A job is not always work

 

We tend to use indistinctly “job” and “work” to describe what we do to earn money. As most words, their meaning is a convention, which tends to be somewhat arbitrary. It’s worth remembering it, following the International Workers’ Day on May 1.

In common usage, both words imply a degree of coercion. These are things we must do to pay the bills. In that regard, it is entirely secondary and irrelevant whether our job matches our vocation. It’s either that or you may risk eviction or hunger, and all the bad things poverty entails.

But there is a subtle difference between “a job” and “work.” The job is well explained in this short movie —“The Employment”— that lasts around six minutes. Watch it through the end. It’s worth every second of it.

The first regular work men did was hunting: it involved tactics and strategy, eventually using tools, to systematically procure food. Then came agriculture. It also taught us a method to extract from the world —the world of everything and every creature on it, not just humans— what we need to live. It did more than putting food on our table. While working the land, we began the process of learning —everything from planting to the timing of seasons— as well as improving tools and techniques. Agriculture begot us culture upon which, in turn, civilization was built.

That was work. It provided for us spiritually, physically and materially. And it did so magnificently because it corresponded naturally to our truest vocation. Jobs don’t. They are the dark underbelly of industrial and modern economies. When they are available, they pay the bills at the expense of stifling our profound inclination to create. Work is a synonym of creation, not of job.

A lot of people in the world put up with endless hours of misery and unhappiness every day to make ends meet. Many others too feel down because they don’t even have that to earn badly needed money. By definition, what happens regularly is what we call “normal”. And we tend to accept passively everything that’s “normal,” even when it’s an aberration like the one we are describing.

We have said a lot of bad things about our lesser, mechanical cousins, the robots. We have a lot of other bad things to say about them in the future, too. But let us make an exception today and envision the possibilities that robotics and artificial intelligence could open up for societies.

The essence of the problem are not jobs, or the lack thereof, or that robots are stealing ours. It’s how the economy is organized. We all need to earn money to make a living. In other words, there are only two ways to do so without a job and its corresponding wage, one difficult but feasible, the other unconceivable at present: being wealthy or, alternatively (and impossibly), getting everything for free.

But imagine for a moment that robots freed humans to devote their time to their real vocation –whatever that be, from music and cooking to carpentry and finance. Just imagine that the economy can be rearranged in such a way that people will not have to do jobs that are backbreaking or stultifying, oppressing our body and mind. Just imagine: never stop doing it. That’s what our most distant ancestors did when they started to farm, and bestowed on us the wonderful world in which we live. If we imagine hard enough we may figure how to make a robot-based economy work out for us. Imagine.