What is this thing called work?
It's a source of paradox: something people are often happy to avoid, yet which to lack (that is, to be unemployed) is generally seen as undesirable; something to which we devote a large portion of our energy in the course of our lives, but whose usefulness in many instances is very questionable.
But what do I mean by "work"? How is it distinguished from other human activities? My dictionary defines work as "physical or mental effort directed towards making or achieving something". That seems a reasonable first approximation, but I could quibble that it is too inclusive: for instance, it implies that climbing a hill or playing a game is work. To deal with that objection, I suggest a lengthened definition: "physical or mental effort directed towards making or achieving something which is valued for itself (not merely for the sense of achievement)". The question "By whom is it valued?" remains open: it may be by the person doing the work, by an employer, or by customers or other participants in the market or society.
Having defined work, I go on to ask why we value and desire it (to the extent that we do). One obvious element in the desire to have work is that it pays, and thus earns us a living. But there are other benefits too. There is the sense of purpose and achievement that comes from having activities directed towards a goal and from accomplishing that goal. There are also in many cases the social benefits of companionship and interaction with colleagues or customers. Many of us have all these three things tied up in the single institution of employment, and this explains why losing one's job can be so devastating. However, it need not be the case that we depend for all three on the same activity: in principle they are separable, and separating them may well make sense and make us more resilient.
The insistence that we should gain our living by formal employment has some undesirable consequences. Along with the growth-oriented nature of our economic system, it leads to a lot of unnecessary and even harmful work being done: people make work for themselves (and others) so as to stay in employment and continue being paid, regardless of the intrinsic value of what they are producing, and they then require an advertising industry (more unnecessary work!) to sell their goods and services to other people so as to bring in the money. On a planet with resources far beyond human requirements, this unnecessary production might be harmless; but as the human race comes up against the limits of Earth's resources, much of it becomes positively malign.
If we could separate more of our activity from our subsistence, we might be happier and do less damage to our environment. We could then choose to do only those things that were of genuine value, or at least harmless: we could make it our work to pursue our interests rather than having to make work pay.
Related topicsNew economics
What kind of growth?
Time and money
What did I mean?
Make it difficult
Purpose of life
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