Work and Dignity

Everyone works.

Employment, careers, jobs, and money are different questions entirely. What’s not in question is that everyone works.

It’s worth exploring the economic questions of work — how much our work is worth, when we should expect to get paid, and how we think about the way(s) in which we earn. (Are we capturing value we create? Collecting rents? Engaged in trade? Or being compensated for something taken from us?)

But the better question — or at least the prior one — is, What is work for? Where and how are we going to direct the energies of eight billion people?

That’s a lot of work, after all, and there’s no question that it makes a difference — for better or worse, sooner or later.

I’d argue that the fundamental purpose of work is dignity. Being both social and creative by nature, people work in order to express themselves and connect with others.

That’s not a passing interest of the privileged few, but a deep human urge. And that begs a lot of important questions about outsourcing, automation, and “labor-saving.” After all, jobs might be “creatively destroyed” all the time, but the same can’t be said of the people who used to do them (thank goodness).

Most people are grateful for labor-saving innovations. But they’re not eager to do less work, or especially to have less opportunity or dignity. For some of us, the ratchet is working in the right direction: AI-assisted email allows us to reach more people and do more work that’s more meaningful.

But, for a lot of other people, the ratchet is working against them: the thing they do — their identity, their dignity, their stability — can be done cheaper and faster by someone else, something else, somewhere else.

And when the jobs go, what will they work on then?