Why Work?

Roger Opie begins our special feature on the work ethic, including a bibliography by Patrick Joyce

If we define 'work' as 'toil, labour, drudgery', a child who asked such a question as 'Why work?' would need a pretty persuasive answer. Even if we generalise the definition to include, rather ungrammatically, 'anything you would rather be doing something else than' – and thereby rule out those jobs that are (mildly) enjoyable in themselves, it seems obvious that there should be some gain, benefit or reward from work.

In the simplest sense, and most clearly in a simple economy, the reward is obvious and direct – 'if you don't work, you can't eat'. In such an economy, it is likely that everyone joins in the hunting, or the cultivating, or the fishing. There are two peculiarities. Most societies ritualise such work and surround and support it with festivals and gaiety. Work becomes fun. Secondly, the more numerous the prey, the richer the soil, the thicker the shoals, the less need one work – 'Summertime, when the living was easy', as Gershwin wrote in Porgy and Bess. The richer the reward, the less one worked. Work was simply a means to a limited end – the meeting of basic needs.

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