Relational precariat

Among other things David MacIver writes in How to do hard things - go read it - he discusses various facets of Total Work, the concept in which we are defined by and through what we do professionally.

The focus on professionalism is misleading. Rather than a result of employer-instigated incentives, Total Work stems from the shared story about what really sustains a community, and about the value and responsibility we have to others.

What good are you to us?

It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes at least one solid salary to feed it. Money, acquired through employment, is the currency with which we pay for continued survival of our families and communities. As COVID-19 demonstrated, even in a global health crisis landlords will still force their tenants out into the streets to die if they cannot pay the rent.

People asked "What do you do?" correctly understand the question as "What good are you to us? Demonstrate that you're fulfilling your moral responsibility" and attempt to answer it accordingly. This is why leisure activities are considered immoral. They are selfish; the time could be better spent serving others.

"Making yourself useful" has an optimal stopping problem, in that you could always be more useful. While "I need sufficient rest in order to recover and keep being useful" is a reasonable argument, it suffers from the same misaligned incentives as every other prevention effort: there's always temptation to risk it and not pay the costs. Or, in other words, overharvest: shame the most conscientous people into burnout.

What good are you to me?

"Don't think of an elephant!" by George Lakoff divides the American society into people who think we have a moral duty to care for everyone by sharing with the poor, and people who think we have a moral duty to incentivise the poor to get richer by withholding aid.

Apart from being a practical demonstration of framing (the main concept introduced in this book), it points to the hidden second meaning of "What do you do?", and that is "What good are you to me?" (which morphs into "What have you done for me lately?" once the relationship gets going.)

Total Work is a symptom of living in a culture where most games are finite and short, community reputation is nonexistent, and non-family bonds have been rendered meaningless by frequent changes of employment (source of companionship!) and place of living.

Humans walk through life, picking up and examining others, like mudlarkers searching for a prize. Each of us is naturally anxious to appear worthwhile, so that we may be kept. Each of us examines the mudlarker in turn, wondering whether they are worthy to keep us.

We engage in recruitment marketing, presenting new, freshly impressive achievements, appropriate to the stage of life we live in - rather like ensuring to always publish a recent, impressive photo of ourselves on a social networking site - because we are constantly compared to others and face the possibility of being left behind.

We are the relational precariat.

Categories: self-worth · value · relationships · work · social hierarchy