What is Work, and Why Does it Matter?

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What is work? Is it just a burden to tolerate, or something more? Does it even matter what work is and how it is defined? Yes! Work-related public policies, laws, and judges' decisions are all implicitly shaped by an often unstated view of work. For example, if someone implicitly sees work as a freely-exchanged commodity, it is then difficult to see how workers who were fired for trying to organize a labor union should enjoy any special protections. In contrast, if someone sees work as an activity done by citizens entitled to rights of self-determination, then protections for concerted activity are likely seen as important, as was the case for the creators of the NLRA.

If work is primarily about making economic contributions that are rewarded by a paycheck, then the work done by spouses, parents, and other unpaid caregivers is not seen as "real work" and therefore not deemed worthy of workers' compensation coverage or direct entitlement to social security benefits. If work is viewed as a lousy activity endured solely to earn income, as in mainstream economics, then old-fashioned supervisors and new technologies that monitor workers to prevent shirking deserve legal backing. In these and numerous other ways, implicit understandings of work have powerful effects on all our individual worldviews and on our social institutions.

So defining work is important. But all too often work is implicitly seen in excessively narrow terms. Most fundamentally, work is seen as a method of survival. It would be silly to deny that we work to survive by caring for others, by producing food and other necessities, and by earning money to buy these necessities. But many perceptions of work haven't gone much further. Popular culture teems with examples of work as the daily grind, as in songs such as "Take this Job and Shove It," "Slave to the Wage," "Working for the Weekend," and "Workin' for a Livin.'" The academic equivalent is embraced in mainstream economic thought in which work, as noted above, is a lousy activity endured to earn income. Pleasure does not come from a job well done, but from the goods, services, and leisure you can buy from the money you earn. Mainstream economic thought also embraces the power of free competition. So if work is nothing special, then it, too, should be governed by same principles of free competition that are seen as desirable for other commodities. Work, then, is mostly about the price it commands in the marketplace.

But if you look at the scholarship on work across the social and behavioral sciences, or think more carefully about how work is experienced in our daily lives, then we can identify alternatives to seeing work as mostly about survival, money, and markets. Work can be a source of personal fulfillment and psychological well-being that provides more than extrinsic, monetary rewards. Work is a way to intimately care for others, and to serve others such as through volunteering, civic service, and military service. On an even deeper level, work can be a source of identity by helping individuals understand who they are and where they stand in the social structure. Work is also a source of freedom from the dictates of the natural world--a way to express creativity and build culture. And some believe that work is not simply a commodity traded in the marketplace, it is something done by human beings who therefore merit a set of workplace standards consistent with human dignity.

Whatever one's views on work, the definitions of work need to be explicitly identified and debated. Scholarship needs to do a better job of explicitly questioning how work is conceptualized, and of exploring the ramifications of embracing broader views of work that go beyond dismissing work as a curse, seeing it solely as a source of income, or treating it as a just another commodity. Advocates and policymakers similarly need to question the views of work they implicitly employ when advocating specific positions, designing policies, and making legal judgments. Definitions of work matter for how work is analyzed, legislated, adjudicated, and experienced, so these definitions are too important to be taken for granted. It is time to think more carefully about work.

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About this Blog

Whither Work? is a blog about work created by John Budd. I am a professor of Work and Organizations in the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, and the author of several books including The Thought of Work. Follow me on Twitter: @JohnWBudd.