A new book tells the hidden history of work—on and off the job.
The simple definition of work—tasks performed for a wage under legally binding conditions, on a regular schedule—is in fact a rare and recent formula.
The global office-rental company WeWork, which prefers to be known as anything but a global office-rental company, recently hosted an open house for a new location in New York. A sales rep enthused about the views from one of the common areas, which, he noted, was once a CEO’s corner office. He pointed out the fireplace, and said the room was soon to be furnished with multiple leather couches in place of a single mahogany desk. Anyone will be able to sit gazing over the rooftops of Manhattan, reflecting on their success—but instead of being paid to do so, like the CEO, now the workers will pay for the privilege. The trappings of success have been transformed into a commodity.
WeWork is among the largest and most visible of companies redefining “work” as something combining invention and sociability, fueled by free coffee and beer, where everyone is a creator, work is 24/7, and nobody is there because they have to be. Founded eight years ago, WeWork now has more than 300 locations in 62 cities, a success built on the rise of employment patterns called flexible and entrepreneurial by those who boost them, and insecure and precarious by those who don’t. The name trades on the slipperiness of the term “work,” from work as daily grind into work as “life’s work”—oeuvre, art, the reason you’re here on earth.
Andrea Komlosy, in Work: The Last 1,000 Years, takes on the “linguistic chameleon” of work, tracing the word’s evolving meanings and interpretations. An appendix compares more than 40 work-related words in eight different languages, showing the vast range of human activity, from creativity to slavery, that is swept up in work’s orbit. Many languages divide the concept of work into, first, arduous and undesirable “labor,” and second, the more respected kinds of work that require intellect and artistry.
A professor of social and economic history at the University of Vienna, Komlosy’s analysis strives to offer a coherent picture of what work was and is across widely varying societies over a broad historical sweep, from the medieval era to the present day. Her focal point is central Europe, and she stretches as far as Russia, the Balkans and southern Italy during the various eras of colonization by the Holy Roman Empire, Prussia, the Habsburg monarchy and the Third Reich. She zeroes in on six historical periods, revealing the diversity in what work was and how it was understood in 1250, 1500, 1700, 1800, 1900 and today. The survey offers several examples of how work changed as cities grew, and settled communities absorbed outsiders. Demand for luxury goods in palaces across Asia fueled the labor of craftsmen and merchants along the Silk Road, while the arrival of the itinerant Roma from India into Europe created a distinction between “dishonorable” and “honorable” labor.
Such distinctions show that “work” is not just a multifaceted concept, but involves hierarchies, allowing us to understand how the labor of a Mongolian shepherd relates to that of a Viennese baker or a Silicon Valley software engineer. Komlosy identifies a series of dichotomies, the most basic between voluntary and forced work. As the historical survey makes clear, enslaving other humans to perform arduous or undesirable labor, including sex, is commonplace across eras, usually as a corollary of war and conquest. But even technically “voluntary” work may have a forced dimension, as when religious or cultural laws bar certain kinds of people from certain kinds of work, pushing them toward work on the dishonorable fringes—anything from moneylending to rendering animal carcasses to prostitution.
Modern work is often governed by contracts and laws, making some jobs secure, while others remain precarious. Job protections are usually hard-won by unions, and depend on whether a particular industry has traditionally been assisted by political activism; farm work and domestic work tend to be excluded from the protections extended to corporate and industrial workers. The simple definition of work—tasks performed for a wage under legally binding conditions, on a regular schedule—is in fact a rare and recent formula.
When the category of work is expanded to what Komlosy calls “grey areas,” definitions blur even further. These areas include “makeshift” work like busking or begging, a form of survival on the fringes of capitalism that is stigmatized as laziness, not work; and “shadow” work, a concept borrowed from philosopher Ivan Illich that covers the myriad activities that sustain daily life but are neither paid nor done for pleasure, like grocery shopping, paying taxes or going to the DMV. We might also include in this category the work billions of us do to sustain social media platforms. We tend not to understand our contributions to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, or our innumerable blog posts and comments, as a form of work; yet, this time and effort contributes billions of dollars in value to the owners of those platforms. Without its users’ millions of volunteered words, after all, Twitter is just a little cartoon bird.
Another constant is that the essential work of being human—reproduction and care of the next generation—refuses to fit neatly into any economic understanding of “work.” The overlap in meaning, in English, between “labor” as arduous physical work and “labor” as the pain of childbirth indicates a long association between reproduction and work, yet industrial capitalism relies on the ideological separation of women’s domestic duties from the latter sphere. In most industrialized nations outside the United States, social provisions—ranging from healthcare services to protected leave time—assign a monetary value to the “invaluable” labor of caring for a family, but these are generally limited to the first months of a child’s life. In order to “reenter the workforce,” parents—usually mothers—who have “taken time out” must pay professional caregivers through the ensuing years. Caregivers, in turn, may have to outsource the care of their own children to family members or other workers. The language of separation and reentry underlines the idea that care is not work, that it is at once far more valuable, and far less valued, than wage labor.
What can we learn for the future of work from interrogating its past? Komlosy’s analysis is a helpful reminder that our familiar understanding of work is narrow and historically exceptional. The hierarchy we have established in the industrialized West, placing permanent, full-time, legally contracted wage work at the top of a pyramid of social good, is deeply flawed—denigrating not only those millions who work outside its confines, but also devaluing and neglecting the kinds of nonwork activities that enrich and give meaning to human lives. By showing that “work” may exist without wages, a boss or a workplace outside the home, Komlosy’s analysis allows us to think more broadly about what we value, and whether we want to continue to separate work and life. If work is no longer what we do at a particular place, at a particular time—and changing global patterns suggest that it is not—we should all be involved in imagining what else it might be, and how we can do it better.
Such rethinking should not only be the purview of startups eagerly marketing a version of the workplace that incorporates pleasure and play, and of tech companies that have made it possible to always, virtually, be at work. Community and creativity, after all, are not just marketing buzzwords—they define us as human beings. A universal basic income is one much-discussed possibility for shaking off the dominance of work and productivity, but there are less experimental, less trendy options. Rebalancing work and nonwork may be as simple as investing, as a society, in straightforward social goods: education that doesn’t spell decades of debt, paid leave for parents and caregivers, well-funded libraries and places to gather open to all, and the peace of mind and body that comes from affordable healthcare. These are the unsexy, old-fashioned benefits that nevertheless create space for us to be human, to forge connections without business cards, to pursue our curiosity and give our time to the causes, projects and people we value. And yes, they likely make our work better, too.
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Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer based in Queens, NY, and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her book reviews and essays have appeared in the Washington Post, the New Yorker Online, The Nation, the Wall Street Journal and several other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @JC_Scuttsr.
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