On the meaning and value of work

A view of Makati City high-rises from The Enterprise Center.

Work, as a concept, is a rich and multi-dimensional idea. As a starting point, I will take the definition I once heard (from a priest, if I remember correctly), that work is simply the transformation of our environment.

Defined this way, work becomes an encompassing aspect of life. Work can be physical and tangible, as in the work of mining and refining minerals from the earth, or synthesizing substances in a chemical factory, or constructing structures from pieces of wood, metal and glass. Work can also be intangible, as in intellectual work, gathering and synthesizing knowledge in various fields of science, or sharing them with others in education.

Work has a similar definition in the physical sciences, where it means the transfer of energy when a force is applied to matter resulting in motion of a definite distance. The idea is similar, because it also involves a transformation; without movement or results, mere application of force does not become work. To perform work in physics is to transform the shape and location of objects in our surroundings.

Work is essential to life in this definition, because, taking a quote from the 2015 movie Jupiter Ascending, “life is an act of consumption,” and for us to consume anything, we need to produce it; to produce is to work. All the basic needs of humans—food, shelter, clothing—can only be provided for by working, by transforming our environment. Since the dawn of humans, we have been working for food: gathering plants and fruits from the forests, hunting beasts and birds, planting seeds and harvesting crops. Our shelters have evolved from simply-found caves to elaborate homes that are built from thoroughly-transformed materials: concrete, steel, silica. Our clothing comes from the processed fibers of plants, and in modern times have even been synthesized from various chemicals, then weaved together, by hand or by machine.

(Work is also essential to the life of non-human animals, as they also have to expend energy to gather or hunt for food.)

But going beyond the basics, and taking an idea from psychologist Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, work is also essential for our higher-level human needs; beyond physiological and safety needs, all of our transcendent needs also require work: love/belonging, esteem, self-actualization and self-transcendence. Maintaining relationships is not usually seen as ‘work’ in the common definition, but there is sense in the oft-repeated advice that friendships or marriages ‘take work to be successful’. Esteem, self-actualization and self-transcendence are also not commonly seen as concerns of everyday work, but it is through work, through our activities and struggles to shape our environment, that we achieve and fulfill these abstract needs.

This last point merits further discussion. Various philosophers from all ages have expressed the importance of realizing one’s full potential, from the Greeks whose concept of happiness is excellence or the complete flourishing of man, to Karl Marx, who conceived of the alienation of a worker from her product as an injustice and an unnatural order of things. In all cases, there is the idea that humans can only achieve their full potential through expression in creative, fulfilling work.

I understand that Marx’s theories in particular have a special relationship with the concept of work, and resonate well with industrial workers and laborers, because of its statements on the nature of labor in relation to socioeconomic classes. But on a personal level, I remember the illustration I heard in an undergraduate class (it was either introductory sociology, or the survey course on political theories): the professor said that the end-goal of Marxism when it comes to work is a world order where everyone is free to work on whatever he or she wishes to work on, independently and creatively. The professor’s example was the crafting of a chair: in the capitalist order that Marxism criticizes, the worker is alienated from the product because the design of the chair is usually not the worker’s own design; the chairs are mass-produced, with quotas being imposed upon the worker; the resulting product belongs not to the workers, not even to the designers, but only to the capitalist—and perhaps most unjustly, the worker is compensated with only a fraction of the value of her product. In a Marxist utopia, everyone will be free to construct a chair at will, with his own design, fit to support his own body and with his preferred decorations or embellishments. The end product will be fully and freely his own.

This leads to my personal reflections on the value of work, both in the encompassing definition of work as transformation, and in the narrower sense of work as livelihood.

I belong to the generation that is now widely named the ‘millennial’ generation. One of the defining traits of our generation is our perceived inability (or unwillingness) to hold a job for a long time. Whereas in previous generations, it is common for people to stay in a job for decades, or even work for the same company for the entirety of their careers, these days the youth are increasingly restless, moving from one job to another in as short as two years or less.

The oft-cited reason for this, and this is something I share personally, is that members of our generation seek and value fulfilling work. We are not too happy doing work when it is no longer challenging, or when it is monotonous, or if we do not believe that it is not substantially beneficial to society. We want our work to express our selves. Millennials are very passionate, but only for the things that we believe in, and it is said that when we do find work that fulfills us, that challenges all our faculties, then we are willing to throw everything we have into it. In this way, millennials somewhat are Marxists; in terms of the Marxist example, millennials do not want to build boring chairs for others, we want to freely and independently construct chairs for ourselves, or for others whom we care about.

There is of course a negative aspect to this, in that millennials are also criticized for having an exceeding sense of entitlement. After all, unemployment is still a very real problem that causes so many social problems, and we are lucky to find any work at all. Luckier then, are those who find their livelihood fulfilling.

Those who are not fortunate enough in their circumstances to do the work that they like—perhaps they are the ones popularizing the concept of ‘work-life balance’. They are the ones who say that work should not take more than 40 hours per week, in order to have time for the things that ‘truly matter’: spending time with family, or on hobbies.

It is ironic though, because going back to our definition that work is transformation, even these ‘truly valuable’ activities take work. Relationships require effort and work. Hobbies are forms of work. Whether it is travel, or baking, or blogging, it is work: one needs to exert force to travel between exciting attractions; one needs to generate heat to transform ingredients into delicious goods; and one needs to apply thought to put ideas into eloquent words.

Work is valuable not only because it is essential; work is also valuable because it is inescapable.

This essay was a reflection paper for an introductory course on industrial relations.


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