I spend way too much time on social media. If it wasn’t the best engine for reaching out to my readers and sharing what I do with a global audience, I would have wiped my accounts ages ago for the sheer amount of half-assed “hot takes” people are encouraged to belch out about everything from Sudanese economics to Dr. Seuss. It really is the dark side of the democratization of knowledge that anyone with a keyboard thinks “I have an opinion and a way to express it, therefore it is just as valid and important as any expert.”
Yes, so says the pastry chef and food writer with a blog who is about to expound on the psychology and philosophy of labor, but stick with me for a minute.
As a guy who works for a living, is trying to create a work environment that his employees can thrive in, and is having difficulty finding qualified help, I think I have some insight into the whole “no one wants to work anymore,” “quiet-quitting/working to contract”
kerfuffle fiasco mass whining “discussion” that has been making the rounds lately.
“No One Wants to Work Anymore” and Other Old Lies
Ever since capitalism and industrialization became a Thing, it’s been the clarion call of employers who’ve had difficulty navigating a labor market that has turned against them- “no one wants to work anymore.” Sometimes they clarify it with everyone “wanting government handouts” if something especially wrathful (to them) came out of the capitol.
It almost always goes along with “____ will ruin the economy/business” if the decision in question includes a new regulation. Historically, such economy-destroying decisions included the 40 hour work week, ending child labor, and workman’s injury compensation. Since we are not living in an economy-less wasteland, there seems to be a bit of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” going on here.
That little digression aside, they are half right. It would be more correct to say “no one wants to need to work anymore”- simply because we never did. In our pre-industrial societies where labor (especially in terms of building shelter, growing food, and raising livestock) was the means of survival, there was no question about whether or not we wanted to work. It was literally a necessity, and every generation worked, thought, innovated and invented technology to make the labor less. Less hard, less time-consuming, less dependent on the physical power and skill of an individual… easier. The idea always was that their children would one day not have to work so hard just to live.
At this point, there could be another digression into class structure, wealth imbalance, upward mobility, and the religious moralizing of toil to keep people working, but that’s beyond the scope of my post here. The point is that work and labor are the means to an end- that being survival- and not the end in itself.
Then what about people who love their work? Who feel like they need to be working on something or doing something every day?
That’s not needing labor. That’s the drive to be industrious.
The Creative Creature
Sometimes this writing stuff is a real slog. I’ll rack my brain for ideas just to come up with nothing right up until I sit down at the keyboard, and even then the words just don’t want to come out. I’ll change surroundings, give myself breaks, meditate, go for walks, and try to get myself into a state where I can write.
It feels like being “left on Read” by a muse, but I still write regularly- I still work at it- because it’s doing something meaningful. It’s the same reason I’m happier making pies than I ever would be shuffling spreadsheets behind a computer screen. I can hold those pies in my hands, hand them to people, and see the meaning in my work when they eat it. Go back to the Conrad quote at the top. “I like what is in the work- the chance to find yourself… They can only see the mere show, and can never tell what it really means.”
Humans have never wanted to need to work, but we have always wanted to be industrious. We have always wanted to build, invent, create, discover, and learn. We have always wanted to create things to communicate with each other and to make our lives easier and more enjoyable. There is no debate to be had about that- it is written in our DNA and evolution. Even today, we consider the creation and use of tools a signifier of intelligence in animals. The fact that humans have created art, told stories, and made music- things that do not physiologically contribute to survival, even before there was an idea of “making a living” selling art- is proof that people want to work. We want to work at the things we find meaning in. It’s why we volunteer our time and skills to charitable causes and put together free libraries of resources.
This is our drive to be industrious. We have ALWAYS wanted to work and build and create– but we have never wanted to do it on penalty of death. We have never wanted to work in exchange for the means of survival. Before the advent of technology, we all had to. The fact that we still have to in exchange for the means to get food, water, shelter, healthcare, and social connection is a complete invention of ours. It is not- should not– be a necessity in an industrialized society that values the wellbeing of it’s members.
Read that final sentence whatever way you feel. We can go back and forth about what jobs people want to do versus what jobs need to be done. We can go from there into the argument that jobs that need to be done for society to be function should be afforded wages that befit their necessity, not based on the notion of whether or not such labor is “skilled” or not. ANY of those conversations conducted with civility would be superior to the endless whining about “no one wants to work anymore” and “kids these days” that spark outrage and drive clicks for advertising.
What Work Should Mean VS. What It Is
I’ve written a lot about employment on here, and the bit that I find myself repeating most often for people is that it’s never just about the money. If you are in a situation where you feel nothing for your work except the money it brings in to let you survive, that is not finding meaning. That is you selling your labor and your time in order to live. There is no personal shame in it, except for that of the theoretically enlightened society that allows so many to linger in such a state rather than supporting their potential.
I am lucky in that I have a few types of work that I do that afford me enough to live (along with what my wife makes) AND which I find joy and meaning in. If you’ve created an environment where your employees can find joy and meaning in the work they do AND reliably make enough to live on, you aren’t sweating finding employees right now.
As I mentioned before, my pie shop IS finding it difficult to hired qualified people. I am doing my best to provide an environment where my team can find meaning and joy in their work, but we can’t yet afford to pay a truly living wage, even for me. An individual without a partner or roommates to share the costs of living with would find it difficult to make ends meet working solely for me. That fact makes it harder to hire people who (justifiably) command a better wage. There isn’t a labor shortage- there’s a decent paycheck shortage.
All the same, many people are accepting less than what they are worth because we, as a society, have decided that labor is still necessary for survival. We as a society have given our members a choice- labor or die- which is not a choice at all.
It’s how you get people that are desperate for the paycheck. Who don’t care about the work, except that they work the hours they signed up for and do it well enough not to be fired. “Quiet quitting,” which is what “working to contract” has lately been called, is nothing more than people asserting their boundaries and dignity. Presenting it as wrong or that the person “doesn’t care/ isn’t a team player” is more of a confession than an accusation. It’s a confession that these employers rely on free labor and pressuring their employees to make profit- and that’s wrong any way you slice it.
Work should always be more than a paycheck. It should be our chance to be industrious– not just labor for survival. It should be our chance to create meaning for ourselves and others. It should be a place where we can thrive and feel alive, not shut ourselves off and wait on the weekend.
If you want a team of dynamic, creative, bold, engaged, and inventive employees, give them the environment and security to be just that. If you can’t do that, don’t be surprised when people you hire choose not to show up anymore or quit after a few weeks. They never cared about the job, the work, or you- they needed the money to live. They found another way to get more. “Survival of the fittest” goes both directions- and you weren’t fit enough to keep people with anything beyond fear of dying.