The Drudgery of Modern Work

A bitter irony of modern life is just when computers and robots should give people more time for creativity and relaxation, the opposite is often the case for many, a continued life of drudgery, as Lawrence Davidson observes.

By Lawrence Davidson

We have just celebrated Labor Day weekend (September 2, 3, 4) in the United States, the very heartland of capitalism. Apropos of the holiday, I happened to have run across a July 2016 survey with the original paradoxical title, “Job Satisfaction Hits a 10-Year High – But It’s Still Below 50%.”

A robotic welder in a factory.

What the survey reports is that “just under half (49.6%) of U.S. workers surveyed reported they are satisfied with their jobs.” These are workers in “traditional jobs,” which are typically eight-hour-a-day employment at conventional job sites. The report then compares this “just under half” rate to the reported job satisfaction of “independent” workers – those self-employed or working in an autonomous or semi-autonomous way. The reported satisfaction level of these “independent” workers was 65 percent.

The first number is downright depressing and the second is not very impressive. Also, consider what the report attributed the improvement (compared to say, 40 percent satisfaction in 2010 for traditional jobs) of the low satisfaction numbers to: “a decline in layoffs, stronger wage growth and expanding job opportunities [expanding labor market].” None of these factors addresses what ought to be one of the major, and obvious, goals of work – the fulfillment, as far as possible, of individual human potential. Or, to state it another way, providing avenues for the individual to “be all he or she can be.”

The conventional definition of an economy is a system of “production, distribution and consumption of goods and services.” Historically, this definition of the way human beings produce and apportion both the necessities and accessories of life has proven incomplete, because it makes no reference to the psychological human need for being creative through labor.

This psychological need for realizing one’s potential in this fashion might not have been satisfiable as long as economies were operating in a subsistence environment. Later, when the division of labor became elaborated, this sort of satisfaction probably became possible for a select few. However, in a post-industrial economy the ability to realize, as far as possible, human potential through economic activity should take a big leap. What is required is a government’s will to regulate the use of surplus capital toward this end, along with an educational system that prioritizes this goal.

A Psychological Necessity

This is not just pie-in-the-sky idealism. We are talking about a part of the human psyche that demands attention.

Consider the American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow lists five categories of human needs: Starting with (1) those most basic to survival. These are physiological needs, such as food and shelter. Next come (2) safety needs. These are followed by (3 and 4) two levels of social needs: first the need for family, friends, and a sense of belonging, and then the need to achieve self-esteem in the form of recognition for one’s achievements and respect from one’s fellows.

Economic philosopher and critic of capitalism Karl Marx

Finally Maslow posits what he considers the highest human need: (5) that for self-actualization, or the ability to be creative and fully utilize the talent inherent in one’s abilities.

If you want to know what economies (and governments too) are really for, it is to facilitate the fulfillment of all these needs – including the highest one. That is, to help citizens “be all they can be.”

Socialist economists have shown some insight into this requirement, and of course, Karl Marx clearly laid out the state of alienation that capitalism brings about by estranging the worker from the product of his or her own labor.

Nonetheless, there has not yet been a post-industrial national economy (including so-called socialist ones) that has prioritized or, for that matter, even recognized self-actualization as a goal of economic policy. Because such an effort has never been part of our official political and economic policy making, it is difficult for all people, including those in the U.S. celebrating Labor Day, to think of satisfying this need through the activity – the labor – that takes up most of their waking hours.

And here is a piece of consequential irony that this blindness to the humanizing potential of labor has left us with. According to the advertising agents working diligently to convince us all that we live in the best of possible worlds, the best place for youth to fulfill their potential is (no gagging please) in the military. Thus, the slogan “be all you can be” has been turned into a recruiting ad for the U.S. Army.

At this rate daily work will stay a stultifying trap for most, and dissatisfaction will continue to be taken for granted as a consequence of the need to labor. It is no wonder that here in the Twenty-first Century, one is driven back to the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment writer Voltaire for solace – for the message that we can as yet do little better than “tending our own gardens well.”

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism. He blogs at

27 comments for “The Drudgery of Modern Work

  1. michael lacey
    September 13, 2017 at 05:19

    Good article! Have also listened to this chap on meaningless jobs!

  2. The Classics
    September 7, 2017 at 15:38

    As long as you can be robbed of the fruit of your labor, you’ll never have fulfillment. The main methods used to rob the masses are usury, inflation, and taxation. That’s how you get the 1%. Not through industrious work that benefits people. As long as someone can remotely rob you with the press of a button, you cannot live in dignity unless you take a stand to defend yourself. As long as people are living in debt, they are nothing more than slaves.

    Read Plutarch’s essay on Debt and Borrowing Upon Usury from Moralia. Here’s are two excerpts:

    “Thus we ought in our affairs, as in a besieged town, never to admit or receive the hostile garrison of a usurer, nor to endure before our eyes the delivering up of our goods into perpetual servitude; but rather to cut off from our table what is neither necessary nor profitable, and in like manner from our beds, our couches, and our ordinary expenses, and so to keep ourselves free and at”

    “But my only aim is to show those who are so ready to take up money upon use, how much shame and slavery there is in it, and how it proceeds only from extreme folly, sloth, and effeminacy of heart. For if thou hast of thy own, borrow not, since thou hast no need of it; and if thou hast nothing, borrow not, because thou wilt not have any means to pay.”

    Aristotle on Usury:

    “The most hated sort (of wealth-getting), and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself, and not from the natural object of it. For money was intended to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest. And this term interest, which means the birth of money from money, is applied to the breeding of money because the offspring resembles the parent. Wherefore of an modes of getting wealth this is the most unnatural. “

    • hatedbyu
      September 8, 2017 at 10:05

      agree 1000%

      getting rid of the fed would at least be a good start.

  3. fudmier
    September 7, 2017 at 10:07

    Satisfaction Herzog and need Maslov applied to worker of the industrial age.. While industry produced products are still needed, they have become basic like dirt is to grass and water is sailing, clouds are to rain.. There was a time when oil whale and sailors were needed, and a time when workers were needed, but those times have passed and new horizons are emerging. We are now in the information age.. and here the product of the information industry is more from the mind than from the hand.. High school graduates now need he skill sets of the electrical engineer and computer scientist of the industrial age, but computer software and GUIs have placed these requisite skills at the finger tips of nearly any user; the knowledge behind them is no longer required to use them.
    New ideas come and go in our new age in matters of days, while products from the industrial age had life spans of 30 to 40 years. Governments worry they have no way to control these skills or who is allowed to learn them or use them. That is the real problem with robotics, mankind is free to ignore big brother, but big brother is fighting back, they are increasing the numbers of bureaucrats, increasing the regulation to control the most minute human behaviour, so that they can license and tax those behaviours, regulate land use, issuing fines for breathing with an unlicensed set of lungs, etc.. Robotics is going to place mankind against their governments and their supervisors.

  4. September 6, 2017 at 14:36

    One of the inherent problems with these surveys of satisfaction is that satisfaction is self reported. With the amount of propaganda given about how lucky we are, that you can choose happiness, how socially unacceptabe it is to show pain, and if you’re suffering it’s subtly your fault, these numbers are bound to be higher than reality.

  5. mike k
    September 6, 2017 at 11:09

    Having meaningful and fulfilling work depends on answering the question, “what is the meaning and purpose of human life?” What we are experiencing now is a result of answering that question incorrectly, or not having a clue about it. This will not end well……

    • PurpleDreams
      September 6, 2017 at 11:24

      I certainly don’t believe the purpose is to work

      • mike k
        September 6, 2017 at 11:59

        Depends on the work. When I was being an artist, I used to work long hours and rise eagerly before dawn to plunge into creativity once more.

        • PurpleDreams
          September 6, 2017 at 13:49

          I agree with you, it does depend on the work. Artistic jobs tend to be fulfilling. They are both a passion and a job.

    • hatedbyu
      September 6, 2017 at 13:32

      the wise pangloss said that we have to “tend to our garden”

      that’s from voltaire’s “candide” and has always struck me as the meaning of life.

      • Feliz Navidad
        September 7, 2017 at 19:43

        Was it Buddha who said, “All there is to do is sit and tend the garden.”?

        • hatedbyu
          September 8, 2017 at 10:03

          i think it was martha stewart

        • Libby
          September 11, 2017 at 02:26

          All traditional societies knew that the contemplative life was most worthwhile. This has all but been forgotten or trodden upon.

    • Libby
      September 11, 2017 at 02:20

      Thank you Mike.

  6. PurpleDreams
    September 6, 2017 at 05:40

    I believe personal fulfillment should be found off the job but the problem is that people are working far too long.

  7. john wilson
    September 6, 2017 at 04:44

    If robotics continues to move ahead at the present rate, we will be lucky to have any jobs, drudgery or not. Of course, its all on course for total stagnation. If the majority of people don’t have a job or are part time, they won’t be buying any of the goods from robotic factories and so the owners will have to shut down. Just as night follows day so does a reasonable pay packet mean spending on goods and services, which in turn means the ‘system’ continues. I see grim times ahead.

    • Brad Owen
      September 6, 2017 at 05:16

      A National Income (sort of like Alaska Permanent Fund based on oil production) based on a Nation’s productivity of its automated factories will solve that part of the problem. Richard C Cook talked about this. This WILL describe the future if Progress prevails over Regress and the Geopolitical gaming of the Global Oligarchy. As far as what to do with all the freed-up time, this will take a significant restructuring of education. This will track along with the same progress as observed in a Nation’s military forces: in ancient Tribal times, every “swinging dick” had to stand ready with spear and shield. Nowadays, a tiny fraction of population only, is needed for military duty. In WWII, our most massive military endeavor, only 10% or 12% of the population served in the military.

      • mike k
        September 6, 2017 at 11:03

        More capitalist Dreams. Maybe reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy would be a healthy antidote to these escapist fantasies. What lies ahead for us is not an adman’s dream my friends.

        • Brad Owen
          September 6, 2017 at 12:14

          Perhaps the “back-to-Nature/back-to-God” scenario will prove to be the correct choice, with the most advanced state of such existence being an Amish-like community; a serf-like Peasant Caste. Know that the Global Oligarchy still holds to its Eugenics dreams and seeks population reduction to 1 billion or less, making the remaining “herd” (as THEY do indeed regard us as their cattle/chattel/wealth) more manageable. Imagine 1 million oligarchs, (inclusive of their extended families), supported by a Technologist Caste of 10 million “Top Secret” technologists to enable their living in the manner to which they have become accustomed; protected by a Warrior Caste or 20 or more million, with the rest of the 900-plus million simply fending for themselves, to be watched and recruited if showing any promise of development. Call this Synarchy: the “harmonious” coexistence of the locked-in Castes (conveniently over-looking the fact that such feudal existence gives rise to numerous peasant revolts, one of which succeeded beyond wildest expectations in 1776). this is what your Dream leads to, Mike, in this REAL World. I give my wife credit for coining the phrase; “this is one of the minor Hell worlds, dear, and not our true HOME”, and I’m constantly brought to remembrance of this, therefore beating a retreat to the Eye Center, the Escape Hatch from this minor Hell World. You think a Paradise can be made here; NOT by your methods, nor any methods. At best one can achieve better, more comfortable times here, in this Minor Hell World, waiting for the old “Meat Suit” to expire in 70, 80, 90 years, maybe less time than that. This may be the final stand (at the Eye Center; I’m getting more comfortable with this position with every passing year), as it proves very difficult to enlist any help in trying to better our conditions, apparently resistance is futile in the minds of the majority, and efforts easily mislead down wrong paths, where most want to go.

          • Brad Owen
            September 7, 2017 at 05:26

            To continue the thought, because it’s important “for the record”: In this minor Hell World, where the Light and the Dark “coexist” in a constant wrestling match;sometimes Light has the upper hand, sometimes Dark does. This Minor Hell World will NEVER be a Paradise; it’s not in Its Nature to be. The best that can be accomplished (and this only with focused coordinated, cooperative effort, AKA “work”) is to make this World a little less harsh, mean, painful, brutal, vicious; make it a little more comfortable and easy to exist, to afford the luxury of being a little more kind, more caring about the welfare of others while we live out our short stay here in this minor hell world. It is entirely towards THIS end (Promoting the General Welfare, AKA “Love Thy Neighbor”) that economies and industries and agriculture have been invented, to provide plumbing for clean, drinkable water, and carry away wastes to be treated and rendered harmless, electricity for light and heat and coolness and refrigeration and communicating is this very way, via these words in front of you, to provide transportation to enable aid to come to your community if its in distress or to deliver these means of a more comfortable easier life made elsewhere. All of this ENABLES more human life to exist, in greater numbers, than if people only relied upon Natures methods of providing comfort and ease. People think have differing views on this, but I think it is an unalloyed Good that more and more souls can be ushered into human life. Those people who regard humanity as vermin I consider the enemies of Humanity and have given themselves over to the Dark. And the Dark always tries to subvert these means of providing comfort, ease, health, etc…and turn it into a weapon to use against the people, to empower and aggrandize itself. The Means are not at fault. The Dark is at fault, and we are in the backyard of The Dark. Don’t believe it? Just look up at the night sky and how much light do you see compared to how much dark. We live in a lower-level Universe where Dark Matter prevails, so, yeah, we live in a minor hell-world which is not the true home of the Soul(a being of Light).

    • hatedbyu
      September 6, 2017 at 13:29

      everyone is all in for robotics…..well it seems, anyway.

      i say no. do not use the self checkout lines. do not visit businesses that have automated robotic workers. do not use amazon.

      i think we, as people, have the right to say that our work is important. and that we value it.

      labor has been cheapened. not monetarily(well yes, but that’s not what i’m talking about) but in all our minds. how can you, in good conscious, really think you are getting a good deal when you buy something made by slave labor in a foreign country?

      one of the last american flag manufacturers in the usa is located near me. i went there to have work done that is a separate entity to the flag business. they have hundred year old embroidery machines in a factory like setting in the back. they have workers attending to these large machines. i noticed that every one of the workers looked to be from another country. my guess is that they have been forced to hire illegals to compete with the chinese made flags. not sure if they are illegals but trying to make a point here.

      all one has to do is look at what has happened to farming around the world. farmers should be the kings of the economy. they used to be here in the usa. now they are all struggling. food should be our most precious commodity. but sadly is not.

      what i’m saying here, is that we need to get back to appreciating each other as humans and support each other. pretending that robots are the future is only a dream of the present digital oligarchs. they have planted this seed in the minds of the masses and we have to resist.

      use robots where precision is needed. leave the human work to the humans.

  8. Luke Lea
    September 5, 2017 at 20:01

    Readers may be interested in my upcoming Notes Towards a New Way of Life in America, which revolves around the notion of factories in the countryside run on part-time jobs and what they might mean for the world we live in:

    “In this 21st century ‘capitalist’ eutopia, Luke Lea explores a world of New Country Towns in which the people work part-time outside the home and in their free time build their own houses, cultivate gardens, cook and care for their children and grandchildren, and pursue hobbies and other outside interests. They live on small family homesteads grouped around neighborhood greens, and get around town in glorified golf-carts. So thoroughly are work and leisure integrated into the fabric of their everyday lives that they don’t feel much need to retire, and they die at home in their beds as a rule, surrounded by loved ones.

    For those who would like to move to this world he provides a map with some directions for how to get there from here.”

    “[Luke Lea] is an excellent amateur economist.” Milton Friedman

    Will be on Kindle by end of the month

    • mike k
      September 6, 2017 at 10:57

      If Milton Friedman endorses it, what could go wrong? A lot. Beware of capitalist “utopias”.

      • hatedbyu
        September 8, 2017 at 10:02

        OH MY GOD!!!!



    • Nancy
      September 6, 2017 at 11:26

      Doing work that contributes to the quality of our lives can be very satisfying, especially when all share equally in the fruits of their labor.

      • hatedbyu
        September 8, 2017 at 12:18

        shouldn’t that read ” fruits of OUR labor”?

  9. Bart in VA
    September 5, 2017 at 18:36

    That second paragraph did not mention those who work behind a counter in coffee shops, fast food, retail stores, etc., whose work schedules are unpredictable and subject to change from day to day. They usually don’t look very happy.

    Many moons ago I had a summer job at Republic Steel in South Chicago shoveling various ingredients into a hot furnace. My schedule was very erratic through all three shifts throughout a pay period, but I was a happy 20 year old, not a single parent, not poor, and making a good wage with the union. Those jobs are gone.

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