This isn’t another self-help piece, exhorting you to do what you’re passionate about. Good as that advice is, for those privileged people who have a choice, I’m not in the business of motivational speaking.
Rather it’s about why we work.
Probably the most famous study of our motivations was Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s a much-criticised study, but it’s simplicity (diminished over years of refinements) has secured it’s place in blog posts and PowerPoint presentations around the world for over 70 years. The Hierarchy suggests that have to fulfil our base motivations — survival — first, and only then can we start working towards the ultimate goal of ‘self-actualisation’, via safety, social and self-esteem needs.
You can replace ‘self-actualisation’ with ‘doing something you’re passionate about’.
Less well-known are studies connecting employment and poverty to crime. Simply summarised, there is a stronger negative correlation between employment and crime than there is between wealth and crime.
If you’re poor and in work you’re less likely to commit crime than if you are richer and out of work.
What this speaks to is the importance of work in the definition and reinforcement of our sense of identity. Our value. Or as Maslow would likely put it, self-esteem.
Being usefully engaged in work gives us an engagement in society, and a place in it. It gives us rewards for a job well done, not just financial but social. If we’re usefully engaged we can stand up straight and be proud. We know who we are and where we stand.
Note the caveat here: ‘useful’ work.
Take bankers, for example. A much maligned class of worker, and perhaps for good reason. A study last year showed that bankers were more inclined to dishonesty but only when decisions were placed in the context of their work.
Is this perhaps because much of the work of banking isn’t socially useful?
In the next few decades the total number of jobs available seems likely to decline with increasing automation. Having listened to Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne expound on their research first-hand, I’m increasingly convinced of this. Listening to Richard and Daniel Susskind talk about the future of the professions only reinforces this view.
Without a radical shift in the way we value work, many of the jobs available to humans are going to remain poorly paid: social workers, care workers, nurses and more. Jobs that are undeniably socially useful and unlikely to be displaced by automation, even though they will be enhanced with technology.
We will have to consider rebalancing this distribution. And we will have to consider what the rest of us will do to remain socially useful.
The risks are high if we don’t. At the extreme, Charles Taylor points out that an ‘identity crisis’ is a major factor in the recruitment of young men to join ISIS/Daesh.
If we don’t find new ways to engage more people — usefully — in work in the coming years, we could find that there are many more dislocated, disenfranchised people finding such causes to take them in.