About Work

The topic of “jobs” is a subset of the topic of “work” which is, in fact, a much broader topic. Not all work is done in a context that is defined as a job; some of the most important work, for the survival and well-being of our species, is done without pay, in homes and communities, where children are raised and attention is given to major aspects of people’s socialization, health, rest, comfort and entertainment. Therefore I will give some attention to the broad subject of work before getting to its subset, jobs.Work has three main positive functions:

– It provides income to the worker, when the work is done as a job with a wage or salary attached.
– It creates goods and services that are valuable for those who use them. (In the case of paid work, users of these goods and services are often referred to as consumers; users of the output of unpaid work are a varied category, with no standard name, and sometimes include the worker, e.g., in the case of food raised for household use.)
– Work itself can have positive meaning for the worker, whether because it is done with other people, creating positive relationships, or because the – worker enjoys the feeling of “a job well done”, or is happy to be producing something of value to others, or because it satisfies creative urges. (Standard economic analysis treats work itself as a bad—something that people do only out of necessity.)

There are two essentials keys to a good, post-growth society. They are the matter of how work is rewarded; and how children and others who cannot work are supported. Social democratic societies in Northern Europe provide plenty of good models for achieving the second essential. I will at this point take a detour from theory to focus on the first critical issue – how work is rewarded.

Not all work has all three of the functions outlined. It may create valuable goods and services, or provide positive meaning to the worker, with or without generating income to the worker; and it may generate income while producing nothing of value, or while being a net psychic negative to the worker.

For at least a century economics students have been told that the only relevant reward to labor is the wage. That is the first error: important though wages are, work has other positive rewards that should not be neglected.

The second error is in fitting our understanding of wages entirely within standard price theory, with the neat intersection of supply and demand, and the value of the output of the last worker hired in a particular category (the “marginal revenue product”) put forward as the determinants of the wage. To be sure, these are very significant factors, but many other elements also intervene to affect why one type of work, or one type of worker, receives a higher wage than another.

The third error is to ignore the large amount of economically and socially important work that is done without the lure of a wage. In fact, it is important to think about the work that is done in any society according to not just one, but rather two, large categories: either it is defined as a job, resulting in money income, or it is unpaid work. The second category produces results that, in monetary terms, have been valued at the equivalent of one-third or more of GDP. [[The leader in this field has been Marylin Waring who wrote If Women Counted in 1988.

The discussion of labor in economics textbooks normally focuses on the function of income-generation. However modern economies are entering a period of enormous transition, when systems that have worked in the past to produce rising standards of living, accompanied (up to a certain point) with rising well-being, are due for reexamination. The systems characterizing modern industrialized economies are increasingly producing illth along with wealth. Some of the problems – as well as some potential solutions – can be seen in an examination of the three functions of work listed above. A major problem, as well as an opportunity, arises from the realization that the first and second functions do not necessarily go together: Work may provide income while not creating net social value. And, of course, it may create social value without generating money income.

When work does not create (human) value

1) The work involved in making cigarettes, or financial instruments with hidden risks, are examples of work that produces things that actually harm those who use them. In a similar category, meat may be a health-giving part of the human diet, but not when it is raised in ways that lace the meat with antibiotics or growth hormones.

2) Products may diminish net well-being by engendering frustration and annoyance far out-weighing their utility to the user: e.g., products designed for obsolescence, or so poorly made that early failure is likely.

3) Aside from these specific cases of production of “bads” rather than “goods”, there is much evidence that a rich country like the United States has reached saturation in many areas of consumption; additional purchases do not increase the well-being of the purchaser.

4) Most broadly, virtually all production has some degree of negative environmental consequence, in the throughput of energy and materials.

Of course the last point does not mean that all production is bad; however it reinforces the idea that it is increasingly important, in a time of growing resource constraint, to prioritize among productive activities, and find ways—whether through incentive or regulation—to organize society’s resources toward the most valuable outputs. For that, we need to find new ways—other than who can pay more than others—to define what is of value.

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