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.
It might have been an ordinary day at the beginning of winter. You know how I dislike cold. We used to joke about it.
This morning I watched school girls giggling together on the sleepy yellow bus. And I thought of you. My heart swelled … with love, and pride and longing. I have learned that the best way is to look elsewhere and blink few times on purpose. It is usually OK after that.
Office hours rolled on in their orderly rhythm … ‘battery people’ sitting in their cubicles, typing into their computers. For a dollar. This is what’s called work. I have recently read wonderful poem titled: ‘What Work Is’ by Philip Levine. I will copy it here for you. Remember how we always used to talk about poems, books, movies, and what’s going on? I miss that. You did not mind my accent; just teased me about it … and corrected my words because you wanted me to say it right. So nobody will laugh at me. Like they sometimes did … now I do not even mind any longer.
I know you do not like me going on and on in my runaway sentences, so I won’t. I just wanted to tell you that it was not an ordinary day, because when you called, stale office air exploded into thousand rainbows. Your voice spilled over from the phone into the grey mist of an early evening and coloured it the brightest yellow … it was spring in my cubical. Spring I am carrying in me since the day you were born … my beautiful, wonderful, clever, courage’s DAUGHTER! I love you.
What Work Is
We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is–if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.