Whatever works for you?

Earning a crust or getting a rise: there’s more to work than making bread.

Why do you do what you don’t want to do? Angela Dennis thinks we should take a closer look at what we mean by ‘work’.

When economist John Maynard Keynes wrote, in 1930 his essay: Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, he foresaw a time when we would all learn to value money as a means not an end in itself and “return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue.” Among those virtues he included the recognition of swindling and avarice as bad.

Keynes predicted that by 2030, people in the developed world would be working for about 15 hours a week. He thought that with technological advancement and productivity growth, we could meet our needs with less work, leaving us a great deal of leisure time, and even worried about how we might fill our spare hours.  He needn’t have worried. Keynes was largely correct in his growth predictions but, despite warnings of unemployment due to automation, we have not yet seen a dramatic decrease in work hours (see graph, Actual hours worked).

“We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.” John Maynard Keynes.

Actual hours worked: UK full-time workers put in an average of 37.2 hours a week and those working part-time work 16.2 hours a week.

Work, as paid employment, still plays a huge role in our conception and experience of modern life.  For most of us, the concept of a career shapes our sense of identity and personal purpose.  One of the first questions asked at parties is often, “What do you do?”  Those without an impressive answer often feel shame at being unable to join in on this modern introduction ritual (see graphic What do you do?).  This is no surprise – for many of us, the vital importance of work to our status has been instilled in us since we were asked as children, “What will you be when you grow up?”

Yet the meaning of work seems strangely hard to pin down.  One definition might be: the exertion of effort in exchange for payment, although this wouldn’t account for unpaid domestic labour or the efforts of entrepreneurs and artists who are yet to see income from their activities.  Even within this definition, the breadth of experiences seemingly covered is striking.  Famous actors, who are living out their dreams by appearing in films, often call their activity, work.  This is the case even if they would do so for much less or no money.  Similarly, an exhausted cleaner, who vacuums office buildings at two in the morning on a minimum wage because she needs to pay for rent and food, is also performing work. How can we reconcile this apparent contradiction?

What do you do? A 2015 YouGov poll found that 8% of people would be embarrassed to say what work they do if asked at a party while 48% said they would be proud.

In their book How Much is Enough: Money and the Good Life, Lord Robert Skidelsky and his son Edward Skidelsky make a useful distinction between work as leisure and work as toil. Leisure is activity done for its own sake, because it is innately purposeful to the person performing the activity. Notably, this definition of leisure does not equate to passive idleness.

As Lord Skidelsky writes: “The sculptor engrossed in cutting marble, the teacher intent on imparting a difficult idea, the musician struggling with a score, the scientist exploring the mysteries of space and time – such people have no other aim other than to do well at what they are doing.  They may receive an income for their efforts, but that income is not what motivates them.”

Toil, however, is activity with no intrinsic value to the person performing it. It is done solely for an extrinsic end, usually a wage. So, when a famous actor arrives on set to act, she is engaging in leisure, albeit well-paid leisure. The exhausted cleaner who vacuums offices solely to pay the rent, is performing toil.  Both activities involve effort, both are remunerated, but the experiences are diametrically opposed. This isn’t to suggest that cleaning must always be toilsome, and acting always meaningful. There are certainly people who find cleaning deeply fulfilling. The categories hinge on whether the task is meaningful to the person performing it, not whether it seems appealing to others.

Famous actors, who are living out their dreams by appearing in films, often call their activity, work.

We might also find that any one job includes some toil and some leisure, for example the case of a lawyer who is engaging in leisure when fighting a cause she believes in, and toiling when she is not.  An artist may experience leisure in the studio, but toil as a taxi driver to support himself.  An activity that is fulfilling once per week may become toil when performed on a punishing schedule.  Application of the leisure/toil dichotomy is therefore not always clear-cut, but it helps us identify what we should want more of in society (purposeful, satisfying activity) and what we should seek to eradicate (drudgery, make-work and toil).

The concept of work is broad in another way.  It covers activities that are helpful to society and activities that are socially destructive. A teacher’s work, for example, is incredibly socially useful.  A good teacher helps children to develop into thoughtful, mature adults.  They impart valuable knowledge and skills that prepare students for life and further study.  Students can then go on to make their own valuable contributions, so there is a positive multiplication effect from the work of good teachers. Teachers’ activities are essential for all kinds of social progress and cohesion.

But there are other professions that are greatly better paid than teaching and yet may inflict more harm than good. This is an issue explored by economic well-being think tank, the New Economics Foundation (Nef). In their report: A bit rich. [TL1] Nef found, for example, that “for every pound [Sterling] of value created by an advertising executive, £11.50 is destroyed.” On the other hand, for every pound paid to a hospital cleaner, £10 is created in social value.  Tax accountants destroy £47 of value for every pound in value they generate.

Consider then, the advertising executives who design tobacco, alcohol or gambling campaigns.  Their efforts are aimed at encouraging impulsive purchases, which they know lead to addiction, illness and debt for many. Those social costs can multiply, with downstream effects on the NHS, on social care costs, the prison system and charities.  Much advertising work is an effort to create a sense of a lack in people that is not already present, or to stimulate a sense of inadequacy which the advertisement promises will be relieved by buying the advertised product.  The result is often status anxiety, wastage – as obsolete but still functional items become undesirable, and increased consumption of the earth’s raw materials.

Keynes warned that if, and when technological unemployment released us from the need to work to survive, many of us wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves.

Consider also the work of accountants who specialize in finding loopholes in the tax system to enable companies and wealthy individuals to avoid paying tax.

Advertising legal drugs, aiding in tax avoidance are among a number of well-paid activities that are potentially harmful to society as a whole. But that risk is no barrier to their being considered as work.

Yet while work can be socially beneficial, socially destructive, leisure or toil, much of this nuance is lost in our public debate.  Politicians often refer to work as though it is innately good.  To be in work is always better than to be out of work, no matter what the work is, or what worthwhile activities the out-of-work person might be performing. Government slogans about getting people into work are ubiquitous, and often accompany restrictions on access to benefits.  Indeed, this perspective imbues the welfare system itself, with recipients pressured to take any jobs available, whether they are suited to them or not, and the work socially useful or not.

If we want to create a society which makes it easier to pursue work as leisure, and which rewards socially beneficial activity, we might then have to start by challenging this ‘all work is good’ mantra. We might ask that activities such as child-rearing, caring for elders and charity work be recognised as having great value to society, and greater value than many paid jobs (see figure, Home work).  We might insist also that the role of job centres should not be to pressure people to take just any job, but to help them find out what would be fulfilling for them.  We should resist media representations of unemployed people as work-shy or lazy.

Politicians often refer to work as though it is innately good.

More ambitiously, Lord Skidelsky argues that a Universal Basic Income (UBI) would offer people real freedom to pursue work as leisure. The UBI is an unconditional payment to all citizens, regardless of means and would, if sufficiently high, relieve people of the need to toil for survival. The cleaner in our example might be able to do unpaid but meaningful work or would have the breathing room to find meaningful paid work. Employers who offered undesirable jobs such as cleaning would have an incentive to improve working conditions and increase wages.

Keynes warned that if, and when technological unemployment released us from the need to work to survive, many of us wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves.  He imagined that being so accustomed to having work and career to shape our sense of self, many of us would be cut adrift, either pointlessly pursuing wealth or growing more and more depressed. By taking work down from its pedestal, and centering instead purpose, meaning, and fulfilling activity, –  leisure – we would not only improve our lives, but also ready ourselves for the changes to come.


Angela Dennis

Angela writes about whatever takes her fancy, including economics, feminism, science, philosophy and law. She is particularly interested in finding areas of overlap between widely disparate fields. She is also …

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