What is the role of work in life?

Let’s start by describing some people, and of course these imaginary people are exaggerations on themes. You will find these types in every job, but in different ratios. You will find any profession with substantial bonuses and commissions dominated by Tonys and every entry-level job by Alfreds. Whereever salaries are paid, you will find Martha and Rachael together.

Alfred The Card Puncher

Alfred sees work entirely as a means to an end. Life really consists of his family, his time fishing by the lake, and his friends at the bar. He works hard, but leaves work entirely behind when he goes home for the day. If he is laid off, for Alfred, the only concern is to find a replacement income. If he wins the lottery, he dreams of the day when he can cease work and spend all his time with family, fishing, and at the bar. If he is a Republican, it is because he sees the Democrats as condescending nannies, and if he is a Democrat, it is because he sees the Republicans as on the side of his employers, on the side of the Tonys of the world. To Alfred, Tony is a crook, Rachael is incomprehensible. He likes Martha a lot, but thinks she “just works too damned much.” Indeed, to Alfred, Martha is the only other one who actually does work. Tony “steals” and Rachael “plays”.

Tony the Hustler

Tony does not identify with his work, but he does identify with his success at work. Like Alfred, he largely works for money, but unlike Alfred, his goal is money not because of the lifestyle it buys him, but because of the signal of success it allows him to project. The Alec Baldwin “Glengarry Glenrose” speech plays a role like a credo in his life. If he is a Democrat, he is a machine politician offering hope to the proleteriat but ensuring he gets a C-suite job at the new bureaucracy formed to deliver the crumbs of that hope. If he is a Republican, it is because the left wing message of equality and redistribution fundamentally offends the status seeking that drives him. Tony is disgusted by Alfred, thinks Martha is hardworking but dumb, and finds Rachael utterly intolerable.

Martha the Workaholic

Martha lives for her work. For Martha, work fills a void. Whatever else she has in her life, she prefers her work to it. She may have a family, a church, pets, but if she has a hobby, it is only because she is waged and therefore has statuatory limits to how much work she can do in a week. If she is a Democrat, it is because the Marxist slogan “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” so adaquately describes her life that it does not occur to her that anyone could disagree with it. If she is a Republican, it is because she thinks everyone else is shiftless and lazy. She respects Tony and Rachael, but that feeling is not at all mutual. Like Tony, she finds Alfred disgustingly lazy.

Rachael the Professional

Rachael also lives for her work, but unlike Martha, it is out of a surplus rather than to fill a void. Rachael has identified a thing that is her “calling” in life. She will say things like “I would do this for free,” and she may even feel guilty about her pay. The way to distinguish Rachael from Martha is that Martha will do anything ethical for 60 hours a week. Rachael may work 60 hour weeks, but if she were not able to work within her calling, she would be a lousy employee for 40 hours a week, and persue her profession at home for another 40. Rachael, like Tony, views Martha as unintelligent, but views Tony as a crook. She identifies very easily with Alfred, despite their very different work lives. Rachael and Alfred are both seeking the good life, but Rachael’s good life is a profession while Alfred’s is in leisure. If Rachael is a Democrat, it is because she supports Alfred in his goal of living the good life, just as she lives the good life. She may even harbor the idea that Alfred is really just like her, and given sufficient leisure, would discover his profession. If Rachael is a Republican, it is because she is offended and confused by left-wing talk of exploitation. Rachael does what she loves and more money than could ever be needed just seems to fall from the skies. She either doesn’t know that all are not like her, or believes that they all should be like her as a precondition of happiness.

This provides us with four “roles” of work in life:

  • Work is toil to be endured so that you may have the finer things in life later.
  • Work is how you seperate winners from losers
  • Work is what you do to escape ennui and boredom
  • Work is the fulfillment of an innate purpose

One word with 4 meanings is hopelessly confusing, so we need different words for each of them. Most of the misunderstandings and disrespect between the four types is simply because they are describing their four very different activities with the same word.

Let’s define some terms:

  • Toil is endured so that you may have the finer things in life later.
  • Hustle is to seperate winners from losers
  • Busy-work is done to escape ennui and boredom
  • Vocation is done to the fulfillment of an innate purpose

With terms defined, let’s make some assertions:

  • Alfred is correct to identify toil as a negative, to be minimized where possible.
  • However, toil is the only unselfish form of work. All other forms of work are done for the benefit of the worker primarily. Toil alone is primarily an act of service (even if only service to our future selves).
  • Alfred and Rachael are correct that Tony’s focus on status often (very often) leads him to abuse the others. After all, if all Tony’s efforts are to signal that he is a winner, that can only happen if the others are losers.
  • Alfred has made a tragic error: generally, you will find Alfred, the most adverse to toil, toiling the most in his day job compared to the others.
  • Tony is correct to recognize that all the toil, busy-work, and vocations in the world are useless if no one finds the output worthy of even paying for it. It is really true that Tony’s schemes, cunning, and efforts to come out on top transform an incoherent mix of all types of work into goods and services that enrich humanity and that left to their own devices, everyone else would revert to the Stone Age in a generation.
  • Rachael has by a gift of birth struck upon an almost Edenic ideal of work.
  • It is impossible in a world with scarcity for everyone to be Rachaels.
  • Even were it possible, Rachael’s hope is wrong: we are not all Rachaels. Given all the leisure in the world, Tony must have his place in his hierarchy, and if there isn’t one, he will make one. Alfred will at best dedicate himself to domestic cultivation and at worst to indolence and alcohol. Martha will kill herself without something to distract her from the void in her soul.
  • Martha alone is without redeeming virtue. She, more than any other, enables the worst attributes of all the others. She covers for Alfred’s laziness. She is the soulless clerk who enacts the detailed execution of Tony’s most ammoral or immoral schemes. She takes on willingly all the parts of Rachael’s job that don’t fit into Rachael’s idea of her own vocation. She feels put upon and she’s right.

What is the proper role of work in life?

Toil, hustle, and vocation all have their proper place.

Busy-work, however, serves to corrupt all the other forms of work. A preference for busy-work, alone among the attitudes towards work, indicates a malformed soul in need of help.

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08 May 2020