ondon — The most remarkable feature of the modern workplace has nothing to do with computers, automation or globalization. Rather, it lies in the Western world's widely held belief that our work should make us happy.
All societies throughout history have had work right at their center; but ours - particularly America's - is the first to suggest that it could be something other than a punishment or penance. Ours is the first to imply that a sane human being would want to work even if he wasn't under financial pressure to do so. We are unique, too, in allowing our choice of work to define who we are, so that the central question we ask of new acquaintances is not where they come from or who their parents are but, rather, what it is they do - as though only this could effectively reveal what gives a human life its distinctive timbre.
It wasn't always like this. Greco-Roman civilization tended to view work as a chore best left to slaves. For both Plato and Aristotle, fulfillment could be reached only when one had the command of a private income and could escape day-to-day obligations and freely devote oneself to the contemplation of ethical and moral questions. The entrepreneur and merchant may have had a nice villa and a heaping larder, but they played no role in the antique vision of the good life.
Early Christianity took a similarly bleak view of labor, adding the even darker thought that man was condemned to toil in order to make up for the sin of Adam. Working conditions, however abusive, could not be improved. Work wasn't accidentally miserable - it was one of the planks upon which earthly suffering was irrevocably founded. St. Augustine reminded slaves to obey their masters and accept their pain as part of what he termed, in "The City of God," the "wretchedness of man's condition."
The first signs of the modern, more cheerful attitude toward work can be detected in the city-states of Italy during the Renaissance, and in particular, in the biographies of the artists of the time. In descriptions of the lives of men like Michelangelo and Leonardo, we find some now familiar-sounding ideas about what our labors could ideally mean for us: a path to authenticity and glory. Rather than a burden and punishment, artistic work could allow us to rise above our ordinary limitations. We could express our talents on a page or on a canvas in a way we never could in our everyday lives. Of course, this new vision applied only to a creative elite (no one yet thought to tell a servant that work could develop his true self: that was a claim waiting for modern management theory), but it proved to be the model for all successive definitions of happiness earned through work.
It was not until the late 18th century that the model was extended beyond the artistic realm. In the writings of bourgeois thinkers like Benjamin Franklin, Diderot and Rousseau, we see work recategorized not only as a means to earn money, but also as a way to become more fully ourselves. It is worth noting that this reconciliation of necessity and happiness exactly mirrored the contemporary re-evaluation of marriage: just as marriage was rethought as an institution that could deliver both practical benefits and sexual and emotional fulfillment (a handy conjunction once thought impossible by aristocrats, who saw a need for a mistress and a wife), so too work was now alleged to be capable of delivering both the money necessary for survival and the stimulation and self-expression that had once been seen as the exclusive preserve of the leisured.
Simultaneously, people began to experience a new kind of pride in their work, in large part because the way that jobs were handed out took on a semblance of justice. In his autobiography, Thomas Jefferson explained that his proudest achievement had been to create a meritocratic United States, where "a new aristocracy of virtue and talent" replaced the old aristocracy of unfair privilege and, in many cases, brute stupidity. Meritocracy endowed jobs with a new, quasi-moral quality. Now that prestigious and well-paid posts seemed to be available on the basis of actual intelligence and ability, your job title could perhaps say something directly meaningful about you.
Over the 19th century, many Christian thinkers, especially in the United States, changed their views of money accordingly. American Protestant denominations suggested that God required his followers to lead a life that was successful both temporally and spiritually. Fortunes in this world were evidence that one deserved a good place in the next - an attitude reflected in the Rev. Thomas P. Hunt's 1836 bestseller "The Book of Wealth: In Which It Is Proved From the Bible That It Is the Duty of Every Man to Become Rich." John D. Rockefeller was not shy to say that it was the Lord who had made him rich, while William Lawrence, the Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts, writing in 1892, argued, "We, like the Psalmist, occasionally see the wicked prosper, but only occasionally,'' adding, "Godliness is in league with riches."
As meritocracy came of age, demeaning jobs came to seem not merely regrettable, but, just like their more exciting counterparts, also deserved. No wonder people started asking each other what they did - and listening very carefully to the answers.
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Though all this may seem like progress, in truth, modern attitudes toward work have unwittingly caused us problems. Today, claims are made on behalf of almost all kinds of work that are patently out of sync with what reality can provide. Yes, a few jobs are certainly fulfilling, but the majority are not and never can be. We would therefore be wise to listen to some of the pessimistic voices of the pre-modern period, if only to stop torturing ourselves for not being as happy in our work as we were told we could be.
William James once made an acute point about the relationship between happiness and expectation. He argued that satisfaction with ourselves does not require us to succeed in every endeavor. We are not always humiliated by failing; we are humiliated only if we first invest our pride and sense of worth in a given achievement, and then do not reach it. Our goals determine what we will interpret as a triumph and what must count as a failure: "With no attempt there can be no failure; with no failure no humiliation." So our self-esteem in this world is determined by the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities. Thus:
If happiness at work is now so hard to earn, perhaps it is because our pretensions have so substantially outstripped reality. We expect every job to deliver some of the satisfaction available to Sigmund Freud or Franklin Roosevelt. Perhaps we should be reading Marx instead. Of course, Marx was a poor historian and wrong in all his prescriptions for a better world, but he was rather acute at diagnosing why work is so often miserable. In this respect, he drew on Immanuel Kant, who wrote in his "Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals" that behaving morally toward other people required that one respect them "for themselves" instead of using them as a "means" for one's enrichment or glory. Thus Marx, famously accused the bourgeoisie, and its new science, economics, of practicing "immorality" on a grand scale: "Political economy knows the worker only as a working animal - as a beast reduced to strictest bodily needs." The wages paid to employees were, said Marx, just "like the oil which is applied to wheels to keep them turning,'' adding, "The true purpose of work is no longer man, but money."
Marx may have been erratically idealizing the pre-industrial past and unduly castigating the bourgeoisie, but he ably captured the inescapable degree of conflict between employer and employee. Every commercial organization will try to gather raw materials, labor and machinery at the lowest possible price to combine them into a product that can be sold at the highest possible price.
And yet, troublingly, there is one difference between "labor" and other elements that conventional economics does not have a means to represent, or give weight to, but which is nevertheless unavoidably present: labor feels pain and pleasure. When production lines grow prohibitively expensive, they may be switched off and will not cry at the seeming injustice of their fate. A business can move from using coal to natural gas without the neglected energy source walking off a cliff.
But labor has a habit of meeting attempts to reduce its price or presence with emotion. It sobs in toilet stalls, it gets drunk to ease its fears of under-achievement, and it may choose death over redundancy.
These emotional responses point us to two, perhaps conflicting, imperatives coexisting in the workplace: an economic imperative that dictates that the primary task of business is to realize a profit, and a human imperative that leads employees to hunger for financial security, respect, tenure and even, on a good day, fun. Though the two imperatives may for long periods coexist without apparent friction, all wage-dependent workers live under an awareness that should there ever have to be a serious choice between the two, it is the economic one that must always prevail. These pressures are no less absent from the lives of the self-employed - whether they own the corner laundry or the town real-estate brokerage - for in their cases, the economy as a whole (local, national and global) acts as the employer.
Struggles between labor and capital may no longer, in the developed world at least, be as bare-knuckled as in Marx's day. Yet, despite advances in working conditions and employee protections, workers remain in essence tools in a process in which their own happiness or economic well-being is necessarily incidental. Whatever camaraderie may build up between employer and employed, whatever goodwill workers may display and however many years they may have devoted to a task, they must live with the knowledge and attendant anxiety that their status is not guaranteed - that it remains dependent on their own performance and the economic well-being of their organizations; that they are hence a means to profit, and never ends in themselves.
This is all sad, but not half as sad as it can be if we blind ourselves to the reality and raise our expectations of our work to extreme levels. A firm belief in the necessary misery of life was for centuries one of mankind's most important assets, a bulwark against bitterness, a defense against dashed hopes. Now it has been cruelly undermined by the expectations incubated by the modern worldview.
Now perhaps, as many of us return from summer vacations, we can temper their sadness by remembering that work is often more bearable when we don't, in addition to money, expect it always to deliver happiness.
Alain de Botton is the author of "How Proust Can Change Your Life" and "Status Anxiety."