What is Work?

Although the answer to the question posed in this essay’s title may seem obvious, work can be regarded in a number of different ways. Traditionally, work consisted of the things one needed to do in order to find, hunt, or grow food, and make clothes, shelters, tools, weapons, and other useful things that contributed directly to one’s survival and well-being, as well as to the survival and well-being of the members of the community to which one belonged. In these situations, there was a direct, intimate connection between the work one did and the benefits derived from that work. But with the rise of more populous, and therefore more complex, societies, there arose the model of the division of labour, which became more and more widely adopted, as it was found beneficial, at least from the narrow criterion of productivity, for each individual to specialize in doing a certain kind of work and then exchange the fruits of one’s work with each other.[1] As societies became more populous, and as they began trading with different societies, the limits of a simple barter economy could only be overcome by the development of a medium of exchange, namely money, that remained relatively stable in value and was accepted by most or all of the members of the society in which one lived, as well as the members of the societies with which one traded.

As work became increasingly specialized, there developed a greater and greater separation between the work one did and the satisfaction of one’s personal needs and desires. For example, the labourer who spends one’s working day making cars, roads, clothes, shoes, home appliances, or computers, or works as a doctor, musician, actor, police officer, truck driver, or nanny, does not directly satisfy one’s needs and desires by the work one does, such as by growing or preparing the food one eats, making the clothes one wears, building or repairing the house or residence one lives in, and so on. But even with the high degree of specialization that characterizes modern civilization, all people continue to perform other kinds of work for which they are not paid, and which contribute to satisfying their personal needs and desires, such as preparing and cooking the food they eat, cleaning themselves, their clothes, and the residence they live in, and repairing their possessions or mending their clothes.[2] In the present age, specialization has gone so far that many people don’t even cook or prepare the food they eat, wash their clothes, clean the residence they live in, care for their children, or perform other mundane chores, as was the case in earlier periods of labour specialization, and still is the case for many people living today in less affluent countries, who cannot afford to pay others to do these things for them.

But there is another way in which work can be viewed, namely, as the willingness to share the knowledge and abilities that are needed to perform the work one does, as well as the income or material benefits that result from performing it. This willingness to share is as old as humanity, for it was only by this means that the young learned from their elders the knowledge and skills they needed in order to survive: how to hunt, grow, prepare, store, and preserve food, how to kindle fire, make shelters, clothes, tools, and weapons, protect themselves from beasts and other humans, cure themselves or others when they became sick or injured, and so forth. In such precarious times, the refusal to share this knowledge and these skills was tantamount to condemning a person to death, for a person who lacked these vital things was much less likely to survive.

The attempt to make education universal, in the belief that education is necessary for a well-paying job, was a step towards creating a more inclusive society which allows as many of its members as possible to participate in the society and become contributing members of it. For in the past, as human societies became more numerous, it was only or primarily the children of the wealthy that were educated. But in itself, education is not enough, for the erroneous conception of human behaviour on which it is based – that a human being who has acquired certain skills and knowledge, such as the ability to read, write, type, do mathematical calculations, use a computer, and so forth – will then be able to do whatever kind of work one wants, is clearly wrong. This widespread model of education, which was tragically influenced by that very foolish and faulty book written by Plato, The Republic, by divorcing the education of children from the work that is performed by the society’s adult members – which divorce is exemplified by the fact that the places of education, namely schools, are physically separated from places of work – has had a profoundly negative influence on both people’s desire to perform certain kinds of work and their ability to perform them. Hence, although universal education is a useful and even, in some ways, a necessary step towards creating what I have called the Inclusive Society, in itself it is not sufficient when the places where people work remain places that are not accessible to all of society’s members; in other words, when places of work, which are where the more fortunate members of society are able to earn their livelihood, are partly or completely shut off from certain segments of society. Even in a society where all children have more or less equal access to education, this means that there can still exist a significant degree of inequality if all the people do not also have equal access to places of work.

The widespread belief that those who don’t work are lazy and irresponsible good-for-nothings who do not deserve any help from the state, meaning from the more fortunate members of society who work and are able to earn money to satisfy their needs and desires, is mistaken because the motivation to work is determined primarily by the models of behaviour one has observed. Hence, those who have not had the opportunity to observe these important models will have little inclination to work, or at least to perform certain kinds of work. In other words, whether one is willing to work hard and contribute to society, such as by paying a part of one’s income in taxes which are used to maintain and improve the society in which one lives, is not dependent, as many people mistakenly believe, solely on each individual.

This is what I mean by the willingness to share work with others so that all those who need to work can do so and thereby earn enough to survive and lead meaningful and satisfying lives. For those who are completely shut out from the places where people work, in particular those kinds of work that are well-paid, most certainly do not have the same opportunities as others; and to expect that they will be able to work hard and perform these kinds of work competently is no different from expecting that a person will be able, by oneself and without any help from others, to learn to speak a foreign language fluently. The same inability and reluctance to speak a language that one has not heard others speaking is also exhibited in the case of work, since those who have not observed others performing a certain kind of work will neither want to perform it nor be able to perform it well.

Selfishness in terms of work, whether it is the unwillingness to share one’s knowledge or skills with others, or the unwillingness to hire others to do the work that one or one’s company is engaged in, is one of the main reasons for the continued existence of poverty and inequality even in wealthy countries. And this selfishness is exacerbated by many people’s desire to earn as much money as possible, including amounts that are greatly in excess of what a single person needs in order to live and survive; for this selfishness, or extravagant greed, which has spread like a pestilence in some parts of the human world, means that others will not have enough to live on, since they will be left out of the economic system, to scrounge and fend for themselves in whatever way they can, including resorting to illegal activities such as theft, prostitution, and selling drugs, which most law-abiding people would not consider performing in order to earn or acquire money.

The prevalence of illegal activities like prostitution, gambling, and selling drugs is often a direct result of exclusion. Since these people are excluded from participating in the legal economy, and since, in a capitalist society, they need to earn or acquire money just like everyone else in order to satisfy their needs and wants, they have no choice but to resort to illegal activities, or by committing crimes like theft and extortion.[3]

We can now see one of the fundamental errors of free-market ideology: capitalists declare that selfishness is good, and therefore people should be encouraged to behave selfishly, since it will motivate them to work harder, take risks, and so on, in order to make more money. But selfishness also leads to exclusion and an unwillingness to share both the skills and knowledge one possesses, since this would enable others to compete with one and perhaps do better than oneself, or even displace one by taking one’s job and putting one out of work. In other words, an economy in which selfishness is considered to be a virtue, if not the most important economic virtue, cannot lead to full employment, and it will beget a very high level of economic inequality. This is because a large part of the population will be excluded from well-paying jobs, and the wealthy will strive to amass as much money as possible, while they zealously protect what they have from everyone else, including the government, such as by refusing to pay, or trying to avoid paying, taxes. This is more or less the situation that exists presently in the United States and in other countries where free-market principles have been embraced by many of the inhabitants, including those who occupy positions of power and authority, whether in government, law, or business.

Even a system based on merit or ability can still perpetuate discrimination and exclusion, since abilities are not genetically determined. One might as well speak of the innate ability to speak a certain language such as Chinese; and yet, pretty nearly the entire human population is able to speak any language, so long as they hear it spoken regularly from an early age. As I have stated elsewhere, the belief in innate abilities is false; but because the falseness of this belief has not generally been understood, it has had a decisive influence on the development of modern societies.

If one begins with the ridiculous assumptions that economists begin with, such as that we are rational and independent creatures who seek to maximize our utility, that we have perfect knowledge of everything, and that there exists perfect labour mobility, meaning that a restaurant worker can immediately switch to working as a lawyer or doctor, or that an immigrant who works as a cleaner or dishwasher and does not speak the language in one’s new country can become a teacher, pharmacist, stockbroker, or manager in a large company, then one will come to believe the erroneous things that many economists and their students believe, such as that each person has the same opportunities as everyone else – since this is what the assumption of perfect labour mobility implies, that governments should not interfere in the operations of the marketplace, and all the other false declarations that are made by free-market economists and the many fools who imitate them by repeating their false declarations.

Just as, in the past, there existed large ethnic enclaves or ghettos where the inhabitants spoke a language that differed from the language that was spoken by the majority of the other inhabitants of the country one lived in, there can also exist large enclaves of unemployed or marginally-employed people who do not behave like those who are employed, such as in the way they talk, dress, and behave in other important respects. The inevitable result of contempt is that these people will be excluded from many workplaces, so that they remain different from those who are employed, and, more specifically, from those who are employed in well-paying jobs.

According to the standard economic explanation of employment and economic growth, it is entrepreneurs who start companies that create jobs. Hence, the government should encourage investment and savings, which are transformed by banks and other financial institutions into investment, which in turn creates jobs. In addition, workers should be encouraged to spend money in order to provide sufficient demand to purchase the many different products and services that are produced by the economy. In a nutshell, this summarizes the standard economic explanation of economic growth and the creation of jobs. Although the Theory of Imitation does not deny these statements, it points out that economists have overlooked another important societal mechanism, namely the one of assimilation, or inclusion. Whereas, in many instances, economists unrealistically assume that one person is the same as any other, in terms of one’s behaviours, knowledge, skills, ambitions, and so forth, the Theory of Imitation declares that human beings are not the same, and that both the things they are capable of doing and the things they want to do depend on the models of behaviour they have observed, and it is obvious that different people grow up observing different models of behaviour. Hence, it is crucial to allow people, in particular children, to enter into workplaces, so they can thereby become more like the people who work there, which will increase their chances of being hired to perform the kinds of work that are performed in those places.

The common but naive belief is that the number of jobs, especially well-paying jobs, is limited, and therefore if one person is able to obtain a well-paying job, then that means that others will remain unemployed or have to find something else to do, for which they will probably be paid less money. Although the fierce competition for well-paying jobs seems to confirm this belief, where a few are rewarded while the other applicants must seek for work elsewhere, there is an important sense in which it is wrong. In the course of the past few centuries, we have seen that, in economically successful countries at least, as their populations have increased, so too has the number of jobs, including well-paying jobs. This shows that there is no limit to the number of jobs that can be created in an economically advanced society.

Like other human and non-human, or organic, constructions, such as languages, edifices, ant or termite mounds and colonies, and so forth, human societies are artificial and somewhat arbitrary constructions, in the sense that they could have been different from the way they are. Most people realize that much of the work that is done by human beings in the modern world is not necessary for our survival, since there are many jobs that did not exist, and hence were not performed by anyone, even just a few decades ago. We humans excel at the creation of the artificial or unnecessary, and this includes the occupations in which many of us spend our time working. Although most people would readily admit the importance of a farmer or doctor, the first of whom helps to feed people and the second of whom helps to cure them when they are sick, in what sense is a stockbroker, retail clerk, taxi driver, lawyer, scientist, professional athlete, or writer necessary? It is only to satisfy an artificial, meaning a non-natural, desire – the desire, respectively, to make more money, the desire to buy things, the desire to get from one place to another in a rapid and comfortable manner, the desire to comply with the laws, protect oneself from litigation, or engage another person or party in litigation, the desire to know things, the desire to be entertained and enthralled by watching the best athletic performers, or the desire to be informed, amused, or enlightened – that creates the need for these and other non-necessary occupations.

Both the motivation to do something and the satisfaction or pleasure we derive from doing it are wholly dependent on whether or not we have observed others performing the activity, and also the age at which we began observing it. The more often we observe an activity being performed, and the earlier the age at which we begin observing it, then the greater is both our desire to perform it and the pleasure we experience while performing it. I have generalized these important observations as the Law of Human Desire and the Law of Human Pleasure. Closely related to these two phenomena is the sense of whether a certain kind of work is meaningful to us or whether it seems artificial and pointless: work that is meaningful is work that we have observed others performing regularly from a young age, while work that is meaningless, boring, unfulfilling, mundane, pointless, trivial, repetitive, or stupid is work that we have not observed others performing regularly, at least not until we began performing it. For all their presumed wisdom, intelligence, and comprehensiveness, neither the philosophers of old nor all the many other students of human behaviour, including psychologists, sociologists, economists, and educators, have understood these very simple but crucial facts about our behaviour.

This explains why, in recent decades, as the work that people perform has become more and more divorced from the direct satisfaction of their basic needs, a great many people do not enjoy the work they do or feel that it is not meaningful, and the only reason why they continue to perform it is because they are paid money to do so, with which they can satisfy their needs and desires. For the rise in specialization has roughly coincided with the spread of the disastrous Platonic model of education, which has led, for the first time in human history, to the very foolish practice of preventing children from observing the many different things that adults do while they are working. Although we regard this Platonic model of education, which forces children to spend most of their time in schools in the company of their age-mates, where they don’t observe people working, as natural, sensible, and good, this did not happen in the past, during the very long period before humanity became “civilized” – and in many ways became increasingly foolish and unnatural.

Human societies are complex webs that are the result of a great many interconnected desires, some of which are natural, but most of which are artificial. Like other organisms, we desire to eat, sleep, have offspring, and seek shelter; but unlike other organisms, we desire to eat fancy meals in restaurants, sleep on comfortable beds with clean sheets, and live in luxurious dwellings that are protected from the elements. Moreover, we have desires, such as the desire to create art, own a car or cell phone, watch movies and other spectacles, and so forth, which are not shared by any other creature that has existed on the Earth during its very long history. As has become clear in recent decades and centuries, there appears to be no limit to the size and extent of these societal human webs, as both our numbers and our artificial desires continue to multiply unchecked. Hence, it should be possible to create jobs for all those who want and need them. But this must be done in an organic manner, rather than in a forced and artificial manner, as was the case with communism and other utopian – which usually means unrealistic – schemes.

We can now reformulate the question with which this essay began as “How can we integrate as many people as possible into this complex societal web, so that each person is able to perform work that satisfies one and enables one to acquire the things one needs and wants in order to live a meaningful life?”

The development and presentation of the correct theory of human behaviour is obviously an important step in answering this question. In the past, when people were guided by false theories of human behaviour and development, such as philosophy, Platonism, communism, behaviourism, psychoanalysis, and economics, a very great many mistakes were made. Plato mistakenly believed that human beings have intellectual faculties, which it is the duty of educators to develop, so that they can then venture into the world and perform the work for which they are best suited. But Plato completely neglected the important topic of human motivation, or the desire to do certain kinds of work, which oversight on his part has had profoundly negative effects on literally billions of children who have been miseducated the Platonic way. The communists mistakenly believed that they could refashion society according to their erroneous beliefs about human behaviour. Neither the philosophers, communists, behaviourists, psychoanalysts, pedagogues, economists, nor the many other theorists of human behaviour understood where our desires come from: human desires, as well as human competence, result from observing people doing something regularly from a young age. This is what I mean when I speak of the Inclusive Society: all people, including children, must be allowed to observe people working if they are to be motivated to perform those kinds of work and be able to perform them well.

There are many barriers to achieving the Inclusive Society, including prejudice, selfishness, the continued adherence to false theories like the aforementioned ones, and competition. So long as people mistakenly believe that competition is always good, or that it is an innate and therefore unavoidable feature of human societies and of life in general, they will be unwilling to share their knowledge, skills, and work with others. It is only by correcting these mistaken beliefs, and by overcoming these strong human tendencies, that we will be able to create a society in which all people can find their place, and the dreams and aspirations of many of our ancestors for a better, more just, more equitable, and fairer society will at last be achieved, rather than remain a distant and unrealized dream.


[1] In a capitalist society, the tendency is for this economic model of exchange to become more and more generalized and widespread, in the sense that it pervades non-economic areas of behaviour, such as personal relationships, by making people regard these relationships as a form of exchange, such as of pleasure, status, time, companionship, prestige, or some other feature that is valued by its members. Based on the spread of the model of economic exchange, economists like Gary Becker have incorrectly used economic principles to try and explain people’s non-economic behaviours, such as marriage, friendship, and raising children.

[2] This explains why the feminists’ demand that women should be paid for the housework they do is mistaken, since no one asked them to do this work. In a money economy, only those products and services that are demanded by others have a monetary value. Hence, if anyone should pay for these useful services, it is the husbands and children of these women, since they are the ones who directly benefit from this work. Of course, in such non-monetary exchanges, the assumption, which is not always valid, is that this work will be remunerated by the beneficiaries in other ways.

[3] Of course, I am most certainly not saying that all those who engage in illegal activities are victims of exclusion. There are many who do so because the income or profits from such activities are considerably higher than the income they could earn by doing legal kinds of work for which they are qualified.