What Is Work?

Yesterday, on Yahoo I saw a piece outlining the traits of rich people without trust funds, and one of the traits listed is that such folks “are always on the clock,” where a 40-hour work week is considered part time, and 80 to 90 hours are “the norm.” The implication is that wealthy people work harder than slackers who settle for a 40-hour work week, with the corollary being that rich people deserve to be rich because they work so hard. (I’ve also read many other articles about how hard wealthy people work.)

This, in turn, led me to wonder: What is work? What qualifies as work? Is work only considered work if money is involved? Certainly, labor in exchange for money is one kind of work, and a necessary one at that. All households need at least some money for things such as food, clothing, shelter, and transportation.

But what about making bread, hanging laundry, cooking, cleaning the house, yard work, and home repairs? What about hauling wood, taking trash to the transfer station, and tending the garden? What about raising a family? Helping a child with school work? Teaching her how to ride a bike?

I would argue that all the items listed above are work, albeit unpaid, and if you tack those everyday chores on to a 40-hour work week, then average people’s work load starts approaching the 80-hour work week of wealthy people. I would also add volunteer work to the unpaid work list. According to AARP, “Nearly 27 percent of the U.S. adult population gave 8.1 billion hours of volunteer service worth $169 billion in 2009, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.”

Rich people, of course, usually hire other people to do everyday chores, thus freeing their time to focus on working for money. As long as wealthy folks pay their fair share in taxes, I’m fine with that. If rich people want to spend 80-hours a week focusing on how to make lots of money, then that is their right.

However, it seems to me that we should expand our notion of work to include all the unpaid chores that fill most people’s lives. (Volunteer service should be included as well.) It is neither healthy nor respectful to regard unpaid labor as inferior to paid labor. A society that thinks this way about work is a society out of balance.

And isn’t that exactly what the U.S. has become?


2 thoughts on “What Is Work?”

  1. Laurie, I always think of “work” to include all the stuff that circles around writing that isn’t the writing itself that brings such joy. Setting up book events, writing clever tweets. But yes, all the rest of it–the groceries, the house, the garden, the ironing, the filing, the bill paying, the cooking, the planning of cooking…it fills up the day nicely.

    We may not be rich, but those of us whose central work gives us joy are perhaps far richer. Just as we are enriched by doing for others. When I read about the billionaires and fabulously rich, I always wonder what they do for others, what they give to make the world a better place, and what they do that is good for their souls.

    Good post today. Thanks for writing it.

    1. Thanks, Kate. Yes, work encompasses many things, and it is wrong to think of only paid work as work. Also, you make a good point about satisfying work filling the day nicely. So it does!

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