Why do we work, and so hard?


Why do we work, and so hard?

  • By Ian Bradley
  • 2 Tags

According to a recent American Community Survey, the percentage of professionals working more than 50 hours per week has grown from 34% in 1997 to 38% in 2006.  If Aristotle saw these figures, he would say that we can’t be happy or worse, truly free.

In the classic Greek tradition, the only people doing anything similar to what we would call “paid work” were artisans and slaves.  The only real venues for the expression of freedom were philosophy and politics because their activity was inherently pleasurable whereas production – the work of artisan or slaves – served an end outside its own action.

Well, why do we do it?  And why do we, especially professionals, managers and owners, do it so much?

It’s the money!

I agree that we work to achieve a lifestyle that includes bills for homes, schools, travel and computers.  If you want to have real fun on the weekend, we have to pay for it by working during the week.

But work provides so much more.

Think of the last time that you met someone for the first time, say at a party or following an introduction at a golf tournament.  After the weather, “Well, what do you do?” if the next question.  We peg people by classifying them into vocational categories, or perhaps worse, peg them along a hierarchy of importance or power.  “I’m a doctor,” elicits a different response than “I’m in sales.” This dynamic is best illustrated with retirement where the complete heft of whatever one’s previous occupational status is suddenly removed.

Besides status with respect to others, work provides a personal identity.

Labora, ergo sum.

“I work therefore I am” provides the rallying cry for many managers or professionals who maintain their roles of power, prestige and values outside their working environment.

Work also provides an arena for perhaps the strongest of all drives – achievement.  Not only, can we do, make, create, develop, lead or grow but we can do all those things with our own unique style and flair.  Work allows us to make our mark, although perhaps not our enduring mark.

That leads to one of the major points in a recent book by The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by the philosopher Alain De Botton who describes the ultimate advantage of work as:

“start of work means an end to freedom, but also to doubt, intensity and wayward desires… How satisfying it is to be held in check by the assumptions of colleagues, instead of being forced to contemplate, in the loneliness of the early hours, all that one might have been, and now never will.”

In other words, work allows us, even demands us to disattend to the real big but perhaps unanswerable questions in life.  Who has time to contemplate that our own antigenic compounds might not today be up to the task of inhibiting the growth of a microscopic blood supply to a newly formed neoplastic cluster of cells when they are reports to write, sales figures to analyze and meetings to run.   I have to go now, a client called.