Barry Schwartz’s Why We Work seeks to challenge the myth that human beings work only for material gains. In this small 88-page book the author, who teaches psychology at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania builds a compelling argument in favour of how workplace environment and society in general affect our attitudes to work and the compensation we derive from it. Professor Schwartz points out that work is more often a source of frustration than one of fulfilment for many of us and this book attempts to explain why. It also attempts to identify the actions needed to improve our work environment in such a manner that we derive fulfilment and satisfaction from what we do. The book not only questions the false rationale that we work only for a paycheck, but also tries to establish the ways by which an ideal work environment can be created and thus traces the future of work.
The central argument of Why We Work is built on the difference between job and calling and what forbids people to transform their jobs into callings. Professor Schwartz brilliantly demonstrates that unsatisfying work is the price we pay for material prosperity, that the desire to make more profit has changed the workplaces so much that very few of us find meaning, challenge and freedom in what we do. The situation was not so bad in the pre-industrialized era when work involved a fair amount of variety, independence and discretion — all of which were abandoned by and by as the industrial workers stepped inside the factory doors.
Our obsession with material gains from jobs or professions is an indirect proof of how poorly we have structured our workplaces. Recalling Adam Smith’s argument that people work for pay, Professor Schwartz asserts that it is so because our obsession with the ideas of getting more done at any cost and the desire of the employers to control those who work under them create such an environment that positive human qualities like empathy or concern for the well-being of others are crowded out by self-interest. The incentive-based structures of our work environment only augment this peril. The situation is perilous because commercialization of each of our actions then permeates into the society at large. Thus, every aspect of human life becomes market-driven and incentivized and humane values such as morality, integrity or commitment tend to disappear. If everything in life is determined by a contract, we wouldn’t want to venture beyond that contract.
What is the way out then? If human beings are ‘unfinished animals’, our social institutions have an obligation to ‘finish’ them. If we begin to ask questions about the work we do and the work we ask others to do, we will take the first step towards a better future. We will then reverse the trend set since the industrial revolution of relieving material poverty at the cost of spiritual poverty. It will depend on each one of us whether we want to create workplaces which would allow people more discretion and independence. That, in turn, would make them more responsible and would prompt them to have a more engaged orientation towards life and society. In our age, in every sphere of life, those who serve others, those who go beyond their ‘contract’ in the performance of their duties, are a rare breed. We have a duty to ensure that they don’t completely disappear.
Everyone with a stake in and a concern for the present and the future of humanity should read Barry Schwartz’s Why We Work. For those interested in delving deeper into this topic, a long list of books is appended to this volume.
[Schwartz, Barry, Why We Work (TED Books, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2015)]