Language changes as social context evolves and each of us interprets the words we use against the background of our own experience. Our experience stretches back in time, perhaps as far as our grandparents who told us stories of their childhoods, and forward to our expectations for our own grandchildren. Our sense of what is right and wrong, of what is possible, of who we are, is built on our words. Our word-experience creates a feedback loop with our social action, sometimes acting as a break to evolving contexts that would be beneficial if we let them happen. This blog explores our modern use of the word “work” and speculates on how we might be holding ourselves back by hanging on to an old definition that no longer resonates with our socio-technological context.
“Work” is unquestionably a complex concept. As the child of a literal-minded physics teacher I learned early that:
“Work is done when a force that is applied to an object moves that object. The work is calculated by multiplying the force by the amount of movement of an object (W = F * d). A force of 10 newtons, that moves an object 3 meters, does 30 n-m of work. A newton-meter is the same thing as a joule, so the units for work are the same as those for energy – joules”
This is not what most people think of when I use the word today. They are more in line with Webster’s which begins by associating “work” with earning a living through employment and doesn’t get around to the physical concept of work until definition #9.
Definition of work (Entry 2 of 3)1 activity in which one exerts strength or faculties to do or perform something:a: activity that a person engages in regularly to earn a livelihood// people looking for workb: a specific task, duty, function, or assignment often being a part or phase of some larger activityc:sustained physical or mental effort to overcome obstacles and achieve an objective or result2 one’s place of employment // didn’t go to work today3a: something produced or accomplished by effort, exertion, or exercise of skill// this book is the work of many handsb:something produced by the exercise of creative talent or expenditure of creative effort : artistic production // an early work by a major writer4a: something that results from a particular manner or method of working, operating, or devising // careful police work // clever camera workb:something that results from the use or fashioning of a particular material// porcelain work5a: works plural : structures in engineering (such as docks, bridges, or embankments) or mining (such as shafts or tunnels)b: a fortified structure (such as a fort, earthen barricade, or trench)7 works plural : the working or moving parts of a mechanism // the works of a clock8 works plurala: everything possessed, available, or belonging // the whole works, rod, reel, tackle box, went overboard //ordered pizza with the worksb: subjection to drastic treatment : all possible abuse —usually used with get or give //get the works // gave them the works9a: the transference of energy that is produced by the motion of the point of application of a force and is measured by multiplying the force and the displacement of its point of application in the line of actionb: energy expended by natural phenomenac: the result of such energy // sand dunes are the work of sea and wind1011 works plural : performance of moral or religious acts // salvation by works12: the material or piece of material that is operated upon at any stage in the process of manufactureat work
1: engaged in working : BUSYespecially : engaged in one’s regular occupation
in the works: in process of preparation, development, or completion
in work1: in process of being done2 of a horse : in training
out of work
“Out of work” doesn’t mean there’s nothing to move, it means “without employment”. That’s the noun “work”. The verb “to work” is even more entangled with the notion of a market economy within which an individual sells his or her ability to move objects and extends the idea to include moving information.
(Entry 1 of 3)
1a: to perform work or fulfill duties regularly for wages or salary // works in publishingb: to perform or carry through a task requiring sustained effort or continuous repeated operations // worked all day over a hot stovec: to exert oneself physically or mentally especially in sustained effort for a purpose or under compulsion or necessity2to function or operate according to plan or design // hinges work better with oil3to produce a desired effect or result : SUCCEED // a plan that will work4to exert an influence or tendency5a: to make way slowly and with difficulty : move or progress laboriously// worked up to the presidencyb: to sail to windward6a: to move slightly in relation to another partb: to get into a specified condition by slow or imperceptible movements// the knot worked loosec: to be in agitation or restless motion7to permit of being worked : react in a specified way to being worked this wood works easily1to set or keep in motion, operation, or activity : cause to operate or produce// a pump worked by hand // work farmland2to bring to pass : EFFECT // work miracles3to solve (a problem) by reasoning or calculation —often used with out4a: to cause to toil or labor // worked their horses nearly to deathb: to make use of : EXPLOITc: to control or guide the operation of // switches are worked from a central tower5a: to carry on an operation or perform a job through, at, in, or along // the peddler worked the corner // a sportscaster hired to work the gameb: to greet and talk with in a friendly way in order to ingratiate oneself or achieve a purpose // politicians working the crowd // worked the room6to pay for or achieve with labor or service worked my way through college// worked my way up in the company7a: to prepare for use by stirring or kneadingb: to bring into a desired form by a gradual process of cutting, hammering, scraping, pressing, or stretching // work cold steel8a: to fashion or create a useful or desired product by expending labor or exertion on : FORGE, SHAPE // work flint into toolsb: to make or decorate with needleworkespecially : EMBROIDER9a: to get (oneself or an object) into or out of a condition or position by gradual stages
These definitions of work make sense in a context where human survival and wellbeing has depended on the manipulation of physical objects and the sharing of know-how — for all of human existence — up to the present.
And how has the present social context changed? We have learned to build machines, robots and AIs (artificially intelligent computers) that can do most of the old-style work for us. What we don’t know how to do is live meaningfully in this new reality. Our word-experience makes it nearly impossible for even our most highly intelligent leaders to imagine the changes in our identities and emotional attachments that will redefine human “work” beyond the employment market.
Instead of creating new social niches for humans whose old-style labor is no longer essential we confound the concept of work-as-being-active with the concept of work-as-being-employed. Examine, for example, the following excerpt from the World Bank’s World Development Report:
People living in advanced economies are anxious about the sweeping impact of technology on employment. They hold a view that rising inequality, compounded by the advent of the gig economy (in which organizations contract with inde- pendent workers for short-term engagements), is encouraging a race to the bottom in working conditions.
This troubling scenario, however, is on balance unfounded. It is true that in some advanced economies and middle-income countries manufacturing jobs are being lost to automation. Workers undertaking routine tasks that are “codable” are the most vulnerable to replacement. And yet technology provides opportunities to create new jobs, increase productivity, and deliver effective public services. Through innovation, technology generates new sectors and new tasks.
Yes, advancing technologies will cause “sweeping impact” on employment and that will change the life of employees. Keep in mind that we are speaking about “developing” societies here, about populations that were considered “unemployable” 100 years ago because they did not grow up in a market economy where their labor could be bought and sold. It may be these traditional communities have some social conventions that would enhance the equitable exchange of goods and services we are now worried about.
Another conceptual misstep is the notion that technology is directly linked to jobs and employment. Our techniques/technology determine how we do and build things, how we produce goods and services. Much of what humans “produce” is distributed informally, is not measured as “productivity” and never enters our economic systems. Between the person doing the “work” and the valued output is a set of social conventions that includes “jobs”. If we can break the hold our use of the term “work” has on us we can tinker with those conventions and perhaps generate new ones that will better serve our new context.
Visual artists, poets, musicians, home gardeners, open software developers and parents, to name just a few, are workers in every sense of the word except that their efforts are not necessarily connected to employment. Although fully and constructively “occupied”, in spite of their use of emerging technologies, they may still be considered “unemployed” and the value of what they contribute to their communities may be unappreciated. Certainly it is uncounted and is uncompensated unless they live in a family or have a patron of some kind.
The World Development Report notes (on page 4 of the Overview section):
“What are some new ways of protecting people? A societal minimum that provides support independent of employment is one option. This model, which would include mandated and voluntary social insurance, could reach many more people.
Social protection can be strengthened by expanding overall coverage that prioritizes the neediest people in society. Placing community health workers on the government’s payroll is a step in the right direction. A universal basic income is another possibility, but it is untested and fiscally prohibitive for emerging economies.”
This is an encouraging indication that the discourse on how to survive economically in the new order is progressing, however slowly. Moving from Webster’s definition #1, work as employment, to definition #3, work as
could provide a new conceptual foundation for innovative social infrastructures that facilitate broader distribution of the abundance our modern technologies make possible. We could stop focusing so heavily on creating jobs and instead devise effective ways of supporting those who choose sharing rather than competing. Every contribution is the result of work.