Work shapes our days, our way of life, and our culture. Since the rise of industrial America, the landscape of work for the middle class has shifted considerably, from homegrown artisanal handiwork to sweatshop factory work to now what people call "desk jobs".
Work is one of the major tenets of well-being. It consumes around a third of our lives. Work is pertinent to how we perceive ourselves, our place in society, and our own wellness. But, more than 50% of Americans say they are unhappy with their jobs. I attribute this to a broad shift in values and a shift in the kind of work available to people, both of which are driven by capitalistic forces prioritizing profit over people.
I define work as generally what we spend our time on for the majority of our day. For most people, that is some sort of regular job for economic output. There is research that proves that people are most satisfied when they are doing work they are good at, work that helps people, and work that is in a supportive environment. Additional qualities that help fulfillment are autonomy, ownership over work, and the ability to fit work in with life.
The degree to which jobs fulfill these has shifted significantly since the Industrial Revolution. Pre-industrial revolution, the lower middle-class lived in small settlements in which individuals would typically do artisanal work, whether that be as a farmer, baker, shoemaker, blacksmith, etc. Their trades were typically passed down the family line, and thus individuals were connected to the work they were doing, especially since the products were serving the community they were a part of. They saw their products through from start to end, saw the consumer, and often worked close to family controlling their own hours.
Fast forward to the industrial revolution, and instead of being locally produced, goods were able to be transported over large distances, and demand increased due to population growth. The supply chain was made more efficient, but now, instead of being able to make a living selling goods as a small business, you had to give your labor to larger conglomerates to survive. This translated to doing very repetitive, dangerous work in factories. They also had to migrate to participate in this work, clustering in urban areas where overall space and cleanliness in living areas were low, and workers rights were almost non-existent.
The modern day middle-class equivalent of a factory job is corporate America, where for a significant portion of people, the work they do has no bearing on whether or not the company succeeds. Administrative jobs have skyrocketed, work hours have increased, and "middlemen" have cropped up in everything from healthcare to education. Administrative jobs do not let employees directly see the impact of their work. "Middlemen"'s output is often producing more money for some other entity in a way that sacrifices price efficiency for the consumer. David Graeber's essay "On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs" explains this quite well, saying "we have witnessed the creation of an endless variety of new jobs and industries since the ‘20s, but very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones, or fancy sneakers."
In these jobs, there is a huge disconnect between the work you spend hours on and the eventual outcome of it, especially since for many jobs the "outcome" is indirectly linked to some good or service and rather is just increased profit for the company. This disconnect is one of the major reasons that work is no longer as fulfilling. As mentioned previously, more than half of US workers are unhappy with their work. This difference is even more pronounced for women and Black and Latinx people who may be finding fewer opportunities or getting paid less.
This disconnect is not only normalized, but is often encouraged by people, saying that your work can be separated from your regular life and that it is okay for you to value your income from work over your enjoyment from that work. This is a reality that many have to live with given the constraints on their financial situation. With the rising cost of living and increasing student loan debt in the middle class, people are forced to find jobs that will pay well enough for them to pay that off. Due to rampant consumerism, ads that are pushed in our faces everywhere we go, and aspirational media telling us that we should be working more and making more, people are encouraged to continue valuing monetary compensation over satisfaction, overall reducing our well-being in work.
Modern capitalism keeps people trapped in unfulfilling jobs to make more money to buy more from the same companies that keep people trapped in those jobs. Sebastian Junger reflects this when he says, "Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary." This seems to be what we have done with people's work.
The antidote to these transactional jobs, though, is in entrepreneurship. Small business has always been the bedrock of not only the economy but of community, and is also known to be the best way to move communities upwards, particularly those that have been historically disenfranchised. In the modern day, entrepreneurship can take many forms. It can be freelance work in carpentry, caretaking, or TaskRabbit-ing. It can be shipping baked goods from a Shopify site. It can be selling your handmade pieces on Etsy. There are now many ways to utilize your unique talents and time to create income. You are essential to the business and you see the work's impact yourself.
The jury is still out on whether "passion economy" work can be sustainable full-time income for more of the population, but I firmly believe that the current tools and ecosystems for individualized work are a start in the right direction. There is still a struggle between the individual workers' rights and the platform itself, and that can be shaped by prioritizing legislation to protect this class of workers.
Instead of optimizing for profits and consumerism, we can optimize for human values and creating work that we ourselves would enjoy doing. What differs in this type of work is the ethos around valuing a company not just as a profit creating machine, but as an entity consisting of humans with their own needs and desires. Modern capitalism was created by humans, and it can be shaped to benefit humans as well.