The Manly Mythology of Work Part I (of II)
by C.A. L'Hirondelle, June 5, 2011

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woman factory worker in 1940s

Note: Although I refer to the 'manly' and 'macho' mythology of work, this is not a male-female dichotomy (nor a blue collar/white collar one): women have also adopted macho world views due to the tendency people have to identify and orient themselves to power and away from a perceived lack of power. (See Female Chauvinist Pigs; Prisoners of Men's Dreams; and the views of Ayn Rand). In addition, many men have rejected the macho view of work (for one example, read Bertrand Russell's In Praise of Idleness and the website The World Owes You a Living. This is also not a dismissal of intrinsic rewards and sense of accomplishment people can get from meaningful (or challenging) activities that are sometimes called 'work'.


A quick experiment: close your eyes and picture in your mind a hard worker.... Most will imagine someone doing difficult physical work.

For many, the images evoked will be similar to those in this video ( Dropkick Murphys 'Worker's Song'):


Few will imagine an artist, writer or musician. Fewer still will imagine a mother nursing a baby even though the labour of birth and the work of being a mother (no matter who does this work) is about as challenging as it gets.

Perhaps if babies were built in factories on assembly lines with heavy-duty tools ("Quick Fred! Grab me the induction hardened joint forceps and the hex nut deep impact socket set") by sweaty workers in overalls, then maybe creating human capital might be considered hard work.

"Bullshit: The NFL Halftime show.
Not Bullshit: The miracle of childbirth."

—Stanley Bing, 100 Bullshit Jobs and How To Get Them

The stereotypical manly mythology of work has spilled over into all forms of paid work and is driving economic activities which are destructive to people and the planet, even as this mythology becomes more outdated. As other writers have noted, making some kinds of work invisible affects decisions about how resources are used and who gets to use them. (See the work of Marilyn Waring and other feminist economists.)


thank you to Bruce Saunders for inspiring this graphic

There is a long list of exclusions from the traditional, idealized, normalized image of 'work':

- The biological work of producing humans; All unpaid care work and motherwork regardless of who does it. This is a foundational category since the economy depends on this work to function. (See Housework under the Market and Mothernomics)

- Those active in the Swarm Economy as described by Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge: "The nonprofitable job is a value-enabler of epic proportions, such as editing Wikipedia or contributing free software code to the world. If it hadn’t been for such contributions, we would not have had the Internet nor Android mobile phones. And yet, these contributions to the economy on a global scale count as non-production, just because skilled world-class craftsmen are not paid for them. This is insane."

- Formal and informal volunteers who help friends, family and communities; unpaid activists who create short-term or long-term social or environmental benefits for others.

- People with ill health or disabilities whose work is to try to stay as well as possible in a world that is mostly unaccommodating or outright hostile to physical and mental differences.

- Children whose work, in optimal circumstances, is to play, to learn, to grow. And, in tragic contrast, there are exploited children and child labourers. There are also children who work at home, for family businesses and farms, or who take paid jobs to supplement family income (e.g. newspaper delivery).

- Elders whose work, in optimal circumstances, is to remember and share stories and knowledge; and bring a long perspective and wisdom to the community.

- Subsistence growers, harvesters, hunters, and fishers who work outside the formal economy.

- Inventors and artisans who work outside the formal economy.

- Artists, writers, musicians - their work is what makes the world bearable for many. Although they can be part of the formal market economy, many are not. Nor is the image of someone writing a story, painting a picture, or playing music regarded as an image of 'hard work'. A stark and obvious example is Van Gogh, who was not regarded as contributing to the economy when he was alive, in fact quite the opposite, but since his death he would be "a value-enabler of epic proportions", not to mention the great pleasure people have had from his art.

- Indentured workers and the 27 million slaves around the world (See Kevin Bales' Disposable People and Ehrenreicht, Russell- Hochschild's Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy)

Traditional ways of assessing activities as being productive or nonproductive, contributing or noncontributing, clearly miss the boat (and the starry skies).


Many of these exclusions are visualized in the Iceberg model of unsustainable development (2000 Work in a Sustainable Society:Visualizing a sustainable society, Maria Mies and others)



Pushing production and care (maintenance) of human beings into the margins of what is thought of as work, does not just affect those who do this work; negating motherwork has wide-reaching effects. Nurturing is not seen as a difficult or a skilled activity. This is a conundrum, as everyone wants to be nurtured (even if they pretend they don't) and because nurturing is a low status activity, few resources are devoted to it or to those who nurture, while many resources are given to things such as professional sport. There are no other categories of work where people are expected to be paid in hugs.

" 'For your own good' is a persuasive argument that will eventually make man agree to his own destruction"
Janet Frame, Faces in the Water

Another effect of the manly mythology of work is the twinned emotions of pride and shame that people get from paid work (or lack of it). Work-pride comes from living up to the societal ideal of being a 'productive' (contributing to society) 'independent' individual.

Shame from lack of paid work comes from societal censure and scapegoating of those labeled 'unproductive', 'non-contributing' and the negative stereotypes and labels that go along with that. In her book 'Stiffed', Susan Faludi quotes a blue collar worker who had just lost his job: " 'I'll be frank with you,' he said slowly, placing every word down as if each were an increasingly heavy weight: 'I. Feel. I've. Been. Castrated.' "

The descriptor 'hard worker' is so culturally potent that it is often used as a defense of a person's character.

"On September 20, 1998, [M] was sitting in his car when [T] walked up and fired a shotgun through the window, striking [M] in the face... [T] argued he had always been a hard worker." (State of Montana, No. 02-460, 2004)

Pride, shame, and fear of poverty are powerful emotions that make unacceptable work situations accepted, but these emotions also suppress deeper questions about the nature of work that we as a society really need to be asking if we are to ever achieve non-damaging and non-wasteful use of human and natural resources.

"People say a job is a job and you get a salary. But if you put people to work cutting down all the forests, building dams and spreading poisons all over the place-that's a job. You can pay a person for that but what is happening? How long can it last? The sense of this is like drug addiction again."
—Father Tom Berry "Earth: Conference One"
by Anuradha Vittachi, 1989


"The compulsion to work has clearly become pathological in modern industrial societies.   ...Millions of people are being encouraged and coerced to work long hours, devoting their lives to making or doing things that will not enrich their lives or make them happier but will add to the garbage and pollution that the earth is finding difficult to accommodate." —Sharon Beder, Selling the Work Ethic, 2000


"The most important point concerning 'gender' has nothing to do with women but is, in fact, the criticism of the masculine as the norm or standard towards which one should orient oneself."Antje Schrupp, Fifteen Theses, 2010

Looking for the cultural roots of the manly mythology of work takes us all the way back to Benedictine monks of 550-1150 who feared unstructured 'free' time (See Jeremy Rifkin's Time Wars: The primary conflict in Human History) and obviously John Calvin's protestant work ethic and Martin Luther's ideas, but it also leads to Marx, Lenin and even some parts of the feminist movement in the 20th century.

"...for socialist man the whole of what is called world history is nothing more than the creation of man through human labor, and the development of nature for man, he therefore has palpable and incontrovertible proof of his self-mediated birth, of his process of emergence." —Karl Marx, Economic And Philosophical Manuscripts, Third Manuscript, 1844

Marx in this statement, omits acknowledgement of the actual, not symbolic (self-mediated), labour that creates the human beings who labour.

In 1925 Lenin answered "The Woman Question" describing the work that women did in the home as being mind-weakening monotony and drudgery, how men took advantage of their wives, and how the solution was to move household work out of the home and into society to enable women "to exercise to the full her talents and her inclinations. The children are brought up under more favorable conditions than at home."

women factory workers

There is much truth to the idea that women were taken advantage of in the home, but the prescription for a solution, again, assumes that traditional women's work was not work unless a non-family member in a socialized setting was doing it. This idea of progress for women continued into the 20th century. The view that outsourcing motherwork was the only way to liberate women from bad working conditions (no status, no pay, long term financial penalties for being out of the paid workforce) is still widely held.

"Before the liberating idea 'we do not have to have children' could make much of a breakthrough, it was railroaded into 'To hell with mothering.'" —Paula Weideger, Why Children? editors Stephanie Dowrick & Sibyl Grundberg, 1980

"...the editorial culture at Ms. [Magazine] during that time didn't consider motherhood a feminist issue." —Kirsten Rowe-Finkbeiner, The F Word: Feminism in Jeopardy, 2004


Wide support of a Western traditional male view of work shows just what a tenacious idea it is and its influence as a powerful social norm.

Even at age 85 my father would scold himself for being 'useless' even though he was valiantly fighting several serious health problems at the time. When he was young he had been scolded by his family for being lazy. It had been his job to open the chicken coop in the morning and since he liked inventing things to save time and effort, he had rigged up a rope so he could open it from his bed.


3-year-old Raymo (on right) on a horse (beside siblings and cousins) 1926.



As an adult he was so sensitive to being considered a hard worker that he drove himself into getting high blood pressure and then kidney failure as a senior. A large part of how he would gauge people's character was based on whether he thought they were hard workers (honesty was equally important).

He was born in 1923 and grew up on a farm (and also attended a residential school) in a wild part of northern Alberta with his parents, both of whom were Métis (Cree/French). His father was a fur trader and farmer, and his mother, who had been raised by nuns at a mission, tended to family, farm and helped others in the area (especially if they were sick or injured). Living on a farm involved lots of manual labour in order to get adequate food and warmth. Roads were cut by hand through the bush with axes. But within my father's lifetime there were extreme advances in labour-saving machines. As a young man he was very happy to be promoted to run a heavy-duty caterpillar on the Alaska Highway. He had always taken great joy in all new mechanical and technical inventions and was an avid computer user right up to his death at age 86 in 2009. But his pre-mechanization view of hard work remained the same until about age 79 when I finally convinced him, after many vigorous but enjoyable debates, of the need for a guaranteed income. He then became a whole-hearted supporter of the idea after he read Pierre Berton's book The Smug Minority. He saw how distorted work had become - people were spinning their wheels doing harmful work but were unable to do essential things like learning to grow their own food, spending time raising their own kids, keeping traditional skills, learning new practical skills, and having fun playing music.


No doubt my father was also fighting against the 'lazy Indian' slur. This slur comes from a greed-based work ethic and a misinformed duplicitous sense of morality — a morality that would label people as non-industrious while they pursue an industriousness that destroys the livelihood of others. (e.g. U.S. General Sheridan in the 1870s ordering the wholesale slaughter of buffalo as a military strategy).

Western traditional ideas about hard work have not been by any means a universal norm. It is just that the alternative views have been buried in history.

"In peasant and primitive societies work is an integral and not unpleasant aspect of existence... instead of being viewed as an onerous necessity by those who perform it,
work is often regarded as indistinguishable from play, sociability, and leisure."
—James W. Rinehart, The Tryanny of Work, Second Edition

"My young men shall never work. Men who work cannot dream, and wisdom comes to us in dreams."
Smohalla, (quoted in James Mooney's 'The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890' and Julia Blackburn's The White Men, 1979)

"They say that workers in the 19th century smashed the clocks over the factory doors. They say the Navajo language has no word for time. ... They say the Bushmen of the Kalahari spend only 10% of their waking hours sustaining themselves." Arleen Paré, Paper Trail, 2007

In his book Making Native Spaces Cole Harris describes an event in 1860 that took place at what is now called Vancouver Island, and what was then an area of vast rich and abundant natural resources. (The book perhaps should have been called "Taking" Native Spaces.) A young English businessman named Gilbert Malcolm Sproat told the Nuu-chah-nulth chief that he and his people would have to leave their village because Sproat was going to build a sawmill. But this would be a good thing because: "The whites would give them work". The Nuu-chah-nulth chief replied that the King-George-men should stay in their own country. Having not made a convincing case with the promise of 'work', Sproat used "fear of loaded cannon pointed towards the village". (More on this story and book here).


88-year-old Cousin Florence in her garden in Alberta
doing 'non-market' 'unproductive' work

'Work' and how we define it shapes our world, quite literally. Forests are razed, massive mining pits are dug, rivers are dammed, shopping malls and freeways are built, advertising invades our sound and sight scapes. The pestilent ghost of a deeply flawed and outdated view of work is allowing crapitalism to eat the planet.

A Guaranteed Livable Income* conceived as universal 'transition rights' or a 'just transition' initiative could create a 'waste-not' livable economy — as in let's stop wasting human labour and natural resources on soul-sucking life-destroying crap products and crap jobs. It would finally be possible to have some some productive choice — essential for the environment. And it would allow us to 'rework' how we define work to be more congruous to human and environmental needs.

"only that work will be called productive that really produces, maintains and enhances life..."
—Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen, The Subsistence Perspective, 1999


Next: Part II of Manly Work - The Division Effect

See related articles here.

A May 2011 article by church groups asking: Is Hard Work A Good Thing?

Movies about work and alienation: Office Space, Fight Club, Visioneers ,
Glengarry Glen Ross, How to Get Ahead in Advertising, Milagro Beanfield War

See also Ursula Franklin's book: The Real World of Technology

*Along with guaranteed livable income (GLI), other terms for this policy include:
basic income guarantee, basic income grant, citizen's income, citizen's basic income, minimum income guarantee, national dividend, citizen's dividend, guaranteed annual income, LIFE grants (Livable Income For Everyone), Participation Income, and Buckminster Fuller's Lifetime Fellowship.

Next in this series - how the overpopulation meme is a sneaky way to blame mothers for all the world's problems.

C.A. L'Hirondelle has been researching and writing about guaranteed livable income from a grassroots perspective since 1998.

Sections: Close Eyes; Exclude; Hard Work Problems; Rotten Roots; Culture Wars; Livable Future


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