnation of those who are beginning to question the rationality of this work system.
But should not the magnitude and pervasiveness of shaming be an indication of our deep discomfort with this idea? Is not shaming the victim how humans generally try to cover up the shame we feel in doing what we know is wrong? So why do we acquiesce? For the reward of wages? Given the average bank account, I suspect not. My guess is that we go along with the program not because this system rewards its supporters, but rather merely because we are old and this is what we have always done. We have spent our lives supporting this system. We know it is wrong. We know it is backwards. But it is all we have known. And there is something monumentally unfair about having the next generation point out the flaws in this thing to which we have sacrificed our lives. In my darker moments, I think we defend wage work purely to ensure that others meet the same fate.
David Graeber made us all aware that there are Bullshit Jobs, that there is much busywork that simply should not be done because it is a waste. It is time wasted, resources wasted, lives wasted, all for no measurable good, often for no measurable result at all. Many of his bullshit case study subjects were required to sit at a desk in an office building and pretend to be doing something, anything, with the equipment and space allotted to them. (It is a mark of how much humans loathe idleness that most of these people invented elaborate routines to fill their empty days…) Graeber approached the issue by asking what subset of wage work was needless, wasteful, and therefore harmful. But I think it’s time to ask the inverse question: what subset of wage work is not harmful? What, if anything, should we preserve out of this mess? Is there anything about this system of doing work that is not actively damaging this planet? At best, we should admit that it is not meeting our needs. We are wasting our lives on wage work while the work that needs to be done to support our bodies is very often shunted aside. We go to our wage jobs and leave all the real work undone at home. And there are no bullshit jobs in the home.
But it’s worse than merely a system that leads to unfulfilled humans. Because the harm that is done is planetary. This waste, this excess, this busy-ness all for the sake of earning an income, it is consuming the Earth. Wage work is how we force ourselves to do all the things that churn material resources into profits for the few, not into that which is needed by anybody. Wage work is how we create waste, mountains of it. Most of what we do for wages should simply not be done. Full stop. And it needs to full stop if we’re going to survive on this planet. We would not be in this predicament of cascading biophysical disaster if we had not created this system of enforced labor. Without wage work, we would not do what did not need to be done, we would not make what did not need to be made. We would tend to our own needs, and our own needs — even for nearly eight billion of us — are small.
And too, the structure, the concept of wage work is also degrading. This is the arena in which we enact the worst of our impulses. Wage work is the principle stage for domination and hierarchy and toxic masculinity. Through these jobs we’d rather not be doing, which should not be done, we disgrace and we belittle each other. We lie and we cheat. We violently use each other — and then make a virtue of that abuse. Wage work compels us to compete, to arrange ourselves in hierarchies of capricious merit. We assign value to the wages, not to the work done, and then give honor to those who command the highest wages no matter what they have done to get to their position nor what value that position actually represents to themselves or to society. There are very few workplaces that are not degrading, not merely to the majority who are not in the corner offices, but to every human. Submission to this system lessens us because it celebrates and rewards our worst traits. Even the boss. Perhaps especially the boss. What manager or executive is ever content? What CEO sees all fellow human beings (never mind all the more-than-human beings) as beautiful equals? Who of any of us, enslaved to the values of wages, is ever happy? And why is that not a tragedy?
This is our only life. We get nothing else. Why is it not grievous sin to waste it in this way?
We workhorse GenXers are grimly enduring our lives away. And yet we are not accomplishing the work that is necessary to life. In many ways, we do not even know how. We have so thoroughly absorbed the indoctrination that we no longer know what real work actually is. We do not know the definition of work. We have unlearned the basic biological fact that work is what is necessary to support a living body. And it is only that. There is no value in tasks done that do not sustain life. There is no merit in wasting time doing things that waste life. It is all wrong. It is all wrong because we are not doing the real work of living, we are not tending to life. We’re not doing what needs to be done, not for our own bodies, not even to clean up the messes that wage work has made of the rest of this world.
And what do we work for anyway? What do our wage hours buy? We seem to have forgotten that the money we earn is not the object, that our wages are supposed to be exchanged for real world value. Money, by itself, is worthless. Maybe less than worthless because it prevents us from recognizing what is of value and it facilitates so much harm. If we did not have this baseless measure of worth, it would be difficult to convert so much of what is truly valuable into waste.
Take a simplified example: In this system of wage work, we do extraneous tasks to earn money to pay for a shirt. The extraneous tasks have nothing to do with our need for a shirt (often little to do with any need, except profit-mining). Nothing of what we are doing in wage work is necessary to acquiring or creating a shirt. We are simply stock-piling money that will then be exchanged for a shirt. If we worked directly toward acquiring a shirt, if we made the shirt, then there is less time and material wasted on all those money-earning tasks. The work and resources put into that shirt are exactly that shirt.
Moreover, if we make the shirt, then we set its value. It is worth whatever we get out of it in shirt-wearing. But if we buy the shirt with money, then its value is arbitrary, not tied to the actual work or resources in the shirt. When we put money in between our needs and their fulfillment, then value fluctuates. The value of a thing becomes not what goes into the making of that thing but what someone, somewhere is willing and able to pay in stock-piled money for that thing. Its value is fluid, random and more related to the status we assign piles of money than to the thing itself. We end up spending so much more money in exchange for things than we would spend in time and material directly obtaining those same things. But of course, this is how profit is extracted from the exchange…
There is no profit when there is no money — because in the real world, you do not get more out of an exchange than you put into it. In the real world, value is not arbitrary, but fixed, and not easily exchanged at all — because most needs are not interchangeable. If you want a shirt, you aren’t going to take a chicken. These things might be equally valuable to you, but they don’t meet the same need; and you aren’t going to waste time in dealing with a chicken when you want to put on a shirt. Furthermore, there isn’t some valuation of chicken that will ever meet your need for a shirt. The value of the shirt is only ever exactly that shirt. It is not worth anything in terms of chicken; it very likely is not worth anything to anybody else even in terms of shirts. Lacking money, we are much less apt to work indirectly toward meeting any need, and so there is little waste created in meeting that need. And the value of that need is only ever exactly the need met. Wages subvert all this precision by introducing chickens when we want shirts, among other ridiculous interchange.
If money and wages were simply tools to smooth trade, it seems like there are better ways to manage both. We could make a rigidly fixed monetary system that would be less open to hoarding and status flux. We could pay wages in actual goods or services that are needed by every body. But instead we have chosen exactly the opposite. We have money that is valued for itself, for the social standing it confers, but less and less for actual needs met. We have wages paid in this money, and so work is similarly rewarded not because it meets a need, but because it enhances social standing, mostly through generating money. We have the economic system that most efficiently turns time into money. Not for ourselves, but for those who pay our wages. And nobody needs money. We need… just about everything else, much of which is not interchangeable with money. (Or social standing.)
Might we do better?
In the last episode of the season, the Crazy Town guys expressed the hope that maybe we are seeing a shift — a “watershed moment” — in which we finally recognize and jettison bullshit jobs. But wouldn’t it be a more thorough-going job of it to eliminate wage work altogether? Particularly the shaming of those who earn little to do real work and the rewarding of those who command high wages for no work done. But wouldn’t this time of reevaluation be opportune for changing our ideas of what work is, for bringing our ideas of work more in line with biology? Biophysical work is done to serve the body directly. Work is not ancillary to profit-mining; its goal is not money. Work is done exactly and only to meet a need. This real-world definition of work does not allow for waste, not of material resources, not of effort, not of time.
It also does not allow for profits, which will be an objection…
But there are people who are already questioning this system of unnecessary work. And there are even GenXers who are tired of enduring when we could be living. So I suspect that soon the lure of fulfillment will eclipse profitability — particularly because we all can meet our own needs, while only a few of us have ever profited from this disaster.
©Elizabeth Anker 2022