On Work, Money and PURPOSE, Part 1

What do we REALLY mean by “work”?

On Work, Money and PURPOSE, Part 1 /img/useless-work.jpg


This post is the first part of a larger essay, titled “The future of work: from jobs to service to others, technology and freedom”, that I wrote in May 2020, specifically for a conference about the future of work, in a catholic context.

Since the paper was not accepted, I am publishing it here, divided in four parts. The main reason for the rejection was that, more or less, “the paper does not go in depth in the many argument it touches, nor does it provide enough references, especially academic ones”. I can agree with this, but please note that this essay was written into the very middle of Italy’s COVID19 lockdown. On one level, not the best moment for concentration. On another, what was happening in real time, worldwide, was both so big, and so deeply connected to the title I had chosen months before writing, that it just swept aside most “academic references”.

What follows is the best I could produce in a moment like that, with a 5K words limit. It is far from perfect, but I feel it still is, at least, a useful starting point for many interesting, overdue conversation and studies about work, money and much more. If you agree, thanks in advance for supporting this and my other work, through donations or in other ways, as described here.



“If we reflect on the proper relationship between human beings and the world around us, we see the need for a correct understanding of work…” [Laudato Si, 125].

This paper proposes just what Pope Francis calls for in the encyclical letter Laudato Si (LS): a correct understanding of work, that fully takes into account the challenges and technological developments of our times. It introduces an approch to work, and consequently to employment, business and innovation, and the urgency of further study to fully develop it. Both the approach and the conclusions are considered consistant with Catholic Social Doctrine (CSD) but valid, and applicable, even outside it.

The paper starts with a definition and categorization of both work and human needs, applying them to employment and innovation. Next is an overview of Universal Basic Income (UBI), open technologies and business models. The last two chapters summarize how the aforementioned definitions and solutions are coherent with the values and end goals of CSD, and what further study is needed.

Chapter 1: What is work, again?

“If we reflect on the proper relationship between human beings and the world around us, we see the need for a correct understanding of work; if we talk about the relationship between human beings and things, the question arises as to the meaning and purpose of all human activity”. [LS, 125]

“Work should be the setting for … rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, giving glory to God.” [LS, 127]

The sources used as starting point to understand and clarify what work is are Chapter VI of the Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine (CCSD-6) and the parts of LS that describe work, and employment. Both sources, especially CCSD-6, say a lot about what work means, but much less about what work concretely is, or more exactly about what deserves to be called work, as promoted by CSD itself.

This is both unsurprising, and right. In spite of huge changes, the kind of work (salaried, possibly unionized, usually taking almost all one’s time) that was the subject of the encyclical letter Rerum Novarum (1891) still is the main, if not the only kind of “work” that many people could find until recent times, and the one they still most frequently value, or dream of.

It is also right that CSD focuses on meaning, because meaning is, if not eternal, much more important, and much slower to change, than types of work, or working conditions. The concrete implementations of that meaning should never forget it, of course, but they should closely follow, if not anticipate, the pace of technical and socioeconomical changes.

The real meaning of “work”, and its true place in life and society, come from two among the primary, universal, equally important needs of all human beings. As far as this paper is concerned, what all human beings actually need is the combination of MEANING, and material security.

For the sake of brevity, the first “meta-need” can be identified with personal recognition, having a real purpose in life, and belonging to a larger community. Material security would consist of guaranteed access to, at least, these basic resources: food, “shelter” (that is: housing, the energy to power it, and clothing), healthcare, education and information/communication.

The last two resources are also necessary to recognize and achieve MEANING but, as it will be clear in Chapter 3, as far as this paper is concerned it is just simpler to place them in the “material security” category.

Many people believe that MEANING and material security must come primarily through one monolithic package called “job”, no matter which job as long as it is legal, and/or that having any role inside the same organization that provides the money to achieve material security is and gives MEANING, by definition: but that is a severely limiting view.

What CSD and many other systems call “work” is something that, as an italian saying goes, “ennobles man”. Here, taking into account the two meta-needs above, I propose to clearly label that concept as WORK, all uppercase, and to explicitly acknowledge that WORK is an umbrella term for (at least) two deeply different categories of human activity that should always remain distinct, no matter how intertwined they may be in practice:

  • SERVICE (to others, for the Common Good) and
  • “paid work”, or p-work for brevity, that is provided through some form of (self-) employment.

For the individual, the purpose of SERVICE is to find and actually practice personal MEANING. The purpose of p-work is to provide (in theory) material security, in exchange for some activity. SERVICE ennobles human beings naturally, by definition, much more than p-work can.

SERVICE is one’s true vocation and call: an integral part of the human person, that takes very different, if not unique forms in any individual. SERVICE is the activity that cannot be absent in the rich personal growth that LS advocates, and can be enough to achieve it.

A practical, lower-level definition of SERVICE is what one would do for others anyway, even for free, or just because it can be done for free: being a parent, composing music, protecting endangered habitats, acquiring and sharing knowledge…

Much SERVICE is not paid today: Should it be? In most cases, no, not directly, that is. SERVICE should remain, stealing a slogan of the Free Software Movement, “Free as in Freedom”… to stop at any time, with obvious exceptions as being parent of minors. SERVICE should always be concretely affordable, never being forced to become a “job” or a “career”, exactly to preserve its value for personal human growth, of being a free choice, a gift.

P-work is activities that society actually needs from people, but may not match anybody’s SERVICE. Without actual need from society there is no p-work, only jobs, here definable as “money for doing something that adds no MEANING, and may even subtract it”.

In practice, SERVICE and p-work can coexist, maybe taking turns in different moments of life, contributing together to personal growth. It is equally obvious that, for some people, SERVICE can become p-work, paid enough that they can fulfil both their meta-needs with one activity. As wonderful as that is, it is imperative to acknowledge that such cases are a rapidly shrinking minority:

for an increasing number of people p-work (assuming they can get it in the first place) becomes just a job: something that, if not for money necessary for material security, they would never do voluntarily under the same conditions, but not for lazyness: because it objectively is no SERVICE and, being useless to others has very little meaning, or none at all.

Continues here