“Alienation on the Job”

“Alienation on the Job”

Dennis Bradford

389 Posts



Our values, what we consider good, are seriously influenced by our economic activity such as our working at a job.

Alienation” may be the most important nonphysical impact of having a job on a worker.  Alienation occurs when, like Frankenstein’s monster in Mary Shelly’s story, a creation comes to dominate the life of its creator.

Our economic system was solely created by human beings.  When it comes to dominate our lives, when we become trapped by our own creation, we are alienated.

Marx argued that we all, wage workers and business owners alike, are alienated by the market system.  This is unfortunate since, as he himself realized, a free market economy is the most productive economic system ever created.

This is an excellent question to ask yourself:  does the free market economy exist to serve you, or do you exist to serve it?

If you need to have a job, then your life does not have a chance to have the quality it could have.  Please don’t misunderstand:  I’m not suggesting that there is anything necessarily wrong with having a job.  What I am suggesting is that you consider whether or not your life would be better if you didn’t have to have a job.

Let’s consider an oversimplified example.  Even though it’s oversimplified, notice that I am only counting time spent working on the job and not, for example, time spent preparing for the job, time spent commuting to and from the job (if any), or time spent recovering from the job.

Let’s suppose that you are a typical wage-worker at age 25.  You get hired and work at a job for forty years until you retire.  Let’s suppose that you work forty hours weekly for fifty weeks a year.  That’s 2000 hours each year for forty years, in other words, 80,000 hours.

It’s no exaggeration either to say that those 80,000 hours will be the prime hours of your life.  Much of the rest of your time will be spent sleeping, eating, and doing other routine tasks.  In other words, it’s not as if you go to work at your job when you’ve done everything else you wanted to do; it’s that you first go to work at your job and then try to fit in everything else that you want to do.

Time at work is usually spent working.  The office or factory is not the best place to form friendships, to study, to meditate, to write books, to raise children, to create works of art, and so on.  Instead, time at work is only a means to other ends like those; time on the job provides you with money that enables you to purchase other goods.  Money, though, is intrinsically worthless.

Therefore, instead of spending much of your life pursuing intrinsically valuable activities, you will spend much of your life pursuing something with no intrinsic value.  Remember, you are paid a wage or salary in exchange for your time and effort; you do not own whatever value your produce because that value is the property of your company.  You have alienated it for a wage.

It does not follow that there is anything wrong with work itself.  That’s not the point.  Without work, without productive activity, there could be no well-lived human life.  What does follow is that there are two kinds of work.

One kind of work is drudgery work that is also sometimes called “alienated labor” or “estranged labor” or “work done only as a means to some other end or goal.”  The other kind of work is creative work, which is also called “unalienated labor” or “intrinsically valuable work.”  Creative work is what you would do even if you didn’t have to do it, whereas drudgery work is what you would not do even if you didn’t have to do it.

What should you work at?  I have no idea.  However, I encourage you to ask yourself this question, “If I could do anything I wanted to do, what would I do?”  If you are honest with yourself, it’s very unlikely that you’ll choose something utterly unsuited to your particular abilities and skills.  It’s likely that you really enjoy activities that come naturally to you and that you are good at doing.  Wouldn’t you be happiest if you spent most of the prime hours of your life doing that kind of activity rather than doing whatever some employer told you to do?

We can become trapped by our own economic system.  We find ourselves with financial burdens such as mortgage or rent payments, insurance payments, medical and grocery bills, and so on.  We tend to panic when we lose a source of income such as a job.  However, loss, separation, is an excellent time for additional self-examination.

Why don’t you seriously consider becoming financially independent so that you are able to live your life doing what you really want to do?

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