Last week was a rough one. Russia’s attempt at the wholesale destruction of their neighbor Ukraine is one of many ongoing conflicts. On the (American) domestic front, we had the Senate Judiciary hearings for the nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson, who WILL BE confirmed as the first Black female Supreme Court Justice next month. With all that going on in the background, at work I was involved in the deployment of a set of bug fixes for a data transformation process (ETL, for those readers who are hip to the lingo) that corrected a major problem in our company’s data output (what we sell) for at least 8 years. Plus my typical “day job” activities were essentially doubled with file work I was covering for a coworker on Spring Break and the unexpected arrival of additional data updates. Whew. It’s a LOT.
On the other hand, I have also been involved with (or in the presence of) multiple conversations about politics, foreign policy, colonialism in history, race and racism, the meaning of work, labels and many other juicy topics. Those I have found myself in with these days are other-worldly, in a good way. In every Zoom call, I feel as though I’m in the presence of greatness without anyone having to produce anything. We can all just BE together and some kind of magic floats to the surface. Like fertile ground, seeds are planted and things just fucking grow! I have no idea how that works as I have the opposite of a green thumb, but I’ve been told that under the right conditions, it does.
So I get to thinking, how can I just have more of this in my life. Is there a way to call this “work?” What is “work” anyway? Is “work” only what someone pays you for, driven from the top down, I need you to do this and in exchange I offer $XYZ in compensation (“Work #1 for the remainder of this post)? Or is “work” labor, contributed to society willingly and freely (paid or unpaid) for all things that go into creating, maintaining and nurturing society as we know it (“Work #2”)? Two things here are true: first, both definitions are valid, and second, we have spent nearly our entire existence being told, and therefore believing that Work #1 = “work” with no exceptions.
Our government and our business leaders, in conjunction, have decided that Work #1 is valid, worthy of financial compensation (inadequate though it may be for many people) and to be described with terms such as “rewarding” and “dignity,” as in “the dignity of work.” We punish those who are out of work with even more inadequate government-based payments as unemployment benefits, as long as you are still looking for a job. And nobody talks about “the dignity of stay-at-home motherhood.”
We were sold a bill of goods…
While there have been periods of time in American history where the labor movement was at its peak, or even in its ascendancy, these movements always existed within the confines of Work #1. Most labor movements were intent upon raising wages and benefits, shortening hours, maintaining the humanity for the average “worker” (Work #1). These movements did nothing directly for laborers who fall into the Work #2 category; family caretakers (traditionally mothers and grandparents), artists or others who have been shut out of the Work #1 force like the elderly or the disabled. Instead, we relied on “traditional” family structures and an assortment of government programs to provide some assistance for basic needs.
We are told to believe that it is good and righteous to work at a job. You are only contributing to the economy if you are working,, after all,, since the economic statistics we choose to measure only look at dollars exchanged for goods or services. No mention is made regarding whether or not that job is good for society. If you work at a job in the fossil fuel industry, you are probably well-compensated… for contributing to the slow destruction of the planet. How is that a good trade off? Can one calculate the value of the toll taken on one’s great great great grandchildren, expressed as a function of one’s own career? Perhaps we should, but that is a far cry from how we place value on Work #1 at this time.
So imagine a new system, where we no longer have to “work,” or endure an abusive or otherwise shitty relationship just to keep a roof over your head and food on your table? Imagine basic necessities are accounted for, regardless of your type or amount of personal labor contribution. You exist, and therefore you need to persist, and that requires food and shelter, at least, period. Then what?
If the Work #1 folks were right all along, everything would collapse. Everyone would sit around gazing at their navels or playing video games all day. Absolutely NO ONE would CHOOSE to work if they did not NEED to in order to provide for themselves. And if you ask your average politician on the conservative end of the spectrum, as well as many “moderates,” they wholeheartedly believe this is true. I say it’s BULLSHIT!
I’m sure there are plenty of folks who would do that, and do you know who they are? They’re the ones who NEED THE STRUCTURE in order to apply the self-discipline required to NOT pick bellybutton lint and fuck off all day. Many of us would probably be doing the SAME FUCKING THING, or something bigger, better, more helpful and more sustainable! We would be cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, maintaining the family schedule, caring, nurturing, gardening, listening, and building bonds with other human beings. I would argue that these activities are AT LEAST as important to society as the Work #1 activities, and yet we value them the least.
Work #1 was created and designed for a specific group of people, those who were in power, who have been in power and who are desperately fighting to maintain and to avoid sharing their power. The entire reason this structure exists is to create and enforce hierarchies that are not natural in the way we have applied them. The results are a stratified society of haves and have nots, and we are all losing the ability to work together on the work that needs doing for our world. Who will be able to care for the millions of baby boomer retirees who have never been able to afford to save for their later years, or the millions of climate refugees from low-lying areas of the world when we can no longer feed ourselves? Who will be able to innovate solutions to the climate crisis itself to start turning the tide of human-caused havok? This is the challenge of our time.
There is a different way of constructing society to be more sustainable, more equitable, more fair, more caring and more supportive of all work, not just work that is done for inadequate wages by people who have no choice in the matter. This would allow for many more people to contribute their best in service to society, without sacrificing their basic needs.
We have created society and the economy as it is because we like the story of winners and losers. If you succeed in business, regardless of the externalities you produce, you become a winner, people look up to you, status (and power) is conferred. And once you have that money, status and power, there is no incentive, outside of your own free will, to contribute further to society in any other way, especially if it means giving away some of your wealth to do so. Sadly, this situation inherently benefits the people who invented it and continue to tweak it in their own favor, rich white men.
Sadly as well, this cohort is, generally speaking, the last to push toward changing the system because they do not wish to lose their status. In a way, this ties back to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine… There is a powerful man who thought he could regain territory that he perceives that his country lost a generation ago and he is using his power to try to win it back. It is no wonder that Americans are generally directing their feelings toward Ukraine instead; this is why I’m hopeful about our society as a whole.
We are tired of winners and losers. Competition used to be fun, a fair game, but now if you weren’t born a winner, you have to cheat to become one and it just isn’t worth it. We are all too tired. The way the system exists now, we all lose. We can choose a better way.