What the work is? (part one)

From www.victorianweb.org/history/ashley.html, a educational site offering free info on the victorian age. Image is a copy of one from an official report of a parliamentary commission done in the mid 18th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
From http://www.victorianweb.org/history/ashley.html, a educational site offering free info on the victorian age. Image is a copy of one from an official report of a parliamentary commission done in the mid 18th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of us work for living or at least have been at some point in our lives. Unless born into wealth, to meet our daily needs we have to sell our time, skills, knowledge or in some cases even bodies, for money with which to pay for goods and services we either need and/or want. Ever since the ascent of money as the universal unit of value, that is our daily formula. Before the arrival of money, labour was exchanged for goods such as beer (Mesopotamia), salt (Rome), precious metals (Incas) and similar.                                                                                                                            

And it is a fascinating formula indeed; not only that most of us find it taxing to the greater or lesser degree, but we also often dream of a life without waking up to the sound of an alarm clock, and going to the designated place to work for the specified number of hours. Often we use those dreams to help us deal with our working hours, until such time we either become too old to work, or find a way to fulfil our dreams.

Even the language we use reflects our feelings; when talking about the activities we undertake for pay, we often use words such as ‘toil’, ‘slog’, ‘grind’, ‘graft’ , ‘slog’ or ‘drudge’, while words like ‘freedom’, ‘creativity’, ‘fulfilment’, ‘self-expression’, ‘vocation’ are used to describe what we dream of.  

Let us for a moment take a closer look.

If we accept that term ‘work’ refers to any activity that either produces, or improves something, or serves in some way either ourselves or others, than it is clear that work has had a critical role in human development.  

Every aspect of our existence requires active input and performance of certain activities; from gathering/purchasing to preparing food, from raising our young, to organizing our shelters/houses. We do not usually receive a direct or monetary reward for that kind of work, and we often do not classify those life sustaining activities as ‘work.’ 

Then there is of course voluntary work we undertake for betterment of communities we inhabit. That work is also often associated with non-tangible or direct rewards such as payments.  

Once those types of activities (work to sustain life, raise family and contribute to community) are taken out of equation, work for hire is what remains.  

According to history records the first workers to receive payment for their labour where Mesopotamians who received payments in jugs of beer! That indicates two things;

  • that beer must have been valuable enough to be used as a reward, and obviously Mesopotamians loved it, and
  • that there must have been some form of organization (religious or administrative) owning sufficient quantities of beer to make payments. In other words; there were those who own the beer and those who wanted it enough to work for it!  

Some historical records suggest that early Roman soldiers may have been paid in salt, at the time precious ingredient strictly controlled by the ruling elite. This is because Latin term ‘sal dare’ means ‘to give salt’ and soldiers were paid ‘salarium’, a term from which our word ‘salary’ originates. All that indicates possible link between salt-soldier-and hire for payment, hence the saying; ‘worth one’s salt’.  

Even very broad analysis of work over the centuries shows that, except for work organized and paid for by governments (soldiering, public work) or religious elites (building of religious monuments), until the Industrial Revolution of late 18th and 19th century, most people worked as farmers and some as craftsmen (blacksmiths, bronze smiths, etc.). In essence, their labour provided sustenance for them and their families. There was a direct link between those two aspects of living; work and sustenance. Industrial Revolution took that link away.  

In 19th century factories slowly replaced small workshops, and industrial revolution eventually created huge demand for labour; often cheap labour of women and children. Historical records show that children as young as 5 worked in early textile factories and even coal mines for more than 12 hours a day! The first law aimed at curtailing child labour was not passed until 1833. It banned children age 9 to 13 from working for more than 12 hours a day. It also stated that children aged 13 to 18 must not work for more than 69 hours a week, and those under 18 cannot work at night. However, the effectiveness of the law depended largely on diligence of those tasked with enforcing it.  

In the early 20th century problems of depression and huge unemployment triggered the Second World War and were by far and large resolved by it; curtsy of insatiable war machinery. Post-war years (40s, 50s and 60s) were years of plenty and unemployment was very low. That changed somewhat in late 80s and 90s. Second part of the 20th century was also marked by significant decline in traditional industries such as coal mining, shipbuilding, or textile production, while service industries such as tourism, education, retail, IT grew rapidly.  

All that brought substantial and much needed changes in working conditions, at least in the world we call ‘first’ or ‘developed’ or ‘western’. The harsh and often grossly inhuman working conditions, including child labour, remain alive and well in those worlds we use different terms for, such as ‘third’, ‘developing’ or ‘poor’. However, that is the topic for another time.  

Improvements in working conditions, especially agreements on number of hours per day/week/year one is engaged in paid work, together with the onset and more recently explosion in IT developments, resulted in significantly more time becoming available to working men and women for leisure, and/or pursuit of personal interests.  

As a result, and perhaps for the first time in the history of human kind, ordinary men and women, those of us neither born into wealth, or aristocracy, or any privileges, those of us broadly referred to as ‘working class’, become able to indulge in such activities as self-expressions through art, or music, or literature, or sports … the activities formerly reserved for those privileged by either birth and/or wealth with which to secure time and energy required.  

It is therefore no wonder we witness proliferation of ‘self-expressiveness’ everywhere around us, most notably on internet (like this blog for instance -:). Unlike 19th century factory worker, who was far too exhausted to do anything else apart from working and resting in between shifts, we now have time and energy left over after paid work to first find, and then pursue our personal interests. But this is also where the ‘catch’ may lie.

(to be continued …)


Author: Daniela

Reader, Writer, Mother, Freethinker, Habitual Day Dreamer, Blogger - Sharing Ideas, Poetry, Prose, and Conversations on the Lantern Post!

20 thoughts on “What the work is? (part one)”

    1. Hi,

      As always nice to hear from you! Yes, Confucius was indeed right, and that is just the point – what the work is or was … how it has changed over centuries and has changed us in the process! As humans we are shaped and in turn shape our world by ‘work’ … it is a fascinating co-relation!


  1. Tengo el placer de anunciar que te he incluido en la nominación como blog destacado y para dar a conocer los Seven Things About Me.
    Deseo que tu blog -Que me parece muy interesante- sea conocido por más gente, así que sirva esta nota como un reconocimiento por tu trabajo.

    Muchas gracias, sigue así y mucha suerte en el futuro. Besos, Josep.

    Puedes ver tu nominación aquí. http://diariodepalabras.wordpress.com/2012/09/08/y-se-lio-la-de-dior/

    I have the pleasure to announce that I have included in the nomination and featured blog to publicize the Seven Things About Me.
    Will your blog, which I find very interesting, is known to most people, so this note serves as recognition for your work.

    Thank you very much, keep it up and good luck in the future. Kisses, Josep.

    You can see your nomination here. http://diariodepalabras.wordpress.com/2012/09/08/y-se-lio-la-de-dior/


  2. I finished my working days about 17 years ago. Sometimes I can’t remember some of those times. Or maybe just want to forget. lol

    I do see and enjoy the results of my work. I feel satisfaction from what I did. 🙂


    1. I am very glad to hear that … it is the same for many people; when we make friends through the work that we do not enjoy all that much; it all seems better and more meaningful.

      Thank you very much for reading and commenting,


  3. I’m obsessed with this topic right now because it seems the economic structure our entire world is built upon is crumbling which is causing an epic societal shit.

    One can no longer count on a corporation to take care of you and in the US, while the public school system may have been one of the greatest inventions in our country, it was all built around educating kids to become a cog in the an industrial nation, not the more entrepreneurial thinkers I suspect will be required to thrive over the next 50 years.

    I love that you mentioned Rome. I was there last year and it hit me that the Romans had it all figured out over a thousand years ago. All that modern man has brought to the party is air travel and the internet. And if the Roman empire crumbled, then we’re surely vulnerable in this day and age.

    Great topic Daniela


    1. Hi,
      Thank you so much for your wonderful comment! I am really glad you mentioned the education system since it is the most important part of it all. Change in people’s perceptions, ability to conceive world different from the one we know will be critical and for that major changes in global education will occur.

      And yes, Romans got it all figured out all those centuries ago! They ‘borrowed’ a lot from Greeks though.

      Many thanks,


    1. Thank you very much for reading and commenting! Very interesting indeed, I did not know abut payments in rum during US Revolutionary War. Somehow I doubted that workers and soldier all wanted to be paied in beer and rum, but can only imagine that, at least some, found it useful!

      Kind Regards,


  4. What a fascinating and well researched read. There’s much food for thought in it as well as lots of information I have never considered before. I can’t imaging being paid in beer or rum.

    Over 30 years ago my family and my husband’s were askance when we decided to leave our jobs, cash in our pensionable time, move and start our own business. Without doubt the hours are longer and the pay is lower but we have flexibility as we are our own bosses. We have never looked back as we are doing the work we love to do.

    Are we successful? Provided one doesn’t measure success in dollars, we are rich. We have achieved every goal we have set. We have pursued hobbies and interests we would never have pursued had we remained in the North American cubicle work model.


    1. That really is IT! Yes, you are rich, very rich indeed because you are full filled in the only way that matters – by doing work that brings a meaning and joy to your every day! It is my goal!

      Many thanks,


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