How strange the idea of work is. How strange is it that we spend the majority of our waking hours at jobs we don't love, spending our time in ways we don't enjoy or control, making money for wealthier people than us, in order to have a shelter and enough food to eat. And how strange it is that we worship entrepreneur billionaires as Gods because they control the capital, because they get to spend their time as they want and pay us to keep helping them get richer.
Some of you may respond, "duh" this is how the world is. Yes, this is how the world is. But so much of this strikes me as not only odd but inhumane. Capitalism makes everything transactional. Decisions are not made from love or empathy but are cost-benefit analyses. And work, therefore, becomes transactional too. We are willing to put up with work that might bore us or we hate, because of how much it pays and the lifestyle it affords. And this turns everything into a numbers game. And this makes "productivity" a value that's worthwhile.
This is reflected in people's opinions about their jobs. The most common attitude I hear towards work is "I don't love it, but it pays the bills." Sometimes people downright hate their jobs. It's rare to hear someone say their job is wonderful and reasserts the values they hold dear. Work becomes a burden, a burden that just happens to last for most of your life. It's not the horrors of chattel slavery of course. But there is something ignoble about how we've structured our society.
In this world, entertainment becomes the new opiate for the masses. Unable to connect to our work in meaningful ways, we search for ways out in our sports, our movies, our shows. Without them, we can no longer hide from our thoughts. Without them, we might start to see how our society has failed to give us what we crave: our humanity. And we less resemble individuals who are searching and growing and more reflect the world around us: vain and attention seeking but lonely and wanting desperately to connect.
"Autonomy" with regard to work is shorthand often for "I get to spend my time how I want to." It's a rare thing for most people. I'm lucky enough to have some of it, and it makes an enormous difference to my own mental health.
Recently when I'm discussing work with patients, "autonomy" is a theme that keeps coming up, mostly because they want more of it. When I hear people talk about "autonomy," the subtext I hear is that I want some of my humanity back. It screams out to me that I do not want everything to be transactions and productivity. I want my work to reflect some meaning and value. But how do we get to this imaginary world?
I don't have any answers really. I don't know what a radically restructured society around work and autonomy looks like exactly. I'm not a great theorist nor do I have a big enough imagination to see an optimistic future. But I do believe that central problem of our time is wealth and the redistribution of it. I think everything that is "wrong" with the world from climate change and race and class has some way to do with who has the money and how it is being used. It is here, I think, we as a species can find our dignity again, not just for the very rich but for everyone. It is here where we can bring some meaning back into our work.