In the ancient world, there was no such concept as ‘work’ that would have covered creative self-expression and earning one’s daily bread. Work was seen not as a means of self-improvement but as a drudgery – after all, it took away from important things such as politics or philosophy. Even Christianity cast work as a punishment: banished from Paradise, we are obliged to eat our bread in the sweat of our brow. Industriousness was not a pathway to salvation.
The Protestant work ethic, i.e. seeing work as a personal struggle for salvation, did not emerge until the early days of capitalism, at which point the productive use of time by the small entrepreneur became the ideal. The secular ascetic described by Benjamin Franklin gained his pleasure from gathering a fortune, not spending it as in the good life of Antiquity.
The indignation of Marxists drew upon the pre-industrial independence of the craftsman, but they nevertheless admired centralized production, which was at that time putting an end to the business of small independent producers. Modernization, from the point of view of liberals and Marxists alike, and for better or worse, means that production exists primarily for trade, not for self-sustenance. Marx said that work was productive only when it produced a return on investment in a system where work and ownership were segregated.
Hannah Arendt felt that Marx demoted human beings to toiling animals whose only options were productive slavery and unproductive freedom. Marx eulogized work as the highest ideal and preached liberation from its servitude.
The golden age of those who lived by selling their labour came in the boom period after the Second World War: industrial peace was bought and the economy fuelled through a middle-class wage level. There were full-time jobs for nearly everyone. Work ceased to consist of individual performances bought and sold on the market. Social security was defined through labour market citizenship, and a trade or profession defined the personality of an individual. However, working hours were short, and there was surplus energy for doing other things. Even dependend salary men/women began to dream of self-expression.
When growth peaked, the movement of capital was liberated in order to boost it again. As a globally competing investment, work began to drift back to the early days of capitalism: the performance of work again became an individual commodity to be sold at the market price with no guarantee of continued income. Companies and organizations were obliged to downsize their production personnel and outsource as much work as possible to temps or sub-contractors undercutting each other.
The fewer ‘typical’ employment relationships there are, the more the ideal of a full-time job becomes normative in everyday life. One has to begin assembling a portfolio in infancy to guarantee a good job. Once the job is acquired, it requires working with the drive of an entrepreneur without reaping the benefits. Waiting for work or not having work is a dominant theme in the thoughts of those who slip out of the mainstream of the labour market.
According to sociologist Oskar Negt, never before have people been appraised to such an extent only by how willing they are to be exploited. The norm of self-expression has also stuck, forcing a business-like approach to one’s private life as well so as to enable the accumulation of all the necessary experiences that enhance measurable self-value. A workaholic can draw up an exhausting checklist even for a summer holiday.
Work justifies everything. No one does anything for the fun of it any more. Even mourning is euphemized as ‘grief work’! The struggle for salvation, however successful, will never yield a bottom line that would enable us to stop and simply be and feel. God is dead in the religion of the competivity and the frame of cost-effectiveness, and the production perspective cannot be transcended even in the mind.
When the threshold of sufficiency is no longer defined by a certain number of hours worked or products manufactured, but by fluctuating market performance, workers (or, in a more modern lingo, ‘manpower entrepreneurs’) can never relax and enjoy their achievements. The competition is always improving, and there is always someone somewhere doing the same thing more flexibly.
Work does not kill, but continuous comparisons are stressful. Workers, even in short-term employment relationships, can see the content of their work as interesting and motivating. Job satisfaction comes from the work itself, while job dissatisfaction arises from the terms of employment. Many would be quite content to work if there were no other people in the workplace against whom to defend one’s job and whom one has to make sure are not slacking. Mutual espionage surrenders control of one’s life.
Work exhaustion has become an initiation rite into adulthood in the sense that an adult must accept his limits. Capital can seek unlimited growth, but a worker cannot. A burn-out victim must, literally on pain of death, face the facts and abandon the illusion of being able to control the reactions of others by satisfying their demands. However, an adult does what he can. People who take early retirement are much busier than people who are still working – they are again able to do things simply because doing them is in itself satisfying. Piling up logs at one’s summer cottage without having to tick off every single log on a balanced scorecard is a pick-me-up.