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Work vs. Labor: A Question of Advancement
What is the role of work in a person's life? In the essay "Work, Labor, and Play" W.H. Auden describes work and labor as being distinctly different (395). Labor, as Auden describes it, is a job that the individual finds no personal interest in. Work, on the other hand, is a job that the individual finds enjoyment in. It is the same as recreation to the individual. Although pure labor allows people to survive, work allows people to find satisfaction in their lives. Work plays a vital role in the lives of people because it allows an individual to advance and achieve the goals they have for their life. If this is the case, does that mean that labor will not advance an individual’s life?
If the laborer does not find any sort of personal interest in their job, this alone will prevent them from ever advancing. They have to have motivation. A.H. Maslow states that "human beings, by nature, want things and are motivated to acquire things that they do not have" (Greene and Burke 117). While one of the things Maslow mentions is the basic needs of a human, he also states that people move on to other motivators once one is attained (117). So what does this have to do with advancement? A person can not advance if they have no motivation other than survival. Almost anyone would be hard pressed to have any sort of motivation working as an laborer in an quarry, where there is no room for advancement. Working at a fast food restaurant can also be an example of labor without advancement. True, you can sometimes become an manager if you work long enough. Even then, that can take many years to achieve, only to find that the managerial job isn't much different from the fry cook or the waiter's laborious jobs. Though, this brings up a valid question. What constitutes advancement?
Advancement, in the context of work, is when an individual either gains new skills in their profession, or gains a higher rank in a hierarchy. The first type of advancement is becoming harder to find in today's work environment. Auden mentions that with the advancement of technology, many jobs that required skill have had the skillful aspect removed by modern technology, and have been turned into laborious task (Auden 396). Still, there are some jobs that require mental skill. Russell mentions in his essay "Work" that jobs in politics and law are two types that allow workers to exert their skills. (390) These jobs also require one to advance their skills in these areas.
The second type of advancement is the most common today. Advancing in a hierarchy means gaining more influence, or power. It's this fact that drives people. When people have power, they are able to achieve their desires, or more menacingly, indulge their greed. It is this reason that people work; to amass the power needed to achieve their goals. Why did Barak Obama run for President? Because he wanted the power to make his vision for the U.S. come true. Likewise, a General in the Army became what he is because he wanted a higher rank. Without this power, people are enslaved to a person or entity that does have power. Without power, people have no freedom. Yet all people are different. Not everyone has some grand scheme. Some people are just content to live a peaceful life. Though even this dream requires an individual to advance. To live a peaceful life, one has to work their way up into a position of comfort. An individual who wishes to become a businessman will still have to advance through university courses to get to a position of comfort. What constitutes comfort is subjective, but it can be assumed that comfort is a condition above the struggle for survival.
Just surviving from day to day, is ironically a life-draining, lifeless experience. While this might sound contradictory, if a person focuses only on their survival, they will never truly be able to enjoy their life. Thus while survival is the preservation of your life, many people lose sight of what living is about. To sum it up in one word, a paradox. Though survival itself is not labor, as workers can survive while having fun. It is the struggle for survival that is the epitome of labor. Those who struggle for survival have no freedom. A survivalist in the jungle has freedom, because he has been trained for that situation; he has power over nature. He is able to find comfort in his skills. In contrast, an unskilled factory laborer who works ten to twelve hours every day and earns only enough to feed and house himself or others is struggling to survive. He has no skills that can ensure his survival. The laborer only knows one simple task and must worry about wither his job will be there for him tomorrow. He survives but has no skills to comfort him, nor any freedom to live how he wants. He must live within the constraints of his task.
What is freedom? Freedom does not necessarily mean living without rules. Perhaps it does not even mean living without some constraints. Freedom means having control over your life. It means having an amount of control over your fate. The counterpart of the unskilled factory laborer mentioned above, is the educated, skilled worker. Examples of a skilled educated worker would include medical doctors, professors, scientist, and engineers. The educated skilled worker does not really have to worry about his job because there are many employers seeking his skill. While we have more people than ever going to colleges, it's been documented that there is a shortage of nurses in the U.S. ("Lawmakers examine nursing shortage" 15). An employer might think twice about cutting the nurses job at a hospital that is looking to cut it's budget. Whereas a factory can always find people to work on an assembly line. This job security brings freedom. The worker has the freedom of time to take vacations, and he has the economic freedom to afford material goods that he seeks. As his skills improve over time, he gains a higher rank in the hierarchy, and more power. Conversely, the laborer has no skills to improve upon. He is stuck at the very bottom of the hierarchy of life because he has no skill to improve upon to raise his rank.
So what, ultimately, is the role of work in a person’s life? In the end, work allows a person to live freely. Meanwhile, Labor binds a person into boredom and "wage slavery". Bruce Laurie describes wage slavery in his book "Artisan Into Workers" as being a "dependence on wages" comparable to "slaves in the South" (87). In essence, work frees people from the bondage of labor. It allows a person to give meaning to their life. Work lets a person rise above a short, uneventful life fused to a single task. When asked, different people may have a different reason as to why they work, but it all boils down to the same reason: they wish to live.
Note to the reader: This essay was cited using the 10th edition of "The Little, Brown, Reader".