Work: Almost all of us do it, and hardly any of us enjoy it.
You don't have to look far to find examples of our general disdain for the 9-to-5. From movies to TV to the funny pages (see Scott Adams's Dilbert books), our culture is rife with expressions of scorn for having to go to work.
But why do we hold work in such contempt? Why do we dread Monday mornings? Alternatively, why are some of us self-proclaimed workaholics who can't get enough of being in the office? What are the roots of the work ethic that dominates our society?
The Working Life: The Promise And Betrayal Of Modern Work, a fascinating and thought-provoking book, attempts to answer some of these questions. Author Joanne B. Ciulla, an academic who is an expert on work issues, explores the philosophical, psychological, and political issues that prompt us to perceive work the way we do.
From early-millennium laborers to today's white-collar drones, The Working Life presents a comprehensive history of work, drawing on such disciplines as literature and philosophy. Looking back over history, it becomes clear that work has pretty much always been scorned. But the nature of work and the relationship between employees and employers have changed drastically.
Ciulla argues that most of us hate work simply because working is something we absolutely have to do in order to survive. We need food, clothing, and shelter and have to earn money somehow in order to attain these things. Although the working life of an early-21st-century laborer is markedly different from that of a 14th-century serf or an 18th-century indentured servant, most of us still abhor the fact that we have no choice but to hold a steady, paying job. Even though most of us now have the freedom to choose what kind of work we want to do, there are the inevitable difficulties of having little control over much of what happens when we're on the job. Plus, there is the stress of spending most of our days away from our homes, families, and friends while trying to please the boss. It all amounts to a recipe for misery. From not liking our jobs to not liking our bosses, a day at the office offers plenty of fodder for complaint.
But Ciulla contrasts these typical negative attitudes toward work with some of the positive psychological associations of working. Some of us absolutely love our jobs and even go so far as to derive the essence of our identity from our professions. There is the social phenomenon of asking someone what he or she does for a living when we first meet him or herjust one indication, says Ciulla, of the importance society places on the work we do. In turn, that societal importance has a profound effect on our perceptions of ourselves. Ciulla explores this prominence of work within the social hierarchy and asks challenging questions of the reader: Do you think of yourself as a mother, a husband, a doctor, or a painter? If you're retired, why do you make a point of telling someone you meet what you used to do?
Ciulla finds that the advent of the work ethic was an extremely important factor in shaping the cultural impression of work. She traces its roots to explain that "The ancients saw work as a necessity and a curse. The medieval Catholic Church bestowed on work a simple dignity; the Renaissance humanist gave it glamour. But the Protestants endowed work with the quest for meaning, identity, and signs of salvation. The notion of work as something beyond mere labor, as work-plus, indeed as a calling, highlighted its personal and existential qualities."
This explanation of the history of the role of work in various societies is captivating. Ciulla's thorough research and philosophical ponderings will prompt all readers, whether farmers, shopkeepers, or consultants, to question why they feel the way they do about work, and why they work the way they do. A great off-the-clock read, The Working Life: The Promise And Betrayal Of Modern Work will challenge the way you look at how you work, why you work, and what work means to you.
Emily Burg is a correspondent covering Internet stocks for worldlyinvestor.com, a financial web site dedicated to bringing investment opportunities to savvy investors.