Does the value of work still mean something
Philosopher, Partner at Wemean
‘When “the practice of one’s profession” cannot be directly linked with the supreme spiritual values of civilisation – and when, conversely, it cannot be experienced subjectively as a simple economic constraint – the individual generally abandons giving it any meaning ’, wrote Max Weber in 1905 at the end of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.1 But is this not what we can observe a century later? A world where the value of work seems no longer evident, as if it were ‘endangered’ 2…
Big Quit in the USA, the hashtags #quitmyjob, #nodreamjob or #no_labor, communities with millions of followers like the group Antiwork on the social network Reddit: the signals of a form of revolt, or even disgust with work, are multiplying. This is not just a change to work (as might be suggested by remote working or the end of salaried employment as the only employment model), but a much more profound questioning movement – like a refusal to work. This is a far cry from Chaplin’s claim that the model of work is the model of life itself: ‘To work is to live – and I love living!’ 3
In Max Weber’s view, work established itself as a structuring value of society when the Reformation was definitively established in Europe and triumphantly exported to the United States. But the sociologist insisted on one thing: the success of this passion for work can only be explained by the spiritual interest that was linked to it. It is because a life dedicated to labour was the most certain sign of being one of God’s chosen that men gave themselves to it with such zeal. When the ethical value of work was no longer religious, it became social, serving as the index of integration in the community and the recognition of individual accomplishment.
And today? What is the spiritual value of work tied to when the paradigm of (over)production and limitless growth is wobbling, and when ‘helicopter money’ has been raining down for long months? Younger generations, who are challenging the evidence of this work value most vehemently, must lead us to elucidate the meaning of work for the 21st century; studies showing that young people are no longer willing to work at any price are multiplying.
The philosopher Simone Weil, who had worked in a factory, believed in a ‘civilisation of work’, in which work would become ‘the highest value, through its relationship with man who does it [and not] through its relationship with what is produced.’ 4 Make of man the measure of work: that is perhaps where we must start so that tomorrow we can link an ethical aspect to work again – the only one to justify its value. ‘The contemporary form of true greatness lies in a civilization founded on the spirituality of work,’ 5 wrote Weil.
1 Max Weber, L’Éthique protestante et l’esprit du capitalisme [The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism], Flammarion “Champs Classiques”, 2017. Quote translated from the French: « Dès lors que « l’exercice du métier » ne peut pas être directement mis en relation avec les valeurs spirituelles suprêmes de la civilisation – et que, à l’inverse, il ne peut pas être éprouvé subjectivement comme une simple contrainte économique –, l’individu renonce généralement à lui donner un sens. »
2 Dominique Méda, Le Travail ; Une Valeur en voie de disparition ? [Work; an endangered value?], Flammarion “Champs-Essais”, 2010.
3 David Robinson Chaplin: His Life and Art, 2013, Penguin Biography.
4 David Robinson Chaplin: His Life and Art, 2013, PenguTranslated from the French : « la valeur la plus haute, par son rapport avec l’homme qui l’exécute [et non] par son rapport avec ce qu’il produit. »in Biography.
5 Simone Weil, L’Enracinement [The need for Roots], Gallimard, 1949.