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Why We Work (Besides the Money)

There are very few people who have the kind of money that makes working optional rather than mandatory. But, just because we need to work to pay the bills, that doesn’t mean that money is the only reason we go to work in the first place. Actually, there is a whole lot more to it than that. Let’s take a closer look at a few other reasons we do our jobs — reasons that go beyond fulfilling the need to earn a living. Do these ring true for you?
why we work
Image Credit: Heidi Sandstrom/Unsplash
  1. It’s really about self, and identity.

A new multimedia exhibit at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library entitled Working in America features photographs of people doing different jobs, with stories of their work accompanying the images. The art was inspired by Stud Terkel’s book, Working, which centers around interviews with American workers. One of his quotes is featured prominently at the art exhibit in Chicago according to a recent article in The Chicago Tribune:

“It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

Regardless of what we do for a living, we learn something about our world and ourselves from our jobs. When we work, we engage with the world rather than just bash around in it. We work because the alternative feels lethargic and inactive. We work so that we can affect the world rather than just be affected by it.

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At the Chicago exhibit, an accompanying brochure with quotes from featured workers helps to bring the art, and this message, to life.

“Farming and being connected to the earth has made me see myself as part of the earth, as part of a larger mission that doesn’t just stop at my door, my paycheck, my office, my farm,” said Kelly Carlisle, a U.S. Navy veteran who founded an urban farming project for youth.

About the nature of work itself she is quoted as saying, “I believe work is life. I don’t understand a life of leisure; I understand a life of work. I don’t really understand self-care other than in tidbits — like I’m going to get a massage today, but I’m going to be back out shoveling tomorrow. Work is life. That’s it.”

  1. It gives our lives purpose by helping us direct our skills and talents toward a cause.

Structure is good for a lot of people, and work gives us that. Even if you don’t feel as though you’re saving the world every day, the routine and organization that working gives our lives is actually comforting in a lot of ways, and it can give us a feeling of purpose. The day-in, day-out interactions help us feel needed (maybe even appreciated, on a good day) and as if our talents and skills are being directed toward a good cause. We might feel needed at home, but this is something else. When we work, we take our training, our special skills, and we direct them toward something concrete, which can be very satisfying.

  1. Work can be a distraction – for better or worse.

It’s also important to keep in mind that, in our society, work can become almost too great a source of identity. We start asking children what they want to “be” when they grow up, from a very young age. Perhaps we shouldn’t, or at least should be mindful to ask them what they want to “do for a living” instead. The semantics matter far less than the overall idea that perhaps investing too much of our identity into our professions can have its downsides, too.

  1. Other reasons are more individual, or generational.

Of course, as the exhibit in Chicago demonstrates, we all connect with our work in different ways and what we take from it varies. Also, some of our motivations could be generational. As the world of work changes, new generations will add their own take on things to the landscape. For example, a recent study conducted by FlexJobs suggests that millennials are more motivated to work by a desire to travel than are other generations have been. It will be interesting to see how these priorities shift and change in the years and decades to come. As work changes, workers’ experiences do, too.

Tell Us What You Think

Other than money, why do you work, really? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.


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