I have heard all my life about how people would not have self-worth without being employed, and they would become depressed or just do unhealthy things. I read a Sci-fi story about AI where ultimately, profitable jobs employing humans could not be sustained. As layoffs increased, understandably people were upset that they didn't have income, but even schemes like Universal Basic Income still left them with social and emotional problems.

The 'solution' in the story was to 100% put people to 'work' doing things that actually didn't exist, like a giant videogame, and not tell them. To me, that would be stupid because it would easily be discovered, and the backlash would dwarf the riots from unemployment.

I enjoy what I do as a programmer, and I know that "autonomy, mastery and purpose" are very important to happiness. But having had several jobs over a long career, all of which eventually "let me go" or which I had to leave, I know that if I won the Lottery, somehow I would just make the best of that horrible situation :-)

Do people really need to work, or is it conditioning and lack of imagination? I wonder if me having no children somehow figures in to my perspective? In the story, someone with children described herself as looking like a 'cockroach' in front of them for just "scuttling from one worthless job to another."

Some issues I am interested in

  1. Tasks that are needed but which no one wants to do, like trash collection and cleaning, mowing lawns in the heat, reroofing buildings in blazing sun, and so on.
  2. Passing on valuable knowledge to younger people who may not have the same background knowledge to understand it.
  3. Ensuring that people in future generations continue to participate actively when they don't have to because so much is done for them.

I find it hard to empathize with people who have never gone a day or maybe an hour without electronics, and who know nothing about how these technologies work. Part of self-respect is knowing about the giants you are standing on. Learn to ride a horse, cook without electricity, build a radio from spare parts... Get in the game, not just be a spectator or helplessly swept along.

  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Philosophy Meta, or in Philosophy Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Aug 27, 2023 at 16:18
  • I am sure that paid work will go away, the question is will people's needs be cared for so they have to find things to do, or not and so they have to find food?
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 27, 2023 at 19:23
  • @ScottRowe What's the name of the sci-fi book about creating a video game to replace paid work that you mentioned in your question? Could you include the name of the sci-fi book in your question? Jan 15 at 6:15

4 Answers 4


Nathanial Branden wrote The Psychology of Self-Esteem. I read this book in the late 1990s and/or early 2000s. Branden says the concept of self-esteem is a mix of two judgments passed on the self. These judgments are expressed in the sentence, "I am fit and worthy to live." He describes self-esteem as a human need but also as the judgment that one is fit and worthy to meet one's needs. Self-esteem is the ability to think and act with confidence and self-pleasure in the context of early life and adult social responsibilities.

In 1992 I read Iron John by Robert Bly. Bly says, "If you are a young man, and you are not being admired by an older man, then you are being hurt." As I recall Bly's father was a hostile alcoholic. He argues that young men have been wounded by the industrial revolution because the men disappeared into factories and other industrial occupations. The men became "invisible to boys" in their daily life.

In 1994 I am participating in Men's group counseling with Dr. Stephen Johnson, the founder of the Men's Center of Los Angeles. He says, "I am pleasing to myself in the presence of others and others are pleasing to themselves in my presence." I take this to be the meaning of the term "admiration".

Branden writes that he discovered a process of admiration as the source and origin of his evaluation(s) of the self, as the origin of self-esteem. Branden had two mystical experiences. In one experience he admired a house plant for its vitality - it's ability to live. In another he was playing with his dog. He felt pleasure in that context began to comprehend the principle of admiration as a source of his own vitality and self-esteem. Branden says when we observe anything we ask whether it good or bad for life? During the process of admiration - we internalize and incorporate the knowledge of what is good for life. This is an increase of cognitive vitality.

Branden argues that the person of self-esteem seeks to admire and be admired by others in some role such as work or other pro-social activities.

Malingering is a social judgment that others are seeking to avoid their social responsibilities:


where this was considered an anti-social moral choice prior to the invention of so-called mental disease by Sigmund Freud and other ethical philosophers. Thomas Szasz, who wrote The Myth of Mental Illness, argues that Freud invented mental illness in part as an alternative to the moral judgments that are captured by term "malingering". Szasz thinks some people learn to "play the sick role". He argues that behavior has attributes of communication because the meaning of actions must be interpreted by the actor or observer(s). Szasz thinks it is a category error to label behavior as pathological or diseased using the medical sense of the term. If work is necessary to generate self-esteem or human dignity then this meaning arises only in a context of moral judgments attached to patterns of behavior.

The article above shows that even the psychology profession is still very wary of helping otherwise fit people to avoid responsibility for pro-social interactions. The person who does not get along with other people in normal or typical roles is called Borderline Personality and "resistive to treatment". I knew a young man who had conflict with other men in every job that he took and his father was a heavy drinking authoritarian so the son would only be reenacting a drama of conflict with male authority everywhere he went. I don't see how it would help this brother learn to de-conflict the world by telling him he has Borderline Personality Disorder and is "resistant to treatment".

The point is that work and social roles are subject to interpretation by every moralizing person in their own dramatic world view. Pro-social work has a value in a social species. The self, however, needs to come to terms with how we judge self and others in the social context perhaps to be more fit and worthy to live among the others in society.

In terms of public policy in the United States I favor a Federal Job Guarantee for everyone who is fit to work. The challenges are political because the job creators do not create pro-social jobs for everyone. Which types of jobs to create? How does the political system become a job creator?

  • I also read Iron John around '92, and participated in a men's support network for some years that I found very helpful. Meditation was very helpful also. As someone I know said, "People do pretty much what they want to." I think Abraham Lincoln said something similar. We can't much affect what people want, as best I can tell. Even good personal examples don't change people's direction, just nudge them in the direction they had already decided to pursue.
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 25, 2023 at 23:33
  • 1
    @Scott Rowe In New York City I interacted with John Guarnaschelli (youtube.com/@dr.johnguarnaschelli441/playlists) over six years in the context of Men's peer counseling. I heard John say, "Desire is all there is" and "Your feelings want something". John's hostile mother did not know that her feelings wanted something when she made hostile demands on him in early life; and he wanted to be among men who knew that their feelings want something even if it was his role to teach them this in the context of what he called "soul work". But I did not want to pay to play the student role. Aug 26, 2023 at 0:34
  • 1
    It's funny how the word 'want' used to mean lacking necessities, but came to mean desire. We think we need the things that we desire, but often have no idea what we actually need.
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 27, 2023 at 18:31
  • 1
    I learned (the wrong interpretation) of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in traditional sociology and psychology courses. This paper is better than anything in my prior education when discussing "needs": canadacollege.edu/dreamers/docs/Maslows-Hierarchy-of-Needs.pdf. Baby Tarzan youtu.be/RP4k_SDHR44 needs social interaction with a kindly she-ape! In the context of interacting with other apes I have concluded that we (I, myself, and creatures like myself) develop an intensified desire for symbolic adult status as a substitute for survivable loss of love and admiration in early life. Aug 27, 2023 at 20:24
  • I think your last statement says a lot. The future could be that there is plenty of 'bread' for free and people might move up towards transcendence, or not enough bread and they wind up at survival. But there was enough for transcendence in the Buddha's time, and not so many people taking up staves.
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 27, 2023 at 21:54

I would first argue that the use of the word "employment" may not be best. Employment entails that a job is assigned to you and that you receive an income for completing said job. This is not necessary in order to do "work". Take household chores, for example, which are certainly work but aren't assigned to you and don't give you income.

I think more generally, the phrasing which makes the most sense is "must people do work in order to have self worth and dignity?" This may not look very different, but it allows us to talk about the meaning of work in general, as well as different types of work.

What is work? There are certainly different ways to answer this question, particularly in terms of suffering or labor. But I think the most general answer is: work is what must be done in order to complete a task. That is, there is a task, say doing the dishes, and there is work-the actual process of doing the dishes. It's analogous to talking about a journey (work) and its destination (completed task).

From a perspective of evolutionary biology, it makes sense that we would have a positive response to at least some amount of work. It takes work to survive; in order to get food from hunting, the process of hunting, itself, must be done.

More generally however, I would argue that doing work is deeply related to the human search for meaning. As you hinted at in your question, it's true that humans would have many emotional and social problems if we only had completed tasks but no work. The philosopher Philipp Mainlander spoke a lot on this. He essentially said that there exists "the will" in all living things which drive it to "suffer". Mainlander defined suffering as the work necessary to maintain structure. That is, if we were to do no work (no suffering), then we would die. For example, we must eat and sleep to live. These are both things we have to do to survive, yet they take time and energy and we may not want to do them. In truth, there is no fundamental reason why we ought to succumb to the will and continue suffering; it is simply an aspect of life and any objective reason for it can't be determined. This then plays into existentialist philosophy, in that we must find our own reasons-if an objective reason is indeterminable, then a subjective one should be found instead.

Mainlander's beliefs would eventually be supported by modern science. It is simultaneously both true that living things must exert energy (do work) in order to maintain their structure and that they would like to conserve energy as much as possible. This contradictory nature of life leads to weird phenomena that we are all familiar with. For example, we have evolved to require a certain amount of physical exertion to be "well". This leads to the absurdity of the modern day where we simulate the fatigue of surviving in the wilderness (working out) in order to serve our outdated biology. We don't need to do this work to survive, but we've evolved to only be mentally well if we do.

To summarize: Living things must do work to survive such that, even in a world where that isn't immediately true, we've evolved as if it is. So, we need to do work in order to be well, regardless of the modern conditions for survival. Furthermore, there is no reason why we ought to continue doing work just so that we can survive to do more work. Therefore, in the face of emptiness and death, we must find our own personal reasons to do so-our own meaning.

To connect this more directly to your question, dignity and self worth are traits that are achieved by the fulfillment of meaning. In order to be well, we each have personal values. These values must be understood through intense, deep self discovery and are entirely your own. The satisfaction of these values can be equated to the fulfillment of meaning, in a semantic sense. The satisfaction of these values however, is a task, and tasks require work.

In conclusion, the answer is yes, but only conditionally. In a kind of circular sense, we must do work to satisfy our values in order to be well, and our values relate to our meaning which justifies why we ought to do work to be well in the first place. So yes, we must do work in order to have dignity and self worth, but only work which gives us meaning. That is, we should only do work which contributes towards the satisfaction of our values, but should not do work that doesn't. Doing work which does not give you meaning will not give you dignity and self worth, and ought to be avoided at all costs, for if your life is spent doing things which do not justify living, then your life is worthless in your own eyes-from the perspective of your own meaning.

  • Perhaps individual meaning is as valid as individual language? Maybe the only things we can actually have are things we share.
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 27, 2023 at 18:32

The answer is culture-laden. For example, in Denmark, your self-worth and your standing in the community are dependent on your employment status (at least when I was growing up, 60 years ago). When the world of work was finished with me (at age 60), I became deeply depressed because I became "nothing" practically overnight. I should have jumped for joy at the opportunity to pursue art instead of working for a wage but that adjustment took years to accomplish.

That said, while in the workforce I discovered that the happiest and best-adjusted people were the ones whose dignity and self-worth were not derived from their employment, and among the unhappiest were the ones who relied on their employment for dignity and self-worth.

  • 1
    If it was that way 60 years ago, what is happening now? I'm concerned about young people finding uplifting work and knowing how to manage social life today.
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 25, 2023 at 23:19

My answer to this will be fairly short.

As a researcher of the science of human needs and emotional well-being, I believe that humans have two basic needs when it comes to value and worth:

  1. We need to know that we have intrinsic value. In other words, we have value in and of ourselves, regardless of whether we do good, or bad, or nothing at all. What you do matters, but YOU matter more. In fact, the only reason what we do matters is because, and only because, you and I matter.

  2. #1 is our most fundamental need. But in order to be fulfilled in life, we also need to know that we have extrinsic value. To know that we can make a positive difference in our world, in particular in the lives of others. As mentioned above, it is actually a corrolary to our need to know our intrinsic value: part of each of us having intrinsic value means that how we relate to each other -- as well as to ourselves -- has significance.

This is why not all jobs bring fulfillment to people, because not all jobs give people the sense that they are using their lines well to make the world a better place. It's also why not everyone needs to be "employed" in a paying job to be fulfilled, if they are doing things in other arenas (such as raising a family for example) that they feel makes good use of their ability to bring good into the world.


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