On the ContraryU.S. Politics & Society

The Problems with Work

Despite my use of the singular in the title, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (2011) explores several problems with work. My focus is not so much on the difficulties of this or that job but on the failures of the system of waged work together with the values and ways of life that support and are produced by it. Some of these problems fit under three general headings: underwork, overwork, and non-work.

The first and most obvious problem is that of underwork. In a society that expects most individuals to engage in waged work, the fact that there are not enough jobs to go around is devastating to individuals and communities. The current unemployment numbers and the prospect of a “jobless recovery” make it all the more clear that waged work is too precarious and incomplete to function adequately as a system of income allocation or a means of social inclusion. Then there is the problem of overwork. I refer here to all the ways that work monopolizes our time and energy. This includes not just the long hours we spend at work but the time spent preparing for work, searching for work, worrying about work or its absence, and recovering from work. The problem is that too much of our lifetime is subordinated to work. Finally, we should add to this list the problem of what I call non-work, which comprises two elements. One refers to all the forms of social productivity that are not covered by the wage system. For example, feminists have long insisted that unwaged housework, child care, and eldercare are all forms of socially necessary “reproductive” labor without which the “productive” waged labor economy could not function. These are not the only examples of unpaid work upon which waged work depends; employers profit as well from the time required to develop the knowledge, physical capacities, artistic output, communicative abilities, emotional skills, and even the social networks that they do not remunerate us for. The other problem of non-work is meant to evoke our inability or unwillingness to conceive a life not so relentlessly limited by the exigencies of work. The world of waged work so dominates our values, institutions, laws, and symbols that we have a hard time conceiving any other way of organizing productive activity, allocating income, or fashioning a meaningful life. We are valuable to ourselves and to one another to the extent that we produce at work. This limits our understanding of what is a worthy social contribution to a narrow conception of waged labor and then makes that a key requirement of citizens. So our ideas about individual achievement and social reciprocity become affixed and reduced to waged work.

To think critically about this system of waged work, we need to consider as well the cultural discourse that supports it, namely, the work ethic. In elevating work over other activities as our highest calling and moral duty, as a primary focus of time and energy, as what we should devote our lives to, invest our identities in, and structure our relations around, the work ethic encourages our consent to a lifetime in service to work. In celebrating work as an end in itself rather than just a means to other ends, and as the central focus of our lives rather than one component among others, the work ethic teaches us to live for work instead of working to live. The current power of this ethic of work should not be underestimated. Far from being some kind of historical relic, this set of ideas about the meaning of work, this overvaluation of work, is more important to the post-industrial economy than it ever was in the industrial period. For example, our “good attitude” toward work is important in jobs that require emotional labor on the part of service providers, among workers who cannot always be monitored or whose encounters cannot be entirely scripted, and for those employers that want employees who are independent and creative, but also manageable and directed toward the organization’s goals. If a strong identification with work and its discipline is increasingly a source of profit, then our willingness to question these values and orientations are potentially more effective as modes of resistance and rebellion.

So what is to be done? One might approach this question in terms of three different demands: for more work, for better work, and for less work. As long as waged work is the primary way that most of us can secure the means to live, the struggle for more work—more jobs, more hours—remains necessary. And certainly, efforts to make work better, to make it less dangerous, less isolating, less alienated and, of course, better paid, are crucial targets of reform as well. But the demand for less work in the form of fewer weekly and lifetime hours, together with the demand for “lesser work,” that is, for its demotion in our hierarchy of values, is important as well. For one thing, full employment is unlikely to be achieved in the current system because it is considered detrimental to what is measured as “economic health.” As for the effort to improve the experience of work, unless it is coupled with the demands for less and lesser work, there is a danger that it will be met by employers with changes that result in more work. That is, advocates of better work are likely to find their demands for work enrichment appropriated by employers as an excuse for work intensification, as multi-skilling turns out to mean multi-tasking and demands for empowerment and participation are translated into additional responsibilities requiring even greater levels of energy investment and time commitment.

There are two specific demands for change that I defend as part of a struggle for less and lesser work. The first is a thirty-hour week with no decrease in pay. The second is a guaranteed basic income. I am interested in these proposals as concrete policy reforms that could improve people’s situations by expanding the time off waged work (shorter hours) and making the link between work and income less absolute (basic income). The demand for shorter hours has historically appealed to a variety of differently situated workers. The demand for a basic income has even more potential to gather a broad coalition. It could offer some much-needed support for the unemployed and underemployed and a stronger position from which to negotiate better wages and working conditions. A basic income could provide some support for unwaged forms of socially necessary caring labor and also relieve some of the pressures that limit our choices of household formation and family membership. After all, it is important to recognize that there are two major mechanisms of income allocation, waged work is one, and the family, as a way to distribute income among the not-yet waged, unwaged, underwaged, and no-longer waged, is the other. As neither of these institutions is adequate to the task of providing for us all, a guaranteed income is a better option.

I am also interested in the way these demands for shorter hours and basic income (among others) can function not only as policy proposals but also as perspectives that can help organized labor, allied organizations, and the broader public to reflect critically on the present system of wages and hours and as provocations to think imaginatively about other ways of defining, organizing, and valuing work. Why, these demands ask us to consider, do we all need to work so long and hard? Why are some productive contributions rewarded with income and others not? What would we do with more time off waged work? How would our relationship to work change if the economic pressure to work was alleviated somewhat? The struggle for these practical reforms, in other words, in addition to winning reforms that would improve people’s lives, could also serve to broaden our perspectives on the social role and meaning of work and inspire us to imagine them differently.

Article Notes

  • Declaration of Conflicting Interests The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

  • Funding The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

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