Why work?


“All the toil of a man is for his mouth …” (Ecclesiastes 6:7).

We learn from Ecclesiastes what motivates men to work. Now I am certain that some people are so in love with the work they do that getting a paycheck at week’s end is a secondary motivation. My father (age 89) draws a salary as a janitor but would do the work for free if they asked him. Indeed, he puts in many more hours than he writes on the chart. I met a man who makes beautiful wooden therapeutic rocking chairs for a living; he accidentally got rich doing it.

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But a lot of the world’s work is dull. I don’t know if our patriarch Jacob enjoyed taking care of Uncle Laban’s flocks, but he did it anyway the first seven years, not for money but for love of Rachel. But Uncle Laban tricked him and snuck the older sister Leah into the wedding tent by night, which resulted in Jacob having to put in another seven years to pay for the sister he wanted in the first place. By the end of the third set of seven, he had had it and got out of Dodge and back to Israel.

But the point I am making is that historically the need for food and clothing and a decent life has been a motivator for work, especially when the work itself doesn’t have much intrinsic appeal. Thus, God said to Adam:

“… cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17).

Not much fun.

But what happens when you remove “the mouth” (Ecclesiastes 6:7) as an incentive for work? What happens if you live in a society where work is deliberately disincentivized? What happens if you start to think to yourself that it doesn’t pay to work, and that in fact you would make out better not to?

The Congressional Budget Office recently released its report on the estimated impact of the Affordable Care Act: The equivalent of 2 million workers will leave the labor force. Will they be forced out? Au contraire. The Washington Times reported:

“Although part of those numbers are attributed to job cuts, the vast majority represent workers who decide it makes more sense to stay home or work fewer hours, weighing the higher taxes they pay in the workforce versus their qualifications for benefits if they drop out.”

Why would a man work “for his mouth” if the State will feed him even if he doesn’t?

Andrée Seu Peterson
Andrée Seu Peterson

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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