Nature of work in modern-day societies

Adesh Kumar Mishra
5 min readAug 9, 2022


Analyzing the nature of work in modern-day societies

This article tries to analyze the role of work in modern-day society and attempts to find the balance between conflicting narratives regarding work/occupation.

The present system of work/job started with the industrial revolution on the idea propounded by Adam Smith. In his famous book “The Wealth of Nations”; Adam Smith argued that inherent human nature is lazy, selfish, egoistic, and exclusively concerned with self-love and an unquenchable desire for the most extravagant forms of material wealth.

In the precivilization era when humans started settling down with the advent of agriculture, the formation of societies took place, and the concept of private property emerged. ‘Plato’ criticized the idea, but ‘Aristotle’ advocated for it. As the world progressed, the idea of private property was discussed heavily among scholars, be it Marx, Locke, or Mill.

When the Industrial revolution took place in Britain, the concept of mass production of goods came into being. Contemporary political scholars favored the capitalist class and agreed that mass production was the way forward. As new factories were opening, the demand for assembly line workers was growing exponentially. People were getting called from the hinterlands to work in the factories.

When it came to living conditions and compensation, the general agreement was based on the principles given by Adam Smith and his conception of human nature. Factory owners saw workers as a mode of production whose only purpose was to produce as many goods as possible in each period. The owners saw their workforce as lazy, selfish, and exclusively concerned with material wealth. They ensured bare minimum wages so that their workforce could not rise to question their authority. It resulted in inhumane living conditions, widespread poverty, exhaustive working hours, and a detrimental work environment for the workers. Distrust grew among both parties, and both sides hated each other but could not avoid it as they depended on each other to survive.

As this capitalistic mode of production came into criticism, the classical liberalism model changed itself into positive liberalism. Where social security, better wages, and living conditions were promised to reduce the distrust among the parties involved. As time passed, specialized jobs came into being where highly educated and experienced persons were required for the task.

Now, it has become harder for the owners to find an experienced and skilled person to do the job compared to previous assembly line workers. The wages grew but little did the trust factor improve.

Modern-day workers often spend most of the time in mindless commutation, alienated or toxic work environments, far away from their families and loved ones. The definition of work has evolved over the period; since the industrial revolution, the worker-employer relationship has seen many difficulties. Presently, the major change in the concept of work has been brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. People started arguing about the meaning of work and its role in civilization. Now you can see the workforce demanding flexibility, a healthy work environment, and room for social life. Alarming levels of stress, fatigue, and a struggling lifestyle question the objective for which modern-day work was encapsulated. The modern framework, which is based on Adam Smith’s idea of human nature and mass production of goods, overlooks his concerns regarding the perils of the division of labor as it does not suit their interests.

Although Adam Smith was concerned about the public in general by adopting a private mode of production. Little could he have known how his idea would be used by the affluent section of society to take control of the economy and power politics. In his lesser-known book V of “The Wealth of Nations,” he discusses the perils of mass production in the following passage -

“In the progress of the division of labor, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labor, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few amazingly simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understanding of the greater part of the men is necessarily formed by their ordinary employments.

The man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are always the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties that never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and becomes as stupid and ignorant as a human creature can become.”

The general narrative regarding the work that it helps to pay our bills and is necessary for our survival is also questionable and goes back to the social contract theory. Social contract theory primarily says that people are sovereign, and they transfer some of their rights to the government to lead a better life: they could live otherwise. Now, most of the population all around the globe is struggling to maintain a decent lifestyle while working hard, paying taxes, and obeying laws. So, why is there such tremendous pressure on the majority while they are playing by the rules? Let us understand by Adam Smith himself –

“Whenever there is a great property, there is great inequality. For one rich man, there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of many. The affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade their possessions.”

Often the wealth created by the nations tends to concentrate in the hands of a few and is often justified as fruits of entrepreneurship. Although we can partially accept the argument, given the politico-business nexus, cultural capitalism, and other factors, income inequality is an evil that must reduce as much as possible. Inequalities of income disturb the social order and create unrest, and often lead to class conflict between the haves and the haves not. It is socially acceptable for a CEO to earn income thousands of times that of the entry-level worker apart from the bonuses, rewards, etc. But the majority of the workforce finds it hard to keep their soul and body together despite slogging themselves tirelessly. We need to find a delicate balance between the concept of talent reward and the concept of equality.

Our life is a whole of various parts, and work is only one of them. It should not become the basis of our life, interactions, and learning. The aim of anything should be to make society a peaceful, cooperative environment and dignified life for its members. Anything that serves a purpose for one section only, should be modified to serve the interests of all.

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