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Why do people work anyway?

Erin Delaney

Careers Commentator

The Monday mornings when you want to stay tucked up in bed, wondering who the hell thought this whole getting out of bed thing was a good idea is anybody’s guess. Meanwhile, we all go to work, and people spout all kinds of things about why you have to prepare for interviews and wear nice clothes and NEVER use comic sans for your CV, but no one ever really talks about what it’s all for.

Why do we work? Why don’t we all just live in a commune, sleeping in late and bartering beans for berries as needed?

When you think about it, you’ve been groomed for the workforce from the time you were little. The education system is geared toward making you employable, from learning about shapes and colours (“This is an emergency exit sign”), to business studies (“This is how you business.” I, um, never did business studies.). University degrees are mostly in aid of employment, which you then subsequently pay for once you become employed. We buy into the idea of work from the very first time we’re asked what we want to be when we grow up. Not many people answer “charity volunteer” or “welfare recipient”. The idea of having a successful career is the most socially favoured end-state possible. Why is this the case?

There are a lot of schools of thought on the matter, but the mechanics of it all started back in our cave-dwelling days.

When our ancestors were first figuring out how to make fire and collect water, and rocks were the trendy disruption product everyone was talking about (this was pre-kale), people found that their skills for utilising rocks were unique. One person could carry rocks further, while another’s eyesight enabled them to skilfully throw rocks from farther away, and then there was the other one who was great at building rock shelters. When they realised they could trade their services, the idea of work was born. Being able to trade services made life better for everyone, because what you couldn’t do your neighbour could, and society began to utilise each other’s abilities to advance together.

This concept hasn’t changed over time, and still today we trade one service for another, but now we’ve evolved and are fortunate enough to have a stockpile of that amazing stuff called money we can use when we don’t have time to trade literal services with each other. Can you imagine having to write a detailed marketing plan every time you needed a plumber?

So, naturally, this has driven a lot of people towards work for money reasons. Having more money means having more options.  

But, as society developed, so did the notion of work and what it means to us, both individually and collectively. Once people had ‘enough’ money, they often... kept working. Why?

Work has come to mean different things to different people.

To more advanced societies, work has come to shape our identities, social class, peer groups, hobbies, intellectual pursuits and plans for retirement. It is often the place we make new friends, learn more about ourselves and other people, gain opportunities to specialise in a field of knowledge, and perhaps it’s even how we travel to see the world. Knowing we have a reliable source of income can help us buy houses to raise children in, indulge our hobbies and give to those less fortunate.

It also shapes how many people see themselves. Being promoted or becoming the boss carries with it a feeling of achievement, instils a sense of purpose and allows you to mentor and support junior staff the way you’d like to.

It can even create a legacy for when you’re gone.

How you see work really depends on the role it plays in your life, and even though the fundamental of giving to the community to make it better as a whole is still the same, each person’s experience of why and how they contribute to the greater good is unique.

Some people give selflessly, hoping only to make an impact. Others give, hoping to get more back in return. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. When you’re looking for your dream role, or if you’re not sure what you’d like to do, then knowing why you get up every day to go to work is one of the most valuable pieces of self-reflection you can do to find the key to long-lasting satisfaction each and every Monday morning when the alarm goes off.