So much of our life is shaped and constrained by our interpretation of what work really is. In modern societies the prevailing concept of work as being the activity you are paid to perform has a number of detrimental effects on society. This view of work ties into the emphasis on a competitive, market based economy and consumerism driven lifestyle where the more money you have the more goods, services and supposedly better quality of life you can purchase.
Given a moments consideration it should become clear that our definition of work as a paid activity is exceedingly narrow (see note 1). Other types of work are recognised but distinguished from the “normal” work by qualifiers like volunteer or domestic. Then there is the commonly used, but completely absurd, term “work-life balance”. Do we temporarily cease living while at work? Not-withstanding the fact that many modern jobs require a zombie like presence, what does it say about our society that we seem to have surrendered a significant proportion of our life to activities that we consider to be devoid of life?
Still most modern adults spend their life categorising and judging each other based on the type of work they do. A successful adult is one who has a high paying full-time job and the accompanying lavish lifestyle. Consider how the prefix of “Dr” automatically attracts a certain level of esteem for that person. In contrast parents who choose to spend their days nurturing their children are not even considered to be working under international definitions of work (see note 2).
Even children are not free of the burden of the modern interpretation of work. Schooling these days concentrates on equipping children with the necessary skills to gain employment. Changing the way we educate our children as I mentioned previously is a one way to bring about change. The world would be a much better place if instead of an education based solely on work skills we also impart life skills.
As mentioned earlier not only is our definition of work restrictive, our sub-categorisation of work into full-time, part-time and underemployed contributes to a very narrow view of what it is to be a contributing member of society.
Seeing the variation in how these terms are applied across the world points to how arbitrary these categories are. Full-time employment for instance refers to someone working the standard working hours of that country with any excess hours attracting a higher pay rate. The legally accepted standard working hours varies from country to country: in Australia it is 38 hours; in France 35 hours; in Mexico and Colombia 48 hours.
Even with legally set standard working hours, it is commonly accepted that in a number of jobs people can still end up working 80 plus hours a week without overtime pay. Given that there are only 168 hours in a week. This means that roughly half such a person’s life is spent working. Assuming an average of 7 hours of sleep a night, these jobs would leave about 5 hours a day to eat, wash, do household chores and travel to and from work. This doesn’t leave much time to spend with family and friends, contribute to one’s community or even exercise!
Interestingly many of the jobs that are notorious for placing such demands on employees, like medicine and law are also the ones that are highly regarded in the mainstream society. On the other end of the respectability spectrum are the “menial” jobs which in some countries are paid so little that people have to work above standard working hours and often do more than one job just to make ends meet.
I have spent the last 5 years working 3 days a week in paid employment. I have loved the freedom this has given me to spend time being involved in community groups, caring for my elderly father, growing my own produce and enjoying life. Being able to sit in the sun with a good book is one of my life’s commonplace pleasures but this is a rare luxury I imagine for a typical adult working full-time.
Since I have been working part-time I have lost count of all the times that I have been asked if I am looking for full-time work, as if this is some holy grail to aspire to. To me spending less time in paid work and more time building community connections and looking after our wellbeing is a vital part of the work that needs to be done to create a better society. The Simplicity Institute and other minimalist movements offer great discourses on the numerous social and environmental benefits that can flow from working less and living more. It does mean learning to live with less money, but the corresponding reduction in consumption of goods is a good thing for the planet!
Of course the topic of employment is much more complex and nuanced but I hope this provides a starting place for the reconceptualisation of our relationship to work and its place in our lives. If we are ever to move away from the capitalist market based society then we need to start valuing how people spend their time in a vastly different way. Our new heroes need to be the stay at home parents, the person who grows his own produce and shares it with the neighborhood and volunteer who spends time caring for people.
1. Economic activity (work) is defined by the United Nations Systems of National Accounts (SNA) as a physical process where “labour and assets are used to transform inputs of goods and services into outputs of other goods and services.” This narrow definition is tailored for the market economy where everything produced is then exchanged at a certain price.
2. The international definition of employment refers to “a person that has engaged in some economic activity (work) over a short reference period” (Thirteenth International Conference of Labour Statisticians 1982).