The word economy originally meant the ordering of a household. (The English version comes from two ancient Greek parents: oikos and nomos.)

Economy referred to the organization of an extended family to achieve core business activities: producing, distributing, and consuming goods and services. Such an economy linked each member in a shared enterprise. And that enterprise maintained the life and livelihood of each participant.

There was an obvious link between economic life and caregiving relationships. The work people did and the stuff they made was, mostly, destined to provide for those closest to them–parents, children, household employees (i.e., slaves), and extended relations. Your economy was a network of business relations in which others took care of you–and you took care of them in return. The two were inseparable. Their urgency was obvious. And the payoff was unmistakable.

Of course, ancient civilizations had marketplaces and trade networks that made exchanges between these family economies possible. But the center of gravity for business was the home. It wasn’t just where things were consumed. It was also were things were made and distributed.

So what did ancient cultures remember about economic life that we’ve forgotten?

 An economy is a network of mutual care-giving. Economic life is about helping people we care about live fuller, better lives.

As Adam Smith pointed out over 300 years ago, the wealth of modern nations depends–in large part–on the division of labor. That translates into national–and individual–wealth. Things become much more abundant and much less expensive. People very skilled in doing just one thing, who do it efficiently in concert with many other people similarly coordinated can generate enormous efficiencies of scale.

For all of its benefits, however, the global division of labor has created many jobs today in which people never contact the people who benefit from what they do. We see what we get back from doing our work (in the form of wages, investment income, etc.). But we miss the fact that this return is only one half of a reciprocal relationship of care. We get something back only because we gives something else that makes life better for someone else. It’s easy to miss that if all we see is our own work and paycheck.

Here’s a takeaway from ancient culture for business today:

Anonymity is the enemy of meaningful work because it separates the people who make and do things from the people whose lives are made better by what they make and do.

One of the big opportunities for making work more meaningful in a highly skilled, global economy  is making economic relationships more personal. By putting a face and a name to those who are better off because of what we do, economic participants see the value of their work.

We may be a global household. But our economy is still a household. Maybe it could become home.