The Meaning of Work – Labour Day

Labour day is one of those holidays that no one really pays attention to. It came like a ‘bleep’,  more of an unexpected and comforting holiday that usually contributes to a long weekend filled with all sorts of unplanned vacation and recreational activities. Having said that, labour day could mean more than a gift of a free-from-work day. We can learn a lot from the origins of the day, why Malaysians ‘celebrate’ (or rather, utilise) it, and more importantly, what it means for us to work in changing landscape of the economy and society.

Origins and why Malaysians celebrate it

Labour day is the illegitimate and rebellious child of the Industrial Revolution. Condition for labourers were dire and harsh; forced to work around the clock accompanied by the recruitment of underage children to toil away in factories (just picture Charles Dickens’ portrayal of Oliver Twist). This led to many rebellions and the rise of labour union movements demanding the improvement of work conditions.  It was not until 1882 that the Labour day was acknowledged and commemorated by most western industrialised countries, subsequently turning it into the International Worker’s Day.

As for the story of Malaysia, we too, went through a rapid industrialisation phase in the late 1970s and 80s. The then Deputy Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Ismail was adamant that we would not experience and replicate the ugly side of western industrialisation. Hence, with Malaysia’s adherence to the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) convention, we came to adopt the Labour day to add to the increasing list of national holidays (to be fair, we do not have any seasonal holidays as the temperate countries do, but that’s another story).

The meaning of work and why are we still celebrating Labour day ?

So, as mentioned earlier labour day is essentially, an industrial revolution legacy. Considering that it has been more than a century ago, how does the labour day reflect and represent our society today, especially on how we work ? Let’s first of all distill the term ‘labour’ and the distinguishable differences it has with what we call today as ‘work’.

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The major differences both terms have lies in the concept of incentive and motivation that derives from an activity that creates value. The question here is how CONNECTED one’s activity with the value it creates. The term labour has become synonymous with physical hard work, and it isn’t surprising that if we trace back in history; it’s all about survival. One toils the land so one could sustain from it’s produce. One works in the factory so one could earn to purchase necessities; food,shelter and clothing. Adam Smith, the father of classical economics propagated the idea that labour relates to the overall productivity of the economy. The famous analogy of the ‘pin factory’ where each labour specialises in producing a component of the product contributes to the efficiency of production. In return, labourers receive money. Therefore money is the ultimate goal of any labour in order to survive.

One may still argue today that money still makes the world go around. But that’s only because we dwell in the same paradigm that was set in the Industrial Revolution era. The famous thinker Karl Marx is a great opponent to this idea simply because it made humans drive for unsustainable goal of wealth and not happiness. Happiness according to Marx, must derive from the satisfaction in the ownership of producing something. Oddly, Marx seems to have predicted better on how we work in the modern economy. A contemporary behavioural economist, Dan Ariely rightly argues that the term ‘work’ in today’s era is more deeply driven by motivation and satisfaction that derives from the value of what you create. In his research, he amusingly came up with the term ‘IKEA effect’ – the satisfaction of assembling a furniture by yourself and seeing the completed end product, however arduous the process is.

Work therefore can be completely different from labour, in that the incentive and motivation are different. Where work should be driven by people’s pursuit of happiness, labour on the other hand reduces any meaningful activity to the need of surviving.

So the next question is; How many of us today still work in order to survive? Or do we still labour our days over menial tasks that does not make us happy ?

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Redefining labour day and what it means in the Crowdsourcing economy

Perhaps we shouldn’t be calling it Labour Day. Maybe it should be called the ‘Let’s-Evaluate-How-Happy-I-Am’ Day; a day to ponder on how satisfied we are with the work we do and question ourselves, “Are we making the world a better place to live in ?”.

It is interesting to note that in the knowledge economy, the work environment is built around allowing motivation to thrive in order for people to work productively and happily. Looking at the whole startup and crowdsourcing economy, work is defined through a distinctive set of :

  • Motivation : most startups main objective is to solve problem. Finding, creating and perfecting a solution is the driver of innovation that makes society holistically better off.
  • Incentive : Again, money almost comes secondary after market validation and public appreciation of the product and services that someone creates. In the age of hyperconnected society, the ability to reach out to as much audience matters more. Popularity and pride therefore is what sometimes drive people to work hard and produce groundbreaking creations.

All of this ties back to the pursuit of happiness in the form of work. Remembering the famous idiom “Do we eat to live, or live to eat?”, in a less glutenous way however, I personally think that work should be done for the pleasure of living… Thus, let’s live to work.

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