Desire or pressure: What motivates us to get out of bed and work?

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By Roderick Benns

Roderick Benns is the publisher of The Advocate. An award-winning author and journalist who grew up in Lindsay, he has written several books including Basic Income: How a Canadian Movement Could Change the World.

Desire or pressure: What motivates us to get out of bed and work?
Can we have self-interest that is socially useful?

Three days ago, we ran a story called ‘Mariposa Dairy struggles to find young adults who want to work five days a week.’ At last count, more than 52,000 people had read it, a huge number for an online news magazine not even two months old.

Why did this story strike such a nerve?

Is it because the people who read it want to work there? Or did they know someone else who needed a job and so shared it with friends? Is it because they couldn’t believe it was true – that such a large percentage of younger people couldn’t handle, or didn’t want, full-time work?

I spoke to a veteran advertising salesperson about this story. As one can imagine, he visits hundreds of businesses in the course of a week and has the pulse of the local business community. He says he hears the same thing from businesses, wherever he goes — they need people who are willing to work.

Desire or pressure: What motivates us to get out of bed and work?
Roderick Benns.

Even a few years ago, Daniel Kelly, head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, told CTV News that, “Employer after employer is telling us they have tons of workers who don’t show up for shifts, don’t call, and when they finally show up, they have a very questionable excuse for their absence.”

He was suggesting that’s why migrant workers are often needed in certain industries to do the work being passed over by Canadians.

Desire or Pressure?

People are generally motivated to work by two things – desire or pressure – or both.

In our capitalist society over many generations, ‘desire’ has been easy to create. We have wanted ‘stuff’ so badly that we no longer remember why we want it. Take diamonds, for instance.

Diamonds are really not that beautiful to look at compared to say, simple amethyst or rose quartz. But in 1938 De Beers, the giant mining corporation, told us we should love them. The demand for diamonds is a complete marketing invention — and they’re not even that rare. Only by carefully limiting the supply have prices been kept high.

We buy diamonds because De Beers hired a large New York marketing agency decades ago to ensure that consumers made the link in their minds between status and these pale rocks. Now we think it’s a tradition…but it’s a tradition created by advertisers.

Desire or pressure: What motivates us to get out of bed and work?Then there was the capitalist desire for having a car to drive, a big house, a large TV, new furniture…you get the picture.

So for generations desire has made millions of us get off the couch every single day and get to work to fulfill these great ambitions to buy, buy, buy…to become the great consumers they wanted us to be. From diamond rings to cars, it was part of the Canadian dream.

But is desire getting harder to do, especially with more recent generations? Are millennials catching on? Millennials don’t care as much about cars as former generations, especially urban ones who can get around on foot or through public transportation. They don’t care so much about big houses – a small condo or apartment will do just fine, thank you very much. Younger people are shedding traditions like marriage — so then who needs a diamond? (As if marriage needs to be connected to diamonds.)


So if desire is not the motivator it once was in our capitalistic society, then what about pressure – the other reason we are usually motivated to work. We typically feel pressure to pay the bills, pressure to earn money to eat, pressure from parental expectations.

But that last one is the kicker, isn’t it? The most recent generation of parents, for the most part, no longer expects their child to leave the roost at 18, do they? More than one in three Canadians aged 20 to 34 now live with their parents, according to 2016 statistics. In Toronto and nearby Oshawa, it’s nearly half.

Most reportage on this states it’s because of housing costs. Others cite our higher immigrant populations, where this is more the norm in many cultures.

So that takes the ‘pressure’ off many Millennials and we’ve already determined there is less ‘desire’ for consumer goods now. So without intrinsic desire for so many things to buy or the feeling of pressure from parents, is it any wonder younger generations are not working as much?

And yet…is that the whole story?

Meaningful Work

The other truth is that for those Millennials who are in, or trying to be in, the workforce they appear to want truly meaningful work more than any other generation before them. They’re tired of, or don’t want to start, being a hamster on a wheel for corporations that only care about the bottom line.

The active Millennials in our world really do want to assert their ideas, individualism, and many of them want to make the world a better place. Their strength is their push against the worst aspects of capitalism – like the soulless supply chains that have worked against the idea of community. As a group, Millennials want to make a difference overall, be helpful to someone or a cause, and then see tangible efforts – not just take home a paycheque.

Robert Heilbroner, the great economist and social philosopher, says the question that needs to be answered is how can we create a framework for society in which self-interest leads to socially useful action?

I think that’s an important question to answer – and it’s possible that our basic income experiment right here in Lindsay could provide that much-needed framework. Millennials and the generation right after them have a chance to truly create a society that is more community oriented, healthier, environmentally sustainable and caring, as we start the long retreat back from the disconnection of globalization.

If we have a base with basic income, where we know we can’t fall below the poverty line, will young people take more chances and innovate? Will they work harder, not for diamonds and cars, but for the world they want to see?

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