What is Work?

What is Work?

[This article was first published on Hubpages in 2009. Because it has gone idle there, I have decided to put it to work here on PubWages!]

Tom Sawyer

Image Credit: pbs.org

Image Credit: pbs.org

Excerpt from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

“Say — I’m going in a-swimming, I am. Don’t you wish you could? But of course you’d druther work — wouldn’t you? Course you would!”

Tom contemplated the boy a bit, and said:

“What do you call work?”

“Why, ain’t that work?”

Tom resumed his whitewashing, and answered carelessly:

“Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know, is, it suits Tom Sawyer.”

“Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The brush continued to move.

“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth — stepped back to note the effect — added a touch here and there — criticised the effect again — Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:

“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”

People seem to think that having a job is a good thing, and even a human right, and if there aren’t enough jobs, then this presents a bit of a crisis. But what is a job, exactly, and which part of the job is the thing that everyone is clamoring for? Are they worried that without an employer telling them what to do, they will be bored silly? Or does it have more to do with the money?

One definition of a job is a contractual arrangement under which someone is paid for doing work. But what is work? And how do you decide who has to pay whom? Have you ever thought about it?

If you go to the doctor’s office, and he examines you for about ten minutes, then writes out a prescription, should you pay him for practicing on you, or should he pay you for letting him practice on you? After all, practice makes perfect! You have given him an opportunity to learn his profession. If you call the plumber, and he fumbles around and spends hours in your kitchen making a terrible mess, then not bothering to clean it up, should you pay him or should he pay you for letting him run his snake through your pipes? At the hairdresser’s, should you pay her or should she pay you for letting her run her fingers through your hair?

Well, if it seems obvious to you that the doctor, the plumber and the hairdresser are providing a service, and that you are receiving the service, just consider this: if you wanted to play doctor and examine somebody, would they have to pay you, or would you have to pay them? If you wanted to go to somebody else’s house and take apart their plumbing, would they have to pay you, or would you  have to pay them? If you wanted to practice hairdressing skills on someone who would just sit still and let you do whatever you wanted, would they have to pay you or would you have to pay them?

The key to understanding the job market is to know that it isn’t what somebody does that makes it work. It’s whether or not somebody else is willing to pay for it! And how do two people involved in a transaction decide which one is going to pay the other? The one who wants it more is the one who will end up paying!

Paying for the Privilege of Working

Mark Twain seems to have mastered this principle early on. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, there is a famous scene where Tom, entrusted with the chore of whitwashing Aunt Polly’s fence, cons other boys into paying him for the right to do his work for him.

Tom Sawyer is just a fictional character. As realistic as Twain’s writing is, it’s just satire. In real life, that would never happen, right? Well, it happens all the time.

Consider a person who buys a small mom and pop store, or a sole proprietorship like a homestyle restaurant. These small businesses go for a few hundred thoudand dollars worth of investment, and what is it that one gets in return? Usually, the right to work as the manager of the business, collecting no more than an employee of a comparable business might make without investing a single penny. These are not investments. People are simply buying the right to work for a living.

What about going to law school or medical school in order to gain entry into one of the professions? Isn’t that paying for a license to work? Someone might argue that law school and medical school are places where we gain an education, and that what we are paying for is the right to go to school. But why is it that a grad student in mathematics or linguistics is paid by his department for going to school, whereas the med student or law student has to pay a hefty fee for the same thing? It’s supply and demand.

Sometimes, during really hard times when jobs are scarce, people even pay their employers for the right to work for free!

According to the Telegraph article linked here: ” …fund-raising websites have reported a sharp increase in supposedly sexy media companies – including Rolling Stone and Ellemagazines, and Atlantic Records – auctioning their internships. A week polishing CD boxes for a music-production company went last month for $12,000.” They say some companies are creating internships as a way to increase revenue.

The Physical, Economic and Psychological Definitions of Work

The meaning of the word “work” is dependent on the context in which it is used, When used in physics, work refers to the amount of energy expended by a force to move an object over a distance. Physical work is measured in units of joules.

In common parlance, sometimes “work” simply refers to the amount of effort it takes to get a task done. But in economic terms, “work” refers only to those efforts that we make when someone else is paying us. The economic value of any work is dependent on how much others are willing to pay to have it done. If nobody is willing to pay for it, then in economic terms, it’s not work.

There is also another meaning of “work.” Sometimes “work” is contrasted with “play”. Work is labor or toil, a difficult and distasteful task that nobody would do unless paid. Play is what we do because it is fun. The motivation for work is external. The motivation for play is intrinsic.

The result of the interplay between these different concepts is that the more others pay someone for his work, the higher that person ranks in society, but the less he is likely to enjoy his own efforts. The moment something becomes work, it ceases to be just for fun.

Blacksmith at Work

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

What’s the best way to motivate employees?

Psychological studies have shown that receiving payment for performing an otherwise intrinsically interesting activity diminishes the internal stimulus that we have for participating in the activity. If you like to read, being paid for reading will reduce your pleasure. If you like to play basketball, being paid to play basketball will make you enjoy it that much less. When we don’t enjoy things, we tend to lose interest, and after a while our efforts become less energetic. So paying someone to do a job is possibly the best way to make him do it poorly.

In that case, why would anyone ever pay anyone else to do a job? And why would anyone take money for doing work when it would be so much more fun to do it for free?

The Reasons to Employ and Be Employed

From the point of view of an employer, the reason to offer someone a job is in order to secure a commitment. Sometimes we have tasks that need to be done whether anyone feels like doing them that day or not. When an employer and an employee enter into an employment contract, one of the chief benefits to the employer is knowing that the employee will be there and do the work, regardless of his level of engagement with the task on any particular day. It’s for this reason that employers, when they interview potential workers, try to find people whose motivation for taking the job is not entirely based on an intrinsic interest in the work. One way or another, the interviewer tries to ascertain that you really “need” this job, so that you won’t quit the moment it stops being fun.

What does it mean to really “need” a job? It means that you feel that in some way, your very survival is dependent on the payment that you expect to receive in return for doing the work. How can someone be entirely dependent on receiving a reward for work in order to live? Aren’t all people capable of feeding themselves?

Of course, we can all feed ourselves by growing our own food or hunting for it, but this requires time and also a certain amount space. In an industrialized society, most people find that they can get more material goods, including food, by working for somebody else than by working for themselves. They become accustomed to selling their time as a way of surviving. As such, their interest in the work they do is secondary to their interest in the reward they earn for performing the work.

Since employers are looking for people who can make a commitment in return for money, and employees are looking for employers who will support them in return for work, people who can be motivated only by an intrinsic interest in the task at hand rarely find employment.

Variable Degrees of Internal versus External Motivation

The psychological studies I cited above don’t tell the whole story, because human motivation for work is a variable trait. Not all people have a strong innate preference for some tasks over others; not all are equally motivated by an intrinsic interest in work. Some respond more favorably to external stimulus than others, and there are even people who thrive in a structured environment where external rewards are lavished on desirable behavior.

Because of such variation in personal motivation, some people make very good employees, while others are more inclined to earn their bread independently. The degree of industrialization of a society may determine which people are going to find work to be rewarding. The more capital is concentrated under the control of a few, the more people are going to have to be amenable to external rewards, and to defer intrinsic gratification.

Even so, it is possible to find people who are willing to perform a job with no pay, for the sheer reward of getting to do the work. I have given some of these people work to do, and I can vouch for the efficacy of this payment method!

(c) 2009 Aya Katz

A Spoonful of Sugar

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This Hub was last updated on September 29, 2009

Comments

Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 2 years ago from United StatesLevel 2 Commenter

Loved the physician analogy! My work for the most part has always been pure play and joy, with very few exceptions. As we both know, some “jobs” we’d gladly do and sometimes do for “free.” The rewards to me casn’t be measured in paper and coin.

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 2 years ago from The OzarksHub Author

Thanks, Jerilee! It’s good to know that you have always been able to find work you enjoy. I think some of the best and most important work we do is done for the joy of doing it!

LeonJane profile image

LeonJane 2 years ago from Australia

Remember, work is only a four letter word.

Storytellersrus profile image

Storytellersrus 2 years ago from On the edgeLevel 6 Commenter

So if full time moms don’t get paid, does this mean they don’t work? Even if they have 2+ kids under four? Or someone takes care of their aging parent for free. Is this not work? This is such a timely hub for me. I have a friend who insists stay at home moms don’t work. And a husband who claims finding a job is work. What do you think?

BTW, I love your humor, Aya.

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 2 years ago from The OzarksHub Author

LeonJane, how true! It is one of those strong, Anglo-Saxon four letter words.

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 2 years ago from The OzarksHub Author

Storytellersrus, thanks! You raise a very good point. Personally, I feel that raising children is the most important work that many of us do! That’s using one meaning of work. But from an economic standpoint, it’s not work. So ironically, many mothers leave their children in someone else’s care so they can go work. Sometimes they even work at jobs caring for or teaching somebody else’s children.

But intrinsically, we have the highest internal motivation to care for our own children. So everybody loses!

nhkatz profile image

nhkatz 2 years ago from Bloomington, Indiana

Aya,

I think there’s a very important lesson here about economic statistics. There is no conservation of work.

Suppose two stay at home moms A and B take care of their own children. No work takes place. But suppose Mom A pays a

certain sum to Mom B and in exchange Mom B takes care of

Mom A’s children and then Mom B pays the same sum to Mom A

and in exchange Mom A takes care of Mom B’s children.

In total, no money has exchanged hands. The same amount of child care is going on. But in the first case there is no work and in the second case there is.

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 2 years ago from The OzarksHub Author

Nets, that’s a good point. The numbers can be juggled.

Of course, it’s the Federal government that profits from the second arrangement, because of the income and employment taxes generated.

 

 Worker 2 years ago

Got caught up reading this from work…thanks.

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 2 years ago from The OzarksHub Author

Worker, thanks! How ironic!

EmpressFelicity profile image

EmpressFelicity 2 years ago from Kent, England, UK

“fund-raising websites have reported a sharp increase in supposedly sexy media companies … auctioning their internships. A week polishing CD boxes for a music-production company went last month for $12,000.”

I don’t know what to be more depressed by here – the cynicism of the companies who raise funds this way, knowing there are so many young people out there who are desperate to get media jobs, or the fact that said people are prepared to *pay* in order to be exploited. (Although it’s more likely to be their parents who pay on their behalf – more fool them.)

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 2 years ago from The OzarksHub Author

EmpressFelicity, it’s a crazy world! A job, like any commodity, has always been worth whatever the market will bear. And, yes, these are obviously not poor people who are buying into these internships — so there’s no need to feel sorry for either the children or the parents.

The idea that by creating jobs we can improve the economy doesn’t work, whether the jobs are bought by the wealthy or given away to the poor. Unless the enterprise supporting the employment relationship is actually producing something useful, it’s all smoke and mirrors.

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 2 years ago from The Other Bangor

Clever, and thoughtful. Smoke and mirrors and an illusion of health benefits. Thanks for writing this excellent piece.

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 2 years ago from The OzarksHub Author

Thanks, Teresa!

James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 2 years ago from Michigan and FloridaLevel 7 Commenter

Work goes way back. Did not God assign Adam work to do in the Garden of Eden?

If not, surely thereafter, work was ordained.

I have found that different generations of Americans are motivated to work well by different methods. A good manager can sense what motivations will work with each individual.

Great article. Very interesting and thought-provoking.

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 2 years ago from The OzarksHub Author

James, thanks! In Genesis, work was definitely an assigned chore. But consider picking fruit for a living. If you pick it because you want to eat it right there on the spot, it’s a fun thing to do. But if you are picking more than you need so that others will pay you by the bushel, it can get tedious.

James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 2 years ago from Michigan and FloridaLevel 7 Commenter

I have picked fruit, when I was a lad. I enjoyed it. And looked forward to a bit of jingle in my pocket. 🙂

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 2 years ago from The OzarksHub Author

James, well, I’m glad you enjoyed it! It’s always easier to do a job if you can find the fun in it! Money alone is not a good motivator.

LEWJ 2 years ago

This is a truly outstanding hub, fresh, informative, well-written, and fun!

Your Tom Sawyer download is a beautiful touch. And the videos are well-selected.

I read the story so long ago, and it’s still a wonderfully entertaining novel.

I have’nt seen the old movie since boyhood but plan to buy it some day.

Thank you much for a meaningful, thought-provoking hub.

You’ve just hooked another fan, Aya….

 

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 2 years ago from The OzarksHub Author

LEWJ, thanks! I had read that scene in Tom Sawyer years ago, when I was a child, and I remember disapproving of Tom’s antics. But when you think about it, it really all depends on the point of view. Is it work or is it fun? It depends on how you feel about it!

BookFlame 2 years ago

Excellent hub! Very thoughtful. Work and good work are two different things, I believe. I’ve read the Thomas Moore book you mention!

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 2 years ago from The OzarksHub Author

Bookflame, thanks! What Thomas Moore book?

Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 2 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin USALevel 3 Commenter

Well thought out piece Aya. I especially enjoyed revisiting Tom Sawyer. I think about that notion all the time. I am an artist and a writer and to make either of those two careers work for me it seems I need to take all manner of other odd jobs to keep the pot boiling at home, then squeeze in time to make are and write! I also enjoyed the comparison you made between intrinsic and external reward, it’s given me some solid insight. Well done.

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 2 years ago from The OzarksHub Author

Ben, thanks! Many of us on Hubpages are artists and writers who wear several different hats to get by. Welcome to the club! I think there is a way to do what you want and earn also, and we’re all looking for it together. The great thing about Hubpages is that when one of us finds a piece of the puzzle, we can share that information with others!

Bank cd rates 2 years ago

Hmm, i think next time i shall ask my physician to pay me for practicing on me. On serious notes one should enjoy his/her job. This is the greatest motivation, it is worthless to work when you don’t love it actually. Motivation is different for every individual, so no standard protocol to follow.

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 2 years ago from The OzarksHub Author

Bank cd rates, yes, I agree! Enjoying a job is the best possible motivator, but each person responds differently to different types of stimulus. One size does not fit all.

maya65 2 years ago

tom sawyer.i remember reading that book a while back!!

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 2 years ago from The OzarksHub Author

Maya65, yes, just about everyone has read Tom Sawyer at one point or another. It’s a very popular book.

wba108@yahoo.com profile image

wba108@yahoo.com 4 months ago from upstate, NYLevel 6 Commenter

“Usually, the right to work as the manager of the business, collecting no more than an employee of a comparable business might make without investing a single penny. These are not investments. People are simply buying the right to work for a living.”

There’s alot of truth to this, if you work for someone else, your job owns you and if you work for yourself you own your job!

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 4 months ago from The OzarksHub Author

Thanks, wba108@yahoo.com! I agree.

 

About Aya Katz

Aya Katz is the administrator of Pubwages. When she is not busy administering, she sometimes also writes posts like a regular user.
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2 Responses to What is Work?

  1. Sweetbearies says:

    Very interesting and thoughtful pub about the meaning of work. If you truly want to do something no matter what the economic incentives may be, in the end it is probably better.

    • Aya Katz says:

      Thanks, Sweetbearies. Truly wanting to do something is the best motivation for work, no doubt about it! But we should probably also be grateful for those people who are willing to do the jobs no one wants, because other incentives work for them.

Comments are closed.