Barry Schwartz: The way we think about work is broken
Today I'm going to talk about work. And the question I want to ask and answer is this: "Why do we work?" Why do we drag ourselves out of bed every morning instead of living our lives just filled with bouncing from one TED-like adventure to another?
You may be asking yourselves that very question. Now, I know of course, we have to make a living, but nobody in this room thinks that that's the answer to the question, "Why do we work?" For folks in this room, the work we do is challenging, it's engaging, it's stimulating, it's meaningful. And if we're lucky, it might even be important.
So, we wouldn't work if we didn't get paid, but that's not why we do what we do. And in general, I think we think that material rewards are a pretty bad reason for doing the work that we do. When we say of somebody that he's "in it for the money," we are not just being descriptive.
Now, I think this is totally obvious, but the very obviousness of it raises what is for me an incredibly profound question. Why, if this is so obvious, why is it that for the overwhelming majority of people on the planet, the work they do has none of the characteristics that get us up and out of bed and off to the office every morning? How is it that we allow the majority of people on the planet to do work that is monotonous, meaningless and soul-deadening? Why is it that as capitalism developed, it created a mode of production, of goods and services, in which all the nonmaterial satisfactions that might come from work were eliminated? Workers who do this kind of work, whether they do it in factories, in call centers, or in fulfillment warehouses, do it for pay. There is certainly no other earthly reason to do what they do except for pay.
So the question is, "Why?" And here's the answer: the answer is technology. Now, I know, I know -- yeah, yeah, yeah, technology, automation screws people, blah blah -- that's not what I mean. I'm not talking about the kind of technology that has enveloped our lives, and that people come to TED to hear about. I'm not talking about the technology of things, profound though that is. I'm talking about another technology. I'm talking about the technology of ideas. I call it, "idea technology" -- how clever of me.
In addition to creating things, science creates ideas. Science creates ways of understanding. And in the social sciences, the ways of understanding that get created are ways of understanding ourselves. And they have an enormous influence on how we think, what we aspire to, and how we act.
If you think your poverty is God's will, you pray. If you think your poverty is the result of your own inadequacy, you shrink into despair. And if you think your poverty is the result of oppression and domination, then you rise up in revolt. Whether your response to poverty is resignation or revolution, depends on how you understand the sources of your poverty. This is the role that ideas play in shaping us as human beings, and this is why idea technology may be the most profoundly important technology that science gives us.
And there's something special about idea technology, that makes it different from the technology of things. With things, if the technology sucks, it just vanishes, right? Bad technology disappears. With ideas -- false ideas about human beings will not go away if people believe that they're true. Because if people believe that they're true, they create ways of living and institutions that are consistent with these very false ideas.
And that's how the industrial revolution created a factory system in which there was really nothing you could possibly get out of your day's work, except for the pay at the end of the day. Because the father -- one of the fathers of the Industrial Revolution, Adam Smith -- was convinced that human beings were by their very natures lazy, and wouldn't do anything unless you made it worth their while, and the way you made it worth their while was by incentivizing, by giving them rewards. That was the only reason anyone ever did anything. So we created a factory system consistent with that false view of human nature. But once that system of production was in place, there was really no other way for people to operate, except in a way that was consistent with Adam Smith's vision. So the work example is merely an example of how false ideas can create a circumstance that ends up making them true.
It is not true that you "just can't get good help anymore." It is true that you "can't get good help anymore" when you give people work to do that is demeaning and soulless. And interestingly enough, Adam Smith -- the same guy who gave us this incredible invention of mass production, and division of labor -- understood this. He said, of people who worked in assembly lines, of men who worked in assembly lines, he says: "He generally becomes as stupid as it is possible for a human being to become." Now, notice the word here is "become." "He generally becomes as stupid as it is possible for a human being to become." Whether he intended it or not, what Adam Smith was telling us there, is that the very shape of the institution within which people work creates people who are fitted to the demands of that institution and deprives people of the opportunity to derive the kinds of satisfactions from their work that we take for granted.
The thing about science -- natural science -- is that we can spin fantastic theories about the cosmos, and have complete confidence that the cosmos is completely indifferent to our theories. It's going to work the same damn way no matter what theories we have about the cosmos. But we do have to worry about the theories we have of human nature, because human nature will be changed by the theories we have that are designed to explain and help us understand human beings.
The distinguished anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, said, years ago, that human beings are the "unfinished animals." And what he meant by that was that it is only human nature to have a human nature that is very much the product of the society in which people live. That human nature, that is to say our human nature, is much more created than it is discovered. We design human nature by designing the institutions within which people live and work.
And so you people -- pretty much the closest I ever get to being with masters of the universe -- you people should be asking yourself a question, as you go back home to run your organizations. Just what kind of human nature do you want to help design?