Back when everyone hunted and gathered for a living, no one worked for the money, or the weekend, because neither existed. The point of every job was to make other people’s lives better. Workers earned not only a just living but, more importantly, secure inclusion in the power and safety of the group. Everyone who did their share enjoyed the security and advantages of true belonging. Those who didn’t were cast out and soon eaten by hyenas.
Work had purpose back in the teeny-tiny societies of pre-history. Everyone needed everyone else and was invested in each other’s career success. If you failed to chase off the sabertooth tigers during your shift, the whole tribe suffered. Everyone pulled together and the value of each member’s work was seen, known, appreciated, and impossible to ignore.
Today, you can bust butt for forty years and never meet the people you’re working for. Workers are replaced like dead batteries. Our value is reduced to time spent on task and speed of output. No one is invested in anyone else. Workers come and go, get fired, and die with hardly a glance.
It wasn’t always like this, and you don’t have to go back to the caves to see examples. My uncle worked his whole career for one company. My first job was a union supermarket gig with good wages and fair conditions in an atmosphere of general contentment. It wasn’t long ago that there were still remnants of loyalty and respect in the workplace.
We no longer live in the small, close-knit tribes that we are evolutionarily optimized for. Today, it’s much harder to ever feel the kind of social security and belonging that we’re wired to require. Nevertheless, we are still one giant mega-tribe and our contributions to the greater good are still at the heart of our instinctual programming. We must contribute and we must get a sense that our contribution is important and needed. If we fail to do either, we are miserable, unsatisfied, and downright disgruntled.
When we strip away the appreciation, fair pay, respect, safe conditions, agency, input, and dignity from work, we don’t just get lower prices and immense, inequitably centralized profits, we get chaos. Like, despair, suffering, unemployment, unrest, political strongmen, violence, infighting, racism, and social collapse.
We have been squeezed by corporations for decades, consistently enduring cuts in compensation, conditions, and satisfaction. The result is social insecurity. Very few workers feel important and needed. It’s typically impossible to even ascertain that anyone knows we’re alive. We feel marginal and replaceable. Or unemployed and useless. We’re fighting among ourselves. Blaming immigrants. Blaming each other. Storming capitals. And all while the culprit is in plain sight.
Corporations remove the onus of decency from individual managers and owners and diffuse it into thin air. No one is bearing any responsibility. It’s the impersonal system’s fault. Blame the corporate charter. Blame the web of laws written to protect them. Blame China. Blame your neighbor for taking your shitty job.
CEOs are not inherently evil. They are only doing what other CEOs are doing. If they refuse to make one of the hundreds of ethical compromises required by their “fiduciary duty,” it has no net effect, except to their own employment. Some other eager beaver, full of debt, ambition, piss, and vinegar is always waiting to rush in to take their place. It’s all too easy to imagine how this has slid downhill, one small indiscretion at a time.
Corporations are also trying to compete and survive on the global stage, playing against other countries with different arrays of worker protections. It’s a tragedy-of-the-commons-sponsored race to oppression and exploitation.
It’s a tragic situation. We are all cognitively wired to make the world better for each other. And the main thing we want in exchange is simply to know that others have our backs. But sadly, those kinds of jobs are long gone.
This runs all the way up the ladder. Executives are just as worried. Their peers only have their backs only until they find an opportunity to slip a knife in them. The big wheels may have bragging rights, money, power, position, and even fame, but none of that scratches their real itch, which is to be certain that they are socially secure in the protective embrace of the group.
Article one of our modern industrial constitution says that everyone is replaceable. The current penthouse occupants enjoy no reprieve from being yet another hot-swappable component in the machine. And because so many others want their jobs, they suffer just as much, or more, pressure, stress, isolation, mistrust, Xanax, and insecurity as the rest of us.
Humans aren’t running around afraid of death. We’re worried to death about the persistent and real sense that we’re not critical to the tribe. We’re scrambling to ascertain the credentials that we think will free us from the fear. But in so doing, the most ambitious and advantaged of us have contributed to the destruction of the very society they’re trying to be a part of, including their own chance to make a meaningful contribution. Making life worse is the opposite of what we’re trying to do.
We are suffering a full-scale crisis of meaning and purpose. Work without meaning is a hollow grind at best, and servitude at worst.
Respect, recognition, inclusion, and a fair share of the spoils are the only things that our hunter-gatherer ancestors ever gave each other for services rendered. It’s critical that we find a new, modern way to return this essential and fundamental idea to the marketplace and our lives.
There are some economic costs in paying fair wages and letting workers pee when they need. But there are far greater, much more dire costs in not doing so. The most immediate is everyone’s misery and lack of satisfaction, including those at the top. The longer-term costs include Earth’s habitability.
We don’t have much time to recognize this basic reality. The whole machine is rattling with the broken pieces of misguided ambitions. We need to recognize that excessive wealth has no positive function in our economy or society. We need to fully dispel the preposterous myth that something resembling satisfaction lives in money, power, position, and fame.
And we need to get back to the real reason we work. ASAP.