Why people work: a quick field guide

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why people work, what work is for, and what makes work worthwhile. There are probably as many answers to these questions as there are people in the workforce, but I wanted to try my hand at mapping out the main worker “tribes” of our time.

Traditional distinctions like blue-collar vs. white-collar, academia vs. industry, and profit-driven vs. purpose-driven obscure a lot of interesting details about the rainbow of reasons why people work. My goal here is to spark some discussion around various modes and goals of working. They’re not mutually exclusive, but they are quite distinct. Hopefully, you’ll be able to locate yourself in one or more of these tribes and better understand your own motivations for what you do.

  1. Artisans work because they care deeply about advancing their craft. Think painters, designers, writers, actors, programmers. They’re interested in a specific skillset or art form, and they’re always pushing themselves to be better. For Artisans, good work is intentional, thoughtful, thought-provoking, and provides ample opportunities for honing their skills.

  2. Conspicuous Careerists work because their career is inseparable from their identity. As Venkatesh Rao explains at Ribbonfarm, they think of work as something to be consumed for pleasure (à la conspicuous consumption). They “shop around” for careers, look for prestigious brands to associate with, and seek “fulfillment” at work. This is work as “fashion accessory and conversation fodder.” Company swag is their go-to fashion statement. For Conspicuous Careerists, good work is work that gives them a sense of identity and makes them feel like they’re a part of something that’s bigger than themselves. See also: William Whyte’s organization man.

  3. Doomsayers work because they believe the world as we know it is about to end. They’re highly motivated by existential threats to the human species. They’re afraid of climate change, unfriendly artificial intelligence, nuclear threats, bioterrorism, antibiotic resistance, etc. They want to avoid large-scale extinction events. For Doomsayers, good work is work that helps humanity survive. See also: Future of Humanity Institute, Stewart Brand’s Long Now Foundation, Longpath, and The Evolution Institute.

  4. Early Retirees work because they want to escape the workforce as fast as they possibly can. They want to make a large amount of money in a very short amount of time, put it in an investment account, move to a city with a low cost of living, and live off their investment income. They don’t necessarily have a clear idea of what they’ll do with their time when they’re retired. But they definitely know what they don’t want (i.e. to exchange their time for money until the government-sanctioned retirement age of 55). For early retirees, good work is work that allows them to make a lot of money in a short amount of time. See also: this New York Times profile of the early retirement movement and the Financial Independence subreddit.

  5. Effective Altruists work because they want to do the most good for the greatest number of people. They care a lot about the marginal impact of every dollar they donate, and they often “earn-to-give” (i.e. take very lucrative jobs for the sole purpose of giving the money away to organizations like Against Malaria Fund). They’re hardcore utilitarians, and they believe that they have a moral responsibility to work so that they can improve life for the world’s poor. For Effective Altruists, good work is work that allows them to improve the quality of life of as many people as possible. See also: The Life You Can Save, GiveWell, 80000 Hours, and Center for Effective Altruism.

  6. Elites work in order to support lavish lifestyles and associate with powerful, important people. They want to jet set around the world, buy expensive status symbols, and enjoy the finer things in life. They revel in the social status and freedom that comes with their wealth. Sometimes Elites share the concerns of the Doomsayers, but they use their money to protect themselves from the apocalypse. For Elites, good work is work that makes a lot of money and buys them a lot of influence.

  7. Intellectual Explorers work because they want to expand the frontier of knowledge. They subscribe to Richard Hamming’s mantra: “What are the important problems in your field? What are you working on? Why aren’t these the same thing?” They crave intellectual stimulation and the freedom to experiment with new ideas. For Intellectual Explorers, good work is work that brings new ideas into the world. It doesn’t much matter if these ideas are immediately applicable. Creating new knowledge is an intrinsic good. See also: You and Your Research.

  8. Masters of Scale work because they like to do things that touch the lives of millions (or billions) of people. It doesn’t really matter what they’re working on, so long as a lot of people use it. They’re inspired and motivated by reach, hockey stick growth, ultra big numbers. For Masters of Scale, good work is work that reaches a large number of people. These people often feel at home at big tech companies in Silicon Valley, or at startups that want to become the next big thing.

  9. Post-rationalists don’t see a meaningful distinction between work and play. “In the industrial age, we’ve come to conflate ‘play’ with inconsequential and unnecessary, but pseudo-interesting activities. A luxury that is mainly for children. With some allowance for adult hobbies. But a truer sense of play is the kind that precedes the industrial distinction between work (necessary but meaningless) and play (unnecessary but meaningful) activities. Is hunting or foraging work or play? The question makes no sense. It is play that works. Meaningful behavior that is also functional enough to ensure survival. Good work is indistinguishable from play.” See also: The Cyberpaleo Ethic.

  10. Protestants work because it’s the right thing to do. To be “hardworking” is an end in and of itself. They view unemployment as lazy and unproductive—a drag on society. They work because working is a social norm. They’re afraid of having too much unstructured time, and they don’t know what they’d do if they weren’t working towards a common goal with their colleagues. For Protestants, good work is work that gives them the opportunity to work hard and dedicate themselves to something beyond themselves.

  11. Public Servants work in order to empower a particular community. They differ from Effective Altruists in that their focus is narrower in scope. They care about a specific group of people (e.g. Americans, LGBTQ community, a political district) as opposed to a larger, more nebulous group (e.g. the world’s poor). For Public Servants, good work is work that allows them to improve the lives of the communities they’re invested in.

  12. Subsisters work because they don’t have a choice. They take jobs that they don’t necessarily enjoy because they have to feed their families or pay rent or pay for their children’s education. They don’t have savings, and unemployment would spell financial disaster. For Subsisters, good work pays the bills and puts food on the table.

What, how, & why

As kids, we’re often asked what we want to be when we grow up and how we’re going to get there. Adults focus on the what and how of work at the expense of the why. A quick Google search for “why people work” reveals a frustratingly obvious list of values like purpose, security, money, relationships. I’m curious about how we end up in one working tribe versus another, how we might move between tribes over the course of our lives, and the extent to which we’re aware of the life scripts we’re enacting. To be continued.