You know how you can’t just knock on a random stranger’s door and ask them to watch your kids for a while? Like, you could, but it maybe wouldn’t be considered ‘safe parenting’.
This modern thing of not always knowing/trusting people in our immediate communities sometimes gives us the impression that humans are less co-dependent than we used to be.
But, as the wonderful Yuval Harari points out, we are actually more dependent on each other today than we’ve ever been before. Almost everything we use in our daily living activities - clothes, transport, food, tech - are things made or designed or grown or whatever by other people, and most of us don’t have the skills to make any of those things as ourselves, as individuals.
This high level of co-dependency that makes our modern lifestyle possible happens through a large number of people spending a large portion of their waking hours doing what we like to call “work”.
‘Work’, nowadays, often takes the form of highly specialised tasks - like making shoelaces in a factory, or designing specific bug-fixes for a specific type of software. Essentially, many of us make up lots of tiny tiny cogs in a very intricate but magnificent collaboration machine.
Some people enjoy their work, but it’s quite normal not to.
But we work anyway because we need money to live and have access to the fruits of the work of others. And so it has become that the prevailing perception of ‘work’, in modern times, is: ‘work is a means to get money to live.’
Work wasn’t always like this.
Once upon a time, the thing we today think of as ‘work’, was the thing individuals did to contribute to the group. Different people contributed different things, because division of labour just seems to be a thing that works for social animals. Imagine we all had to do everything by ourselves, as individuals?
If, for some reason, an individual in an early-human group was inclined to not contribute according to their ability, and just sit on their butt all day instead, then the group could easily cut off that person’s food/protection/friend supply and they would quickly be dead or alone.
So, as far as my research suggests, most people contributed.
And, so long as people lived in small groups, it is conceivable that everybody’s contribution was recognised as adding value to the group because all the value was so obvious. For example, without childcare, children would die, so the group would die out. Without elder wisdom, young people would do more dumb ‘young people’ things and probably also die a lot more. Without food-acquiring, people would starve and die. Basically: if one type of contribution was discontinued, there would be real actual death.
Today, by contrast, many contributions have a more subtle (though still valuable) impact on the group.
But, as we saw in last week’s post, eventually humans organised in bigger and bigger groups. Then money and payment for various contributing activities became a thing - and that brings us to where we are today, where many people are financially compensated for their various contributions. Because
Somewhere along the line, we started to link the ‘value’ of work to the amount of income it generates.
As Will pointed out to me, this is probably a standard demand/supply sort of thing. Labour that is in low supply and high demand is often perceived to be more valuable and can demand a higher price. Fair enough.
But in my opinion, this popular (even if subconscious) idea has some not-good consequences - one of the worst being that it results in the undervaluing of contributing actions (and people) that don’t earn money or earn less money.
Whereas when we consider this, remembering the whole original point of work (contributing to the group), the situation is shown it in a different light:
The idea that work equals contribution and work equals money has also meant that we’ve made paying taxes the only obligatory contribution in today’s society. Which means it’s possible to be ‘born into money’ and never have to contribute through time/energy. In the early human days, not contributing through time/energy at all might have got you kicked out the group. Nowadays, somehow, it’s a life situation that we envy.
What’s more, ignoring contributions that aren’t income-generating has the result that we might be missing out on benefitting from some contributions that could really be useful.
Like wisdom from older people.
You get the idea.
So what’s the point of all this?
Just that maybe by remembering the original ‘point’ of work, and remembering how dependent we still are on the work (or rather the ‘contributions’) of others, we might be in a better position to respect all contributions. Even (especially) the unpaid ones.
And also by remembering that contributory context, we might find a bit of extra meaning in our daily work.
If you’ve made it to the end of this long post
(1) you are a champion
(2) thank you
(3) stay cool
And that’s all for today - see you next week!