Michaelmas and the Work Ethic

file0001311896942_small571406On the 29th, it’ll be Michaelmas, not a day that features on most people’s calendars these days. At one time, though, it was the most important date in the financial year, when annual rents and many other payments were due.

It might seem an odd date to pick, but the reason would be obvious to anyone living in an agrarian society. It’s the time of year when the harvest is in and people actually have the means to pay what’s due.

Until the 19th century in Britain, and still in many parts of the world, the great majority of people worked on the land, and that had been true for thousands of years. It shaped many of the attitudes we think of as normal, including our concept of work.

Of course, humans hadn’t been idle before agriculture, but their work had been more haphazard. In the hunter-gatherer society, hunts were often no more often than once a month — if the tribe could kill a mammoth, it would feed them for a long time. The gathering was more constant, but really scheduled, just something you did whenever you needed to.

When agriculture was introduced, that all changed. To make a farm work, especially without technology, you had to be up before dawn and work yourself to exhaustion till sunset — all day, every day. It’s not surprising that later mythology saw the hunter-gather era, through rose-tinted glasses, as the Golden Age when no-one worked and food lay around to be picked up.

Essentially, we still think like neolithic farmers. If we don’t do the work we’re supposed to at the allotted time, whether that’s 9-5 or a substitute, it’ll be the end of civilisation as we know it. We have a moral obligation to work, to the extent that those who don’t are demonised, even if it’s not their fault, and anyone who manages to make a living on an ad hoc basic, as the hunter-gatherers did, is morally suspect.

All this is understandable for most of recorded history, but the model is showing signs of breaking down in the developed West. Quite apart from technology ensuring there aren’t enough jobs to go around (though the need to service the new technology has replaced some), we’re looking at work in different ways.

Working from home (or from the nearest coffee shop) and flexible working are on the increase and may eventually become everyday norms. The growing number of freelancers, like me, are able to use technology and the internet to choose when to work.. While I put plenty of hours in, I work when I need to and/or when it best suits me, rather than follow the discipline of clocking on and clocking off.

Not quite a paleolithic hunter-gatherer, but certainly not a neolithic farmer, either.

The 9-5 job certainly isn’t dead, and in many sectors is still essential. So is the importance of having a regular job. Things are changing, though, and maybe in a few decades the picture will be very different. We’re no longer neolithic farmers, even figuratively, and perhaps it’s time to start experimenting with different approaches to work.



Leave a Comment