Last week, I starting thinking about why so many people devote so much of their lives to work, and seem to get so little enjoyment or reward in return. It doesn’t seem to make a great deal of sense. Surveys show that many people, perhaps a majority, feel dissatisfied with some major aspect of their working lives. It may be lack of satisfaction, too little free time, too little reward, or work that bores and frustrates them.

Life isn’t always (or often) fair and few people get all that they want, but to have so many people who feel dissatisfied with a major aspect of their life raises an important question. What is the problem? Why are so many people so unhappy? What is work for?

There is an obvious and superficial answer to the last question: you work to make enough money to support yourself and any family you may have. But that doesn’t seem a good enough answer. If work had no more than this utilitarian purpose, no one would do a single hour of work past the point where they had enough money to sustain life. You could argue that what people see as “enough” varies hugely. Some are content with modest lives; others want the best of everything. But the general point would still hold good.

Well, yes. But that doesn’t explain why ultra-rich people go on working and amassing money far past the point where they are even able to spend it in their lifetime. Nor does it address the phenomenon I tried to think about in my posting Leisure Is the Meaning of Work. It seems for many people today work is no longer a means to an end (whatever that end may be). The reward for work success has become the requirement to work still more . . . and so on, for ever and ever. Amen. A means to a means to a means. Maybe that’s why so many are feeling frustrated and miserable: the end for which work is the means never comes into view. It’s just more work ahead, like in the old Buddhist tale about the guru who told his disciples that the world sits in space on the back of four elephants. The youngest and cheekiest disciple asked what the elephants stood on. “More elephants,” replied the guru. “And what do those elephants stand on?” asked the disciple, trying to show how clever he could be. “Look,” replied the exasperated guru. “It’s elephants all the way down. Get it?”

One aspect of this endless cycle of work for work’s sake seems to be a loss of any great interest in seeking The Common Good. In the past, a willingness to work together for the common good was seen as the natural basis of democracy and the foundation of any society. Today, individualism is rampant, and each person seems to be out for him or herself, regardless of others’ needs. Despite much pious cant about “customer-centric organizations,” the reality is that the managers of an enterprise gain the lion’s share of the rewards. With “ownership” spread between huge financial institutions, many corporations no longer face any effective external control. So long as they make profits for these institutional shareholders, thereby meeting their self-interest, the executives in charge are free to do pretty much as they wish. Maybe it’s all tied up with the epidemic of short-term thinking; the “grab-and-go” style of corporate management. Whatever the reason, it’s making for some miserable working conditions.

Looking to the past brought me to Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who observed and commented on the fledgling American republic in the early 1800s. His argued that true freedom is compromised as soon as people are limited in all the small, daily decisions of life. That struck a chord for me. In The Freedom to Choose . . . and the Time to Do It, I suggested that unless people have the freedom to choose the small things in their lives, any larger freedoms have little meaning. You may have freedom to vote, freedom of conscience, and freedom of speech, but if you aren’t free to take some time off occasionally, or decide how you want to balance work with the rest of your life, you will still feel like a slave. Petty tyrannies are rampant in most organizations, breeding mistrust and frustration. Tyranny—be it religious, political, economic, or military—always begins with oppression in the small, seemingly insignificant things of life, before growing to envelope everything else. We should slow down and stop this insidious growth, before it stifles our lives with poisonous tentacles.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his posts at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to business life.

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