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Why Do We Work? It’s Not As Simple As You Think

As The Upshot reported recently, “Jeb Bush said last week that Americans would ‘need to work longer hours’ if we’re going to meet his ambitious target of 4 percent real annual economic growth — nearly double the average growth rate the Congressional Budget Office expects in the future. Then he clarified his remarks to say he was talking specifically about the 6.6 million American workers with part-time jobs who say they would like to work full time.”

The thought that America requires increased work hours — or at least increased labor — to reach Bush’s economic growth goals, caused Working Capital Review to turn philosophical for a day, as we were intrigued by a simple question: Why do we work? In other words, should work be about making money or finding fulfillment, creativity and meaning?

What if the answer is neither?

According to author and philosopher Alain de Botton — founder and Chairman of The School of Life — this false dichotomy “causes us quite a few headaches.” To address the question — to get to the bottom of “why we work,” he takes a look at the history of work… beginning in the Garden of Eden. That’s where work became the punishment for eating the forbidden fruit. De Botton later travels to Athens, Hippo, Rome and beyond, reviewing the teachings of Aristotle, St. Augustin, Michelangelo and more. Indeed, we may have more in common with Michelangelo and his colleague DaVinci than we do with Aristotle.

Says de Botton: “Our modern ideas of work owe a lot to the Renaissance idea of the remunerative creative genius. Our own ambitions are now democratized versions of the aspirations of men like Leonardo and Michaelangelo. We, too, wish to be paid and creative.”

Take a look, and learn more about how Martin Luther, Karl Marx and others had outsized roles in evolving how work was viewed in their times — and how many of those views have carried into today… including the view that the richer you are, the harder you work.

And not to overstate things, but on the question of whether work should be about making money or finding fulfillment, de Botton concludes: “The modern world has made the career crisis one of the central difficulties of existence. We’re asking so much of our working lives, so no wonder that they sometimes don’t deliver against the expectations that we now have of them. Too often, our jobs are closer to the toil of Adam than the life-enhancing creativity of Michaelangelo.”