Imaginary points

There’s this thing people say about work. I’m sure you’ve heard it countless times, and maybe you’ve said it yourself. I’ve heard it a lot too, and I’ve nodded at it more than once. As an expression, it may well be old enough to qualify as common wisdom.

“I want to work to live, not live to work.”

It sounds perfectly reasonable, or at least it does until you start thinking about it. The sentence above suggests three things.

  1. You need to work in order to live.
  2. The reason you want to work is that you want to live.
  3. Working is not something you’d like to spend your entire life doing. (It follows from the fact you don’t want to live to work.)

These three propositions too sound perfectly reasonable, but I think they do only because we are used to deduce them from real life. Most people you know need to work to live, and you’ve likely heard many people saying that, if they won the lottery, they would insta-quit their job and move to a tropical island or something faster than you can read this sentence. I think we learn to accept the supposed truth of these propositions somewhat axiomatically, in most cases without even questioning it. I also think these claims are false.

You may think I’m nitpicking, but strictly speaking, you don’t need to work in order to live. Mainly you need food, water, sleep, and shelter. You don’t get them out of work, not directly anyway. You would back in the day when you had to hunt your dinner and build your own shelter, but that’s not how it goes these days. Today, your work consists of doing certain things, generally to someone else’s more or less direct benefit, and in exchange for that, you get the means (aka money) to buy goods and services to satisfy your needs with. The money you got proves you’ve made your contribution to the collective good and have thus earned your share. This is what they call ‘earning a living’, and however reasonable all of this might still sound, I can’t shake off the fact this expression implicitly says that, unless you earn it, you don’t deserve to live.

If you think about it, it’s not you who needs your work to live. It is society. To keep our society running the way it does, a number of things need to be done every day. If everyone stopped working and went back to hunting their own dinner instead, society would die instantly. The people, however, would still be alive. (At least for a short while… I think our hunting skills may be a bit rusty.) Money is, among other things, a rather effective way to make sure everyone will contribute to society with some kind of work—in particular, it is a way to ensure there will always be someone to do all those crappy but necessary jobs no one would do unless forced.

Of course this system is far from perfect. Its most obvious problem is that you can steal money and ‘earn your living’ for free, if you will. Another problem, and a quite serious one, is that getting money is not easy because getting a job is not easy, and this might seem a contradiction: Since society depends on people’s work, you’d think we’d make it easy for everyone to work, but we didn’t. Last time I checked, ‘finding a job’ was nowhere near the top of the list of the easiest things in the world. However, the contradiction is only apparent indeed, because while society needs people’s work to function, it does not need everyone’s work to function; not even everyone of working age. Yet, in principle the system requires everyone of working age to be employed to be allowed to live, and it does because we make it so. Try suggesting that only some of us work, and the rest, even if able-bodied and of working age, be supported by the workforce. You’d certainly outrage quite a lot of people, because, well, propositions 1, 2, and 3: ‘If I need to work to live—despite the fact I wouldn’t if I didn’t need to—why shouldn’t everyone else?’ Your suggestion would likely be met with a reaction like that most of the time. However, under different circumstances, your suggestion should be no cause for outrage, but I’d rather not go off at a tangent right now, and leave this discussion, as well as the other problems of using money, to future posts.

Propositions 2 and 3 are strictly connected. They can even be strung together: ‘Working is not something you’d want to spend your entire life doing; in fact, the reason you want to work in the first place is that you want to live.’ This seems to suggest working is an unpleasant activity which you carry on doing just because you need to for survival, but if you could avoid it, you would gladly do so. This is certainly true of some jobs, and if we go far back into the past, I’m guessing most jobs were like this. However, the claim that people don’t like working is false. I would say that a certain number of people (I don’t know how many, but not few of them) dislike their job—not working per se—because it is not something they’re really interested in or passionated about. This is another reason our system is not that good: In order to live, you must work, and sometimes this means you can’t afford choosing and have to settle for a job you dislike, if not hate, for the sake of survival. However, I think that for nearly all of us there is at least something we’d love to do consistently enough to call it a ‘job’, whether we know it or not; and probably, the number of people who would just sit on their arses from dawn to dusk and from dusk to dawn if they only had the chance is far lower than people think it is.

If, as I suggest, it were true that everyone has something they’d love to do for work, something that is their passion, something they look forward to doing, then I don’t think ‘living to work’ would sound all that bad any more—especially if your survival was independent of your work. In such case, it would mean living to do something you love doing, and I don’t see anything wrong with it. I’d rather say it’d be pretty darn good reason to be alive. It definitely sounds better than ‘working to live’, which implies the reason you do what you do is survival, and says nothing about whether you enjoy what you do or not.

In my ideal world, I’d live to work, not the other way around.

For years, I’ve had a hunch that the reason we erroneously think working to live is better than living to work may be money. What is money, really? It used to be special pieces of metal we kept on a side because they were rare, pretty, and shiny, and used them to trade. With time, we started making notes of how many special pieces of metal we had using special pieces of paper, and that, if you can tolerate the oversimplification, is how we started using paper money. Today, money is mostly imaginary points kept in a virtual safe, and today as yesterday, it has no value but that which we collectively agree to attribute to it. (Though most of us, as individuals, are simply forced to agree on this value; you can’t abandon the use of money on your own and get away with it.) We use money without touching it or even seeing it. It’s getting more and more abstract, and I wonder if its destiny isn’t to abstract itself out of existence. I’ve always seen money as a pointless constriction causing more problems than it solves, and I tend to think we could greatly benefit from abolishing it, but I may well be dead wrong. Even if I wasn’t, abolishing money is hardly something you could do overnight and hope everything will be fine.

The topic is wide and complex. I’m certainly not going to draw any conclusions in a single post without even doing any research first, so I think this will be but the first in a series of posts for the Imaginary points category. I don’t pretend to understand economics (I don’t), or to know better than others whether money, and our economic system, should or shouldn’t be a thing. You should take everything you read in posts of this category (or any other, for that matter…) as nothing more than my musings and (un)educated opinions.

We’ll see where this will lead…