Ora et labora. Pray and work. This was one of the main teachings of Catholicism in the Middle Ages, giving many people what they needed: a goal in their life. If you work and respect your God, you are a useful citizen. In the 21st century, religion has a smaller role in determining one’s identity, but work is still one of the biggest parts of identity. It determines the main community, pursuit, and possibilities of one’s life in society. However, today it seems there is a transformation. From the increasing automatization through the recent success of the 4-day long working week to the current trend to be free-lance workers, the working environment has become much more unstable and is currently becoming less and less the alpha and omega of human existence. But what does this transformation bring us? Are we able to cope with this huge structural change, by redefining our goals in life and breaking up with a thousand years old cultural heritage or by rethinking working environments, bringing back the stability it gives? This question is exceptionally relevant in today’s society, where many, primarily young people, suffer from this problem. Let’s jump back in time: how did work become so important in our lives?
Well, it started in pre-historic times, where “unemployment” meant certain death. If one did not contribute to the well-being of the tribe, it could have happened that they would be left behind, with no food and protection. Therefore, work became necessary for survival and this led to increased cooperation between the members of a tribe, which was beneficial for everyone, thus there was no incentive to change this behavior. The increased cooperation led to the division of labor between the members, which accordingly led to higher efficiency and productivity; so, work was in fact the pathway for survival and well-being.
However, in the ancient world, this role of work transformed into something else, for instance the building of pyramids was not exactly crucial for survival. Work in this age was more about organization and hierarchy in society. For example, in Egypt, this organization of labor was the way to a proper redistribution of water and other resources. This hierarchy was solely based on work and family and widened and specified the division of labor. Armies, accountants, farmers, craftsmen, and many more occupations appeared in this age, and although the political environment differed (democracy in Athens and absolutist power in Egypt for instance), the basic social classes were the same. In conclusion, the work in this age was not only about individual survival but also a key organizational tool in society.
In the following sections I will only focus on European working culture.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, where the division of labor peaked, the European culture of work had a decline, and work was again about survival and self-sufficiency. There were many smallholder farms, trade had declined, therefore reducing the role of many newly found professions. However, as new states emerged from the vacuum left behind by the Roman Empire, the emergence of feudal society, the division of labor and societal hierarchy came back stronger than ever: commerce started inside and between these newly found states, increasing the need for high efficiency and productivity. Guilds appeared in cities, creating family businesses and giving almost sure pathways for young adults, who did not think about different career choices: they continued their fathers’ and grandfathers’ work. Religion also strengthened this way of thinking, which is captured by the opening motto, Ora et labora. It can be said, that in this age, the culture of work had been formed and strengthened; work was not only a necessary tool for survival but also for existential safety and social interaction. For the latter let’s see, for instance, Sunday’s markets.
Take a big jump forward to the invention of the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution. Increasing economic growth and more focus on mass production instead of agriculture or artisanship, both led to the restructuring of social hierarchy: many people from rural areas moved to cities and started to work in factories, thereby creating the working class in society. This new structure was the base of modern society for a long time as it was the most efficient division of labor given the level of technology.
As it is evident, work had a central role in the history of humanity, for both individuals and society. But how are things today?
As I mentioned, currently humanity is experiencing a great transformation of this central role. Why? Well, first of all, technological improvement has sped up. Therefore, in many professions, one does not have to be physically at their workplace, causing an antisocial type of work, where people do not necessarily socialize with their colleagues, but only work with them. This process is fastened by the nowadays popular entrepreneurial lifestyle, which includes project-based work contracts with many different companies, leading to a more decentralized type of working. This lifestyle lacks the stability that was given in earlier work systems. Another reason for this transformation is the almost unlimited possibility of variations in career choices. As studies have shown, people feel less happy about their choice, if they have too many options, and although the experiments were made with products, why would it be different when choosing one’s career and pathway? The situation worsens when there is social pressure to make this decision as soon as possible. This also causes instability and uncertainty in one’s life. Maybe the biggest reason is automatization: many professions that existed 100 years ago do not exist now, and many occupations that exist now, probably will not exist in 20 years, which, again, leads to increased instability and a huge amount of uncertainty (of course, there will be many more, currently not existing jobs, but those will not save us from uncertainty). And the last reason is a fresh trend: shortened working weeks. As there are many successful experiments with 4 day-long working weeks, people in the near future may spend almost half of their week outside their workplace, but there comes the question: with what?
All in all, it seems that instability and uncertainty are characterizing today’s society and will probably become the norm of tomorrows. This is not necessarily a bad thing: it comes with a lot of freedom and an infinite amount of possibilities. But these can be paralyzing too, and this latter seems to be proved by the increasing amount of people with treated or untreated anxiety. So, let’s see what options humanity has.
In my opinion, there are two possibilities. The first one is to recreate safe and certain workplaces: for instance, promoting smallholder farms or any other environmental jobs, where there is continuous work, needing human labor, with a given local community. This would have a positive impact on the environment and give stability to those who want it. As there is always a job for everyone in defending the environment by picking up trash or treating plants, this could provide many opportunities.
The other one (and the more likely, to be honest), is to learn how to live our life properly considering work only a part of our identity; how to create functioning communities based on values and not on the same workplace, how to spend our time with the people and activities that we really love. This is a hard process filled with much anxiety and fear. But if humanity could grab this chance, we could defeat this urgent societal and existential problem.