If everything is about Work then what is Life?

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I’ve helped to run a few amateur drama groups in different towns over the years and they are now strangely skewed in their membership. They’re full of old members (over 65) and young members (under 20) – the middle is missing.

The middle is missing because people are at work and don’t have time for hobbies any more.

CV’s used to have a Hobbies and Interests section that showed what you did with your life away from work. Strangely, from today’s perspective, it was there to show companies not merely that you were human but that there were good reasons you wouldn’t be at work all the time.

Now Work is everything and it is ruining Life.

The Framing of Life thru Work

Probably the biggest change over my life is how society is now completely obsessed with Work.

This seems to have happened after the Reagan/Thatcher period.

Work as something needed to do to get enough money to live had, since the war, become less true. Between better wages (negotiated by strong unions), shorter hours and broader government-run social security networks, there was less need to work as painfully as during the Industrial Revolution.

All political parties still spoke of ensuring ‘full employment’ but it was a hope not a threat.

Work now defines what it is to be human. Life is framed by Work – birth, education, hobbies, disability, holidays – all talked about and analysed thru the focal point of Work.

Work is who you are. Preparing for Work is what your childhood is defined by. Your Life outside of Work is defined by work hours and work tasks. Your future, good or bad, is defined by Work. Your health, your wellbeing, your happiness – all in terms of Work.

That odd viewpoint also now affects the future: how both Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robots are being developed are framed by human work. If humans only exist to work then obviously AI and automation are terrible threats.

Ideas of Work have gone wrong and that means the future of work (and society) will go wrong.

The dignity of Work

Work and working as a good activity have a long history.

There has always been an idea of doing tasks to enable survival. That this became work is coupled with ideas of being told what to do and being remunerated for doing what you were told.

This is why there was a difference between volunteering and working.

The dignity of work is a strange scrambling of industrial revolution ideals and religion. It built on longer term fears of the feckless poor (and many years of Poor Laws in the UK): a group of people who didn’t want to work.

Nowadays, because life is defined primarily by work, the dignity of work has also become a threat. To not work is somehow an insult to both self and society. To be unable to work all the time is an unconscionable failure of self in society.

Working is a test of human worth in a way that it should not be. Schools teach to enable employability, exams are merely certificates of capacity, passion is a job requirement not a human characteristic and people are measured by task aptitude.

Unspeakable cruelty is piled onto people with impairments who cannot work as much as is defined by people who think life without work is meaningless. Horrific working hours and conditions loaded onto people who are designed as unskilled in a system that games qualifications and job descriptions.

In a world like this, how can anyone be human?

Work/Life Balance

Work/Life Balance is a phrase that sounds optimistic but is at core a declaration of failure.

Only in a society in which Work is primary can the idea that balance with Life is needed. That it’s even a discussion point shows the failure. Even more strangely, it’s a failure we’d already experienced.

It had become clear during the Industrial Revolution that companies will abuse people to the fullest extent possible without severe controls over their behaviour. The rise of unions and government regulations were in reaction to that behaviour. Companies have personal (corporate as in body) status legally but that does not mean they are human or humane.

Work/Life Balance is giving a name to a failure. Much like Human Resource departments do not care for employees but for corporations, so work/life balance discussions are about work not life.

The Future of Work

When life is work and human dignity is defined by work then anything that reduces availability of work or changes the nature of work is a threat.

AI and automation are often written about in fearful terms as they reduce availability of work to humans.

This is terrible if you believe Work is the purpose of Life.

Using a work perspective on human existence, then robots and algorithms are awful things. If human self worth and dignity is founded on paid employment to do tasks as instructed by managers then the future of work is grim. The future is about reducing dignity and removing the central element of Life.

This is the trap that a Work-defined society has created. People need to break out of the trap by refusing to agree with the idea that Work defines Life. Dignity and Balance defined in terms of Work are wrong. Human life is not about following orders to do tasks for pay. That’s part of Life but it should not be the core of it.

Reframing Life

The trap now is how everything is framed and focussed by Work. All human activities are somehow held within Work.

Escaping the trap is to recognise how conversations, opinions and plans are Work framed.

To discuss Life it’s necessary to stop thinking of it in terms of Work.

Watch for the bias that leads to Work defining how you or your organisation think about Life.

Written by

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

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