The information age is upon us and has brought with it the concept of ‘digital nomadism’ and the 21st Century Career. We have more flexibility in the work-force than ever before, yet the current highly ranked corporate employers are losing 1/4 of their workforce every year. What is really interesting is that this paradox of labour and productivity was foretold nearly 200 years ago by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a German philosopher.


Hegel provides an argument that humans are social, political and cultural beings motivated (unknowingly or not) to participate in society on three levels – familiar, civic/market and state/government. This is counter to the view of John Stuart Mills and Adam Smith that we are first and foremost Homoeconomicus – selfish, perfectly rational individuals motivated to provide labour in return for a salary bound by a contract. Regardless of our motivations, the main way most of us participate in civil society is still through our provision of labour to produce services and products deemed useful by the market. This is equally as true now as it was in the 19th century when Hegel was prolific.


Hegel used the story of the Lord and the Labourer to demonstrates how participation in the labour market impacts upon our ability as individuals to become fully human and fully aware – able to recognise ourselves as individuals and simultaneously as an integral part of society. He also uses the story to warn us of the dangers of the abstraction of labour, particularly through the use of ‘tools’ (think computers).

In the story, the Labourer is able to quantify and realise his contribution to society by transforming natural resources (including time) into produce (commodities and services) that are sold on the market. The labourer achieves awareness of his own boundless capability for creativity and productivity, even if he does not own the produce created or if it was done to satisfy individual needs (to generate income). In contrast, the Lord is lacking self-actualisation because he has not contributed a part of himself to the development of the produce that society values, and yet he has generated an income (profit) from it. Freelancers and self-employed folk not being very common in the 19th century, the work of almost all labourers was performed for the Lord, who sold it and kept the profit.

As a result of the labourers’ efforts, the commodities that he produces and then sells become the method by which he is recognised by others. This simultaneously alienates the individuals’ identity from his true-self, whilst granting him an identity amongst society. He becomes a member of a community, known for produce of a certain type and perhaps of a certain quality. Furthermore, the labourer recognises the illusion of self-sustenance and understands his mutual dependence upon the produce of the community, thereby confirming the social motivations to cooperate with the community.

Labour then is not an instinct, but a social construct where the individual acquires skills necessary for work only by learning universal laws of work, a kind of practical education which instils in people the spirit of cooperation. Therefore the ability to contribute, to provide labour, to produce, and to see what we produce sold on the market is integral to the integration of our identities into the identity of the community/society and vice versa.

shovel to dig on the farm
shovel to dig on the farm

Now add to this that Hegel identified that the particularization of labour and separation of it from nature through the use of tools decreases the value of labour by the same proportion as it increases productivity. His intention was to show that the industrial revolution and the factories it created would lead to increasing levels of worker dissatisfaction, disillusionment and disconnection from society.

Without a connection between nature, our work and our community, we are bereft of any understanding of our place in society, our contribution to the greater good and as a result, we are likely to be fairly unhappy in our work. The resurgence in the production of boutique, tailor-made, and bespoke artefacts or the sacrifice of job security for impact, autonomy and passion in the workplace can then be seen as an effort to connect again with nature and our communities respectively, rather than the restless, impatient, irrational decision of an ADD driven millennial.

This post relied heavily on Paul Ashton’s ‘Legacy of Hegal’ Seminar at the University of Melbourne for the interpretation of Hegal, analysis and application to job satisfaction is purely the authors.

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