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Working Our Way Back

By Dan King

Photo of historical toolsAnd in the beginning, there was Work. No society has ever existed without it. To the archeologist digging under the hot sun for remains of the earliest man, the presence of primitive tools is his surest sign that the skull fragment he finds is that of a human ancestor — and that he (or she) worked.

Imagine yourself a toothy, not too clever hominid, bent on becoming human. Your hands are better proportioned and more dexterous than those of your less nimble primate forebears. You reach down to pick up a stick here, a stone there, knowing that a little something in the hand will be a distinct help in attacking a wildebeest or in opening the tough rind of a wild fruit. You happen upon a particularly useful stick, shaped like a club, and you go and whack a bear on the head with it.

Astonished at your cleverness, you keep the stick and rush around to apprise all the other cavemen what can be done with clubs. Your primal cohabitants, obviously impressed by your creativity and inventiveness, soon start looking for club-shaped sticks to use as tools for whacking food. Boosted by the adulation and respect from your peers, you go off looking for even more useful sticks and stones. Your motivation to work is triggered not only by a need to eat, but a newfound sense of self worth.

So begins the story of Work.

You’re probably reminded of Fred Flintstone, the Stone Age hero of the common working man. The popular Flintstones cartoon portrayed primitive man as quite ingenious and inventive, creatively bridging the gap with modern man. It is certainly true that the long stretch of the Stone Age is wrought with a host of new inventions — spears, harpoons, and probably the bow and arrow, but, regrettably there never was a Fred Flintstone.

Our knowledge of the Stone Age is based largely on imperishable stone tools. Most of the wood and other organic materials, including any bear-whacking clubs, used by early man have decayed and vanished. But the discovery of stone tools confirms that early man was a hunter and a gatherer. And despite these fragmentary histories at best, we know that he worked, not only for the purpose of obtaining food, but also for the added comforts of identity, esteem and worth. Work afforded man a role and place in society by which others could measure his success.

These early hunter-gatherers, like the fishermen, farmers, and crafts workers that followed, were essentially all self-employed. They made their own jobs. Synchronized to the rhythms of the environment, their activity garnered an appreciation and respect for the fruits of the natural world. For many centuries, careful stewardship of the land was central to life and livelihood, providing not only sustenance, but also the means to earn a living.

But this relationship was dismantled with the coming of the industrial revolution and the emergence of the “job,” in which work began to be segmented into blocks of time and awarded to strangers. The modern job was a startling new idea — and to many people an inhuman, risky way to work, because it meant placing their security in someone else’s hands. “I should give up all my security to work for you?” Americans talked about the job as “wage slavery,” as contrasted to the freedom and security of work as they knew it. The job seemed devoid of a purpose or mission.

But the “job” stuck, and in time brought a new vocabulary to work: terms like bargaining, bumping and boycotting, along with sweatshops, strikes and scabs. Labor organizations developed and laws were enacted, institutionalizing a growing movement built on dissatisfaction with the rewards of the job.

Although the labor movement has receded in recent years, a pervasive sense of “job entitlement” remains firmly entrenched in our work psyche. We speak of each individual’s right to a job, but seldom of the individual’s responsibility in creating or defining it. And many of our organizations, in the name of free enterprise, have devastated the earth in ways we are only beginning to know. The natural connection between life and livelihood has been severed.

To be sure, future societies will look upon our principles and values to interpret our relationship to work. What will they learn? What will be our legacy of work? Will we bequeath an improved quality of work life to future generations?

If we are to build a culture of work that is recognizably more passionate and meaningful than we now have, we, as individuals, must rededicate ourselves to the restoration of a purpose or mission to work, where respect for the human spirit is given the cultural centrality it demands — and where the connection between work and nature remains sacred.

Madame Chiang Kai-Shek once said, “We live in the present, we dream of the future and we learn eternal truths from the past.” It is in this spirit that the future of work holds the most promise, suggesting, perhaps, that the time has come to swing the pendulum back, to somehow reunite life and livelihood, and to savor all that was good in the work of civilizations past. We need to go back before we can move ahead, for we are clearly still a “work in progress.”

© 2000 Career Planning and Management, Inc., Boston, MA. All rights reserved.

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