Jasmine Gartner - trainer, anthropologist and business consult on employee engagement - considers the two ways in which we think about the idea of work.

A long time ago, when my grandfather came back to Paris after WWII, he took a job as a street sweeper. Before the war, he’d been a businessman; but the world had changed. He taught my mother that work doesn’t define you; but equally, no matter what your job, you should work hard and do your best.

I like this story because it perfectly encapsulates the two opposite ways in which we tend to think about the idea of work. Both are built around inequality and hierarchy.

Work to Live

The first way we often think of work is that it’s the opposite of ‘life’ or ‘leisure’ – in this sense, work is a chore, it’s the things we don’t want to do, the Monday to Friday grind. It’s drudge work. This was how my grandfather saw his job as a street sweeper. He was a single father, and having work meant he could take care of his daughter.

Freud saw work – driven by external necessity – as one of the two foundations of community (the other being love). John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that we would only be working 15 hour weeks, spending the rest of our time on leisure, which only makes sense if you think of work as something you’d rather not do.

A recent article about a post-work world explores the history of the idea of work. In it, the author suggests that for most of our history, work was seen as something to finish as quickly as you could - or, even better, to get other people to do it for you – so you could get to the good stuff: living. Straight away, this sets up a hierarchy of those who have to work and those who don’t - the more privileged you are, the less work you have to do.

Live to Work

The second way we think of work is as the thing that gives our life purpose, and today there is a great drive to ensure that work is meaningful, especially for younger generations of workers. However, this idea existed before too – my grandfather’s work as a businessman fell more into this category.

Technology has increasingly improved people’s lives by automating a lot of what is considered drudge work – administrative tasks, for example, and quite a bit of factory work. Hypothetically, this would free people up to do the more interesting work – in other words, purpose-driven work.  

I think there may be an illusion that a world predicated upon the idea of work as meaningful and purposeful would be more egalitarian than one where work is menial – there is the idea that everyone has the power to self-actualise.

However, the idea of purpose-driven work too sets up a hierarchy: until technology can really take over all of the menial labour that exists, someone will have to do it – whether it’s picking fruit or cleaning bedpans - and therefore, those who get to do purpose-driven work become the privileged. Not only this, but it assumes that everyone wants to run their own business and be the boss.

How do we address inequality in work?

As long as we live in a world where most people are driven to do work and certain types of jobs because of external necessity (to put a roof over their heads and take care of their families), this inevitably means that many people will have to do jobs that, given the choice, they probably wouldn’t do.

And as long as society is organised along a steep hierarchy, some kinds of work will be accorded more status and reward – in other words, inequality is built into the system.

But perhaps we can change this just a bit, going forward.

Instead of asking what the purpose in our work is, and rating it along some sort of hierarchical scale, I suggest that we look at what purpose work serves for each of us. The desire to work and find meaning (whether intrinsic to the work itself, or due to extrinsic necessity) is innate to our human nature. And in that, we are all equal.

By Jasmine Gartner, trainer, writer and business consultant on employee engagement, inclusion, unconscious bias and information & consultation and author of 'Employee Engagement: a little book of Big Ideas'.