In Victorian times, people went to work to get resources that they needed to support their families. Factory shifts were often twelve hours long and mind-numbingly boring. Nobody did it for anything other than the money.
But is that true in our modern era. Are people really working for money? Or is something else motivating them to return to the office day after day? It’s a tricky question.
When you look at the statistics of how people are earning, they paint an interesting picture. The average person working today only needs to work eight hours per week to get the same standard of living as somebody living in 1900. 120 years of economic growth have delivered staggering returns to the point where the average person is able to live like a king in the middle ages. It’s quite remarkable.
And yet people don’t work eight, sixteen or even twenty-four hours per week. People actually put in more like 45 hours per week when all is said and done. That’s a lot of hours. And it can’t all be about the money. Most people can live well for much less.
There must be another part of this story.
One explanation is “meaning.” For whatever reason, people associate their work with the reason they’re here. It’s something to do and it provides value to the society around them. Many individuals love the sensation that they’re working hard at the grindstone to improve the quality of their family life and the rest of the community. They could earn a lot less, but they choose not to because they have valuable skills that benefit others. As they learn more about the impact they have, it becomes harder and harder for them to justify time away from the office. They need to go into work because other people rely on them. Taking half of the year off to travel or pursue hobbies simply isn’t an option.
There’s another reason people don’t work primarily for money: status. Everyone wants to feel like they are a valued member of their community and respected by their peers. They want to have a sense that the value they create benefits someone, beyond themselves. And that drives many people towards working for status. They think that the higher they rise in the ranks, the better they will feel about themselves.
Perhaps the biggest reasons for working so long and hard is the fact that people are trying to escape spending time unproductively. Some psychologists chalk this up to a kind of guilt of laziness. But the real reason is probably existential angst. Work takes people away from the knowledge that their life doesn’t have any purpose beyond themselves. So they pursue it as strongly as they can, using it to fill their time so that they can avoid being alone with themselves.
Work, therefore, isn’t all about the money. It’s also about fulfilling other human needs. It’s a critical part of life, and one of the reasons why unemployment is so damaging to society.