On compensation

February 3, 2015

“Compensation” is the word used to describe the money that employers pay their employees. And something about it just feels off to me. It seems to me this represents some beliefs about employment that are increasingly at odds with the work people do and why they do it.

Google “compensation” and the first definition you’ll find is “something, typically money, awarded to someone as a recompense for loss, injury, or suffering”. You’ll also find links to articles with headlines such as:

  • “Russian nationalists suggest enormous lawsuit against Germany over WWII damages”
  • “GM receives over 4100 injury claims for faulty ignitions”
  • “The Tehran hostages’ endless siege: A quest for compensation and closure”

Surely I can’t be the only one who finds it sadly comical that our paychecks are in the same category as monies paid to the victims of Nazi aggression.

I shouldn’t be surprised. Basic economic theory holds that the money paid to us by our employers is all about them purchasing our labor. We would all rather be sitting on the couch drinking a beer and so, work is painful. Or at least annoying. We would rather not do it and therefore we need to be compensated for our loss.

I’ll admit, work throughout most of history has hewed to that way of thinking. And it still does for most people.

But you can see the glimmers of hope and evidence that in the future, work will much more often be about expressing our identity, advancing our ideals, self-actualizing and (dare I say it) having fun.

Work should be enjoyable. We should choose work that we believe in, that helps us make a difference, that enriches our lives.

We shouldn’t need to be compensated for it. It should be intrinsically rewarding.

In case my own employer is reading this, I don’t mean we should all work for free. I just mean that the basic assumption of compensation is essentially awful. It reinforces some premises about work that we would all be better off jettisoning. That work is somehow separate from and actually an intrusion on your real life. Basically, that work sucks.

Instead of “compensation”, perhaps we ought to think about “enrichment”. Money that employers pay us is being paid not because they have aggrieved us but simply to help enrich our lives. In that world view, work is a part of what we do as whole human beings. It fits into and enriches our life rather than taking from it. The work itself is an enrichment and the money we receive supplements that by allowing us to do all sorts of things outside of work—raise children, get involved in our communities, travel and, of course, drink great beer.

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