Why do people work?

April 21, 2019 (1794 words) :: Under capitalism, the way to encourage someone to work is to offer them money. But the effects of offering more money are neither guaranteed nor uniform.
Tags: inequality, working-in-tech, personal

This post is day 111 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Something I often try to do with this blog is to simulate the experience of looking at our socioeconomic system with fresh eyes, in order to illuminate why things are the way they are (and why they’re bad). This is the basically the whole point of sociology, and it’s a tragedy that sociology is not more widely taught, especially when it comes to those who are more likely to uncritically support the system due to their position in its higher strata. Well-paid tech workers, for example.

So here’s today’s question: how did money become seen as a universal motivator to get people to work? Why is our entire mode of production engineered around the assumption that people will work to make money, either to save or to spend?

There is, of course, the Marxist answer, which has an elegant simplicity to it: capitalism ensures that the means of survival (food, shelter, clothing, transport, etc) are commodities, to be purchased with money; for most, that money is only available if you sell your labour-power. (There are those who inherit money as well, but the number of people who inherit enough that they never have to work is vanishingly small.) In other words, the reason money is able to motivate people into working is because capitalism has made it so.

But this sort of explanation feels a little unsatisfying, because it glosses over the differences between different types of work, occupying different locations in the economic pyramid. A single parent with no savings nor family wealth is motivated by money in a very different way from someone who was employee #20 at Uber and is hoping to cash out from the IPO before driver unrest destroys their whole business model. Both workers might feel stressed out at work, and both might even hate their jobs, but the money that motivates both of them to keep working does not function the same way in each case. There is an ocean of difference between working because you’re poor and you basically have to, and working even though you could afford not to because you see the dangled possibility of immense wealth.

At the extreme ends of the spectrum, money takes on remarkably different characteristics: a dollar means something very different to someone who is homeless than it does to a billionaire. For the former, it might mean being able to survive another day; for the latter, why would they even bother getting out of bed for anything less than a million dollars (and even then, why do they need that extra million)?

Money can play a disciplinary role, or it can be aspirational, or it can be something else entirely: mere numbers in a bank account, whose growth you watch with increasing numbness, hoping that there will come a point when it all feels worth it.

In my last year of college, I had to start thinking pretty seriously about the function of money, and how I personally was supposed to relate to it. I had just taken an offer for a job which sounded great on paper and which everyone said I should be excited about, but I wasn’t excited. In fact, it felt like a huge letdown. I had spent most of high school and college working my ass off to mold myself into the perfect worker, in an almost religious pursuit of productivity in preparation for entering the workforce - all for what? So I could start spending 40 hours a week at my desk, doing whatever my boss asks me to do, in exchange for a salary and health insurance?

Maybe the problem was me - I had drunk the tech Kool-Aid to the point where I sincerely believed that working in tech should be about more than money: if you worked on a cool problem that makes the world a better place, the money would follow, but it was never the driving factor. I pitied those who were stuck in jobs that felt like “just a job”; I wanted to do what I loved, and I had every confidence that I would be given that option. But looking at the landscape of available software engineering jobs, I was struck with the possibility that maybe money was the main selling point after all. Maybe the absurd amounts of money in tech were meant as compensation for something else. Maybe the 6-figure salaries were bribes, in exchange for working on something that was not making the world a better place, and which might even be making the world worse.

I ended up taking a route that made me a lot less money in the hopes of finding a path that felt a little less sterile. Unfortunately, it turns out that doing your own startup is not always a path to doing what you love, either; if your goal is to actually make the world a better place, you will soon find that many of the world’s most pressing problems are simply not on the startup playing field. You cannot solve homelessness or in-work poverty with an app. Not all problems are technical problems; sometimes the problem lies in the very socioeconomic system that glorifies startups and favours funding them over nearly everything else. Sometimes the problem is capitalism.

The tech industry often gets caricatured as a place where everybody loves their job, probably because its most vocal defenders paint it that way. The worst kind of founders/execs/managers like to brag about how their company won’t hire anyone unless they demonstrate that they love the company’s product and wholeheartedly believe in the mission. It’s not enough to admit (truthfully) that you need a job to pay your bills; you need to put on a performance of wanting the job because you love enterprise sales software and it would be your dream to help build an integrated marketing suite that enables Nike to sell more sneakers.

The really sad thing is that this isn’t always a performance. Part of the way the system maintains its state of equilibrium is by convincing the subjects within it that the system is good. It creates the conditions that allow future workers to genuinely believe that the most valuable thing they can do with their life is to fit into the system as it exists, who then dutifully take up jobs at Google or McKinsey or Uber or whatever. This way, the system contains possible opposition: the underclasses may hate their jobs, but have little choice but to do them anyway; whereas those with the greatest economic leverage often end up taking roles that reproduce the system, even though they theoretically have the most ability to exit.

After all, theoretical ability to exit does not always translate into actual ability to exit. Even when money no longer holds disciplinary power over you (i.e., you could afford to quit your job, at least for a while), there’s always a strong cultural pull to keep working. Wage labour is still the primary mechanism for organising economic activity, and all the ideological apparatuses of society are set up to convince people that work is good, and honourable, and important.

This gives rise to an unpleasant side effect: people end up spending their finite time on this earth doing something they don’t really want to do, that they know is not making the world a better place. Sometimes it’s because they really do need the money; sometimes it’s because they just haven’t found any better alternatives; sometimes it’s because they’ve absorbed the prevailing message that the apotheosis of life is to accumulate money for its own sake. Whatever the reason, a gap has opened up between the work that they are doing, and the work that they want to be doing.

You can see this gap expressed in the rising number of people who are exiting the workforce, or who leave high-paying jobs because they no longer believe in the mission or even just realised that money isn’t everything. People are never quite as “rational” and financially motivated as economists’ models would have you think: money may be a good incentive to work if you’re broke, but once you’ve left the realm of necessity behind, money ceases to become a stick and instead becomes a carrot. And a carrot is never as effective as a stick; the high of “doing what you love” only lasts so long before you realise that tweaking button animations in an iOS app for a giant profit-driven corporation can be deeply unfulfilling.

The system as it works now is fraught with all sorts of tensions and contradictions. In its failures, however, perhaps we can find glimpses of a better world. There are jobs that people take despite being underpaid because they genuinely love the work they do and/or think it is important (teaching, nursing, and legal aid are examples that come to mind). There are people who refuse to take certain potentially lucrative roles in tech/finance/etc, because they know that the promises of immense wealth are not actually necessary for living a decent life, and because the money can’t make up for the moral or emotional compromises required.

What I want is a system where work is arranged in a way that is more equitable, and more democratically-controlled, in a way that is aligned with what society actually needs to function. I do not think this is possible within a laissez-faire economic system, where the role of the state in economic planning is limited to using crude levers like playing around with interest rates to hit a particular rate of inflation or unemployment. The current system is producing so many downsides: widespread alienation, the creation of socially unnecessary jobs purely because it might be profitable for someone, poor economic prospects for anyone who refuses to follow the “learn to code and work in tech” playbook.

This can’t be the best we can do. In fact, we don’t need a wholesale revolution to improve things, either; there are small, incremental changes that can be made from where we are, which could have the outcome of moving us closer to a fairer system that’s less distorted by financial power. A shorter work week. Stronger social safety nets. Union-friendly legislation. A higher minimum wage. Workers on corporate boards. Extremely high marginal tax rates on income and/or wealth above a certain amount. Tightening regulation to shrink especially harmful jobs/industries. It’s all doable - we just need to fight for it.

If you’re interested in reading more about the problems with work, I’d recommend checking out Autonomy, a think tank based in the UK. I’d also recommend this episode of the TrashFuture podcast featuring Will Stronge, Autonomy’s director.

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