Why do we work? and other questions for working people

Work clock

By Alison Staudinger

Why do you work?

How can a daily activity like work be both the worst and the best of life? Perhaps it is in part because humans have come to expect meaning from their work, in addition to material or social benefits. To understand this development, the humanities offer a unique lens. They offer records of the everyday and methods to study them.

Is work a current fascination? Not exactly.

Humans have been interested in questions about the meaning and purpose of work for a very long time. The Christian Bible suggests that the debate started when Adam was sent “to till the ground from whence he was taken,” but this same text introduces notions of “good works” and eventually inspires the notion of a “vocation” or calling, which we still discuss today.

What motivates us to work? Should we do what we love for a living? How are different types of work valued? Is it our right to work? Is it our right to enjoy our work?

To help college students explore these questions, and I’ve been teaching a first year seminar at UW-Green Bay. The goal is to help students explore work from an interdisciplinary lens by reading and creating oral histories of work. But the conversation is important for other adults, too. To provide space for this discussion, I also travel around the state to share a presentation called “What is Good Work? Literary, Philosophical and Historical Musings” as a member of the WHC’s ShopTalk.

Work is personal

Labor can be difficult to discuss because so many people identify deeply with their work, either as a matter of professional pride and identity, or in relation to how they feel as a father, an artist, a teacher, etc. It also has deep political ramifications — not only because the type of work you do has a lot to say about your class status and whether recent changes in automation and global production have harmed or helped you, but because our notions about who is a good citizen (or immigrant) often relate to the type of work they do, or do not do. Think about unemployment, or about motherhood…

The humanities, that is, the ways others have reflected on questions of human existence and the cultural differences that have evolved over time, provide useful tools for our own examinations of the notion of work. As a presenter with ShopTalk , the point is less to muse than to have a dialogue that goes beyond our first impressions about our work — that it pays the bills, that it keeps us busy, or even that it provides the meaning for our existence — to puzzle through what these answers mean for us personally.

Literature, theory and art are invaluable for prompting this reflection because they provide a common object or set of ideas to organize our conversation around, like a kitchen table. What might we discuss? Here are some “humanities greatest hits” on work:

  • The Rule of St. Benedict is a written account of a 6th century routine for monks. It dictates that communal work was meant to sustain the monastery spiritually and materially. This very early text is critical of idleness and laziness, a familiar trope for us still today, but it also introduces notions of time produced by division of labor.
  • The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by sociologist Max Weber argues that notions of a work ethic have linked spiritual and material success such that we are driven to see work as our primary calling. The idea that work is consuming life is certainly familiar to anyone who has answered emails in bed or raised children, or for those who work in agriculture or trucking — occupations which change the entire framework of private life.
  • Studs Terkel frames his oral history Working, the recordings of which will soon be digitally available, around the claim that the people he interviewed sought “daily meaning as well as daily bread.” If you took the time to really talk to some of the busy bill-payers you know, surely some of them would also say that work gives more than a paycheck — it offers solidarity, expression, fulfillment and joy.
  • Michael Glawogger’s film Workingman’s Death (2015) is an unnarrated documentary which shares brutal, but beautiful, stories of work around the world, a dark complement to Terkel’s 1970s work, where automation, social unrest and technology change already shift working life remarkedly.
  • The writings and speeches of Booker T. Washington and E.B. Du Bois offer a debate on what the goal of education should be for black Americans. The two disagreed about whether starting from vocational training or elite education would best serve free slaves — a debate that reoccurs in a new key whenever we consider college and the future of access, content and the meaning of higher education.
  • Contemporary debates about motherhood as work, or women in the workplace, are also aided by turning to humanities sources, whether they are the stories of Nobel Prize-winning author Alice Munro, the sculpture of Louise Bourgeois, or the Wisconsin-based collective project, Exquisite Uterus. Additionally, contemporary authors Kathi Weeks and Joan Williams offer arguments about the workplace, class and family policy in the 21st century.
  • And when we start to wonder whether the workplace is worth it, whether the lack of control many of us have over our working lives in justified, there is always Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” He voiced what many of us have thought about an unpleasant work task at least once: “I’d prefer not to.”
  • Karl Marx, the famous philosopher and revolutionary socialist defender of the worker, encounters the contradictions inherent in the questions. In his writing, he connects alienated labor and suffering to the situation of the proletariat, but also imagines that under his idealized communism people would be free “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner.”
  • Adam Smith, whose capitalist logic culminated in the modern industrialized factory, also worried that repetitive tasks would harm workers. Smith also advocated for education and variety.

Making a living and making meaning

Studying historic texts and sources may help us better understand the complexity of the subject and develop arguments for what work is and should be in our own lives, personally and collectively. These sources and more have helped me answer the question, “why do you work?” But what is your answer?


Alison StaudingerAlison Staudinger credits her interest in the relationship between labor and equality to a challenging job she had at fish cannery in Alaska. Now a political theorist and professor at UW-Green Bay, she teaches courses in Democracy and Justice Studies. She studied philosophy and law at the University of Maryland-College Park while earning a PhD in Government & Politics. Staudinger teaches a Senior Seminar on “The Politics of Work and Love” that explores literary, philosophical and policy approaches to family and waged labor, as well as a First Year Seminar on audio-storytelling and work in northeastern Wisconsin.


Want to learn more?

Alison Staudinger is available to come talk in your community for free. Read more here!

There are ShopTalk presentations happening in towns and cities all over the state on topics ranging from the ‘sharing economy’ to the work of craftsman who built Frank Lloyd Wright-designed furniture!

The Wisconsin Humanities Council’s Working Lives Project has been exploring the topic of work from different angles since 2014. How will work look different in 20 years?  What do you know about the work your grandparents did? Is work-life balance a possibility today?

The idea is to get engaged in the conversation in ways that go beyond the headlines. Because work is something we all do, in one way or another, we hope the Working Lives Project can inspire curiosity, empathy, and deeper conversation.


Upcoming ‘Working Lives’ events:

One Response

  1. Clyde B. Canny says:

    The Rule of Military Busy Work: “If it don’t move paint it”. Color of paint varies with branch of service.

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