Why Do We Work?
Hi, I’m Rebecca Chan, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at San José State University! I love thinking about different philosophical issues, and today I want to invite y’all to think through one that I’ve been thinking about since I was a child: why do we work?
To help you on this journey, I’ve prepared a series of activities, short lecture videos, and a curated reading list. In the end, I don’t promise that we’ll arrive at a definitive answer to our question. That’s largely up to you! However, I do promise that you’ll have the resources to achieve the following objectives of this module--and think more deeply about the question of why we work.
- Reflect upon why we work.
- Understand the philosophical framework from which one asks the question of why we work.
- Assess three different answers to the question.
- Do nothing.
- Critically re-evaluate the question of why we work and analyze whether our actual practices align with that answer.
Pre-activity discussion: Why do we work?
Answer the following questions:
- Do you work? If so, what do you currently do for work?
- Why do you do what you currently do for work? (Or if you currently don’t work, why?)
- Is there something you would prefer to your current work? If there’s nothing you would prefer to your current work, then consider whether there’s anything you would like just as much. Why? (“Not working” also counts as a legitimate answer!)
Why do we work?
Why do we work Slide Deck (Linked here [pptx])
- Do Nothing
This may seem strange, but your first assignment is to engage in niksen [Download Here] [pdf] and do nothing. Turn off your devices, step away from distractions, and just take time to be alone with your thoughts. You can clear your mind, meditate, or just daydream.
Read at least one. Feel free to read more.
On Burnout Culture
- Peterson - How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation (23 pages) [Read Article] [pdf]
- Vox Interview with Anne Helen Peterson (11 pages) [Read Article] [pdf]
On Doing Nothing
- Mecking - The Case for Doing Nothing - The New York Times (3 pages) [Read Article] [pdf]
On Working for Money
- Brennan - Why It's OK to Want to Be Rich - Ch2 - For Love of Money (22 pages) [Read Article] [pdf]
On Working for Leisure
- Gutting - What Work Is Really For (4 pages) [Read Article] [pdf]
On Working for Happiness and Meaning
- Peppercorn - Why You Should Stop Pretending to Be Happy at Work (5 pages) [Read Article] [pdf]
- Darr - The New Workplace - Where Meaning and Purpose Are More Important Than Ever (6 pages) [Read Article] [pdf]
On Working for the Societal Good
- Sandel - Contributive Justice and the Dignity of Work (12 pages) [Read Article] [pdf]
Answer the following questions:
- What did you read? What was the main point of the reading(s)?
- How did the reading connect with your views on work? Did it challenge them, reinforce them, make you reconsider, etc?
- Why do you work? (Or if you don’t, why?)
- Given your answer to c, does what you do for work, how much you work, and your attitudes toward work
Now it's time to think about the big picture! Take the following steps, which culminate in an action item. Jot down notes on your answer to the brainstorming steps if you'd like. What you'll submit is the action item.
Step 1: Brainstorming, pt. 1. You've spent time thinking about why you work. It may be the case that in thinking about that question, you noticed a mismatch between your actual answer to why you work and your ideal answer to why you work. (E.g., perhaps like Sandel, you think that work is about contributing to society but you don't take your work to contribute anything.) Is there a mismatch between your actual and ideal answer? If not, can you think of a scenario in which one might develop?
Step 2: Brainstorming, pt. 2. Use what you said above to consider whether other people experience a mismatch between the actual and ideal answer to the question of why we work. How common is the mismatch? Do structural features of our society make the mismatch (un)likely?
Step 3: Brainstorming, pt. 3. How big of a problem is the mismatch? In addition to thinking about how much the mismatch affects your individual welfare, think about how much the mismatch affects the welfare of society as a whole.
Step 4: Brainstorming, pt. 4. Who is best placed to do something about the mismatch? Should the government change a particular policy? Should large corporations rethink their relationships with employees or change their corporate structure and goals? Do workers need to jointly act, perhaps by forming strong unions? Do individuals need to fundamentally change their behavior with respect to work (and is it realistic for them to do so)?
Step 5: Action. Given your answers to the above questions, you're going to urge action (e.g., a shorter work week, a higher minimum wage, a universal basic income, etc.). You'll contact whoever you think is best placed to do something about the mismatch (e.g., a legislator, a corporation, fellow workers) and urge them to act. You can contact them through any modality that you believe will be effective in conveying your call to action (e.g., a letter, a series of tweets, an op ed, an open letter, etc.). In addition to calling for the particular action, be sure to explain the rationale behind it.
Briefly discuss what you've learned from this module. This is intended to be open-ended, and you can include any of the following:
- Answers to "why do we work" that you found new, interesting, or compelling
- Whether or why your views on work have evolved
- What your action was and whether you will send out what you wrote IRL
- How you would advise a young person who has yet to start working
Hopefully, each of you has learned something worthwhile, and will perhaps learn a bit more from your fellow participants through this last discussion!