Why Do We Work?
Published on August 2, 2011 by Sara Foss

The purpose of work and the culture of the workplace are two things I think about often. I mean, does sitting in an office all day really improve anybody's quality of life? I don't think so. Now, at long last, someone - Mark Kingwell, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, is arguing that work is actually a self-regulating prison, and that we'd be a lot happier if we had more time for idling. Personally, I'd love to idle more.

Here's an excerpt from the essay, titled "The Language of Work":

"The most basic material conditions of work – office size and position, number of windows, attractiveness of assistant, cut of suit – are simultaneously the rewards and the ongoing indicators of status within this competition. Meanwhile, the competition sustains itself backward via credentialism: the accumulation of degrees and certificates from prestigious schools and universities that, though often substantively unrelated to the work at hand, indicate appropriate grooming. These back formations confirm the necessary feeling that a status outcome is earned, not merely conferred. The narrative of merit encourages the false idea that such status is married to intrinsic qualities of the individual. In reality, the status is a kind of collective delusion, not unlike the one that sustains money, another key narrative of the system.

The routine collection of credentials, promotions, and employee-of-the-month honors in exchange for company loyalty masks a deeper existential conundrum – which is precisely what it is meant to do. Consider: It is an axiom of status anxiety that the competition for position has no end – save, temporarily, when a scapegoat is found. The scapegoat reaffirms everyone's status, however uneven, because he is beneath all. Hence many work narratives are miniature blame-quests. We come together as a company to fix guilt on one of our number, who is then publicly shamed and expelled. Jones filed a report filled with errors! Smith placed an absurdly large order and the company is taking a bath! This makes us all feel better and enhances our sense of mission, even if it produces nothing other than its own spectacle."

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