Changing seasons and successful (or lack thereof) hunts brought cyclical periods of feast and famine. Life was short, harsh and marked by extremes.
While work was physically laborious, it was also far simpler in many aspects than it is today. Divisions of labor duties certainly existed, but more often than not, work was a communal effort. Schedules were kept around sunlight, migrating herds of game animals and the mood of the weather.
Beyond that, the work pace was set around the rest of the tribe’s activity. Enough was done with the light given in a day to keep the tribe fed, sheltered, and safe. Working above and beyond that was unnecessary.
Things changed over the millennia. With the advent of farming came civilization. Farming created an ability to feed a larger population. The ability to grow and store a surplus of food was possible. Trade and barter reached a level never before seen during the hunter and gatherer days. Class divisions arose with the creation of individual property rights.
For larger areas of land under cultivation, help was needed in the sowing and reaping. Labor was procured from individuals who often had no land of their own (the lower classes). Assuming they weren’t slaves, these laborers were some of the earliest wage earners as far as history knows it. Payment was often made with anything of value; usually a share of the harvest.
As civilizations grew, they became more complex. Governing bodies expanded in proportion to the needs of citizens. Standing armies were needed which created a demand for professional soldiers.
Money was created. The privileges of living within the relative safety and comfort of a civilization brought on the concept of taxation which created tax collectors among many other civil duties.
Religion played an important and constant role in the lives of citizens of early civilizations. No religion would be complete of course without the men who gave the word of the gods to the masses. These religious leaders were revered in their time. Their teachings were often seen as absolute and unquestionable.
Complex societies also inspired complex thinking. Inventions and new gadgets increasingly became the norm. Inventions and their resultant byproducts were often sold or traded for other items. These early sales jobs brought on the merchant class.
Larger populations living in tighter quarters brought on the need for urban planning. Architecture became a job of precision and critical thinking. Pioneers in early engineering had to sludge through the uncertainty of trial and error as they designed buildings, bridges, roads and aqueducts.
Institutionalized education was created as knowledge was gathered and coded into writing. The ability to decipher and make sense of what was written came to be known as “reading.” Teachers took up the role that was once designated to mothers, fathers and village elders.
With the advancement of civilization, the job market became increasingly diverse. The multiplication of jobs and the division of labor became as complex as man’s own knowledge of mathematics itself expanded.
Over the centuries, technology and resources (and therefore power) was consolidated in the hands of an elite few. The royal and noble classes formed a close-knit social club which few from the lower class could penetrate. Power was inherited across blood lines.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Thousands of years of war, conquests, unrest, politics, inventions, migrations and diplomacy have seen nearly the entire human race fall under the rule of what we refer to as “civilization.”
The few tribes of Indigenous people who stubbornly hold out in the rain forests of South America and New Guinea represent the last living cultures which provide insight into labor at its simplest: “I’m hungry, I’m going to get something to eat. What can the forest provide for me today? I’ll eat and use what there I find.”
In this environment, concern for paper and digital currency is not an issue. You take what nature provides and nothing more. The relationship between the laborer and what he’s working for is direct.
Let’s say you want honey for example. You simply go directly to the bee hive and get it.
In a more complex civilization, our civilization, the honey is gathered by someone you probably never have met. It is then put into a container and sold to a consumer; either directly or through a middleman. Often, the honey passes through several middlemen before ever reaching the belly of its final destination.
Naturally, the price and ultimately the value of the honey increases after passing through each middleman since each vendor will be earning at least a small profit from the honey. Unless the honey is stolen or traded on the black market, the ruling government of the country where each middleman resides will receive a small share of each transaction. This division of labor and use of money exemplifies how much we’ve changed culturally.
At one time, the collection and distribution of honey may have involved just one individual. It was then distributed among friends and family in a village or perhaps neighboring villages.
In a globalized world however, honey purchased at a supermarket is often collected or produced by a nameless face. The honey passes through the hands of the individuals who bottle it, pack it, ship it, store it in a warehouse, pick it for an order, ship it out, deliver it to a supermarket where it is then stocked by another individual and picked up by a customer who will let the bottle of honey pass through one more pair of hands at the cash register (assuming the consumer doesn’t use the self-checkout line). Upwards of eight different employees work to do eight different jobs. Men in business suits (who may not even like the product they sale) run the companies where the workers who handle the honey work.
Our hunter and gatherer ancestors had a close relationship with the bees who made their honey. It was personal. There was perhaps even an appreciation for the ill-tempered insects who produce one of nature’s finest sweeteners.
The same can be said for the hunter who gives a day, perhaps two days of his short life, in the pursuit of his quarry. The hunter is not spared seeing how much the animal may have suffered during the kill. For more traditional cultures, the sound and sight of a dying animal are part of what it means to eat.
The labor involved with the skinning, butchering and cooking of the animal only adds more value to the meat which, in today’s world can be purchased with the money earned from three hours of office work or perhaps four hours of warehouse work. As a consequence, we’re spared a critical part of the web of life: facing and owning up to the fact the something must die so we can eat.
This aspect transcends the food supply. It can be seen across the board in many aspects of society with the de-personalization of labor and material consumption. A good example is careless littering without consideration for who will eventually (hopefully) clean up the trash. “It’s their job” or so goes the line. Needless to say, it should come as no surprise as to why wastefulness is endemic in developed countries.
We associate what we consume with paper money and numbers instead of a living creature that died so we can eat, a forest that is cut down for raw materials, or air that is polluted so we can have electricity. “It’s just money,” is the common rebuttal when someone’s wastefulness is challenged.
This attitude of wastefulness certainly isn’t irreversible. A certain amount of responsibility is certainly needed to accompany the privileges of modern civilization. Given the fact that we truly are making all this up as we go along, awareness and mature consumption have simply yet to catch up with our level of development.
While certain meaningful aspects of labor have been lost with the division and de-personalization of labor, one key factor remains truer than ever: we work so that we can live. We trade our time and ultimately a part of our life for something of value in return. On the whole, we no longer work directly for the products we consume. Instead we work to earn money.
Money is given a certain value. Our skill level and what we provide to our employer, and ultimately to society, is what determines our value (and therefore our pay) as workers.
We then trade this money for the uncountable number of goods and services available to the modern consumer. The basic point of work however, still stands. We work to live. “To live” now holds meaning beyond survival. To truly live means enjoying life to the fullest with everything it has to offer within our financial and logistical means.
To a large extent, work helps us achieve that. Beyond just earning money to buy “a life”, it is the work itself which can often provide meaning. Much meaning can be had from serving others and working in unison for the sake of the greater good.
The modern working world brings people together from different social classes, cultures and ethnicities. As such, relationships are born among people from different walks of life. Such relationships would otherwise not be forged in a more traditional labor setting.
Then there’s the most meaningful aspect of all: working so that others can live. The instinct to care for those who can’t take of themselves (children for instance) is perhaps one of the most primal instincts we carry. It crosses the boundaries of both genders and often manifests itself as a drive to wake up in the morning and go to a job we would otherwise not care to go to.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with aspiring for a well-paying and more enjoyable profession. But, don’t let a mundane job description fool you. There’s meaning in work. All work.