Labor over Work over Jobs
Revisiting my terminology, thanks to Lewis Hyde
Two years ago, in maybe the first substantive post on here, I attempted to distinguish what I mean by “work” as opposed to a “job.” I declared myself “anti-job” and not “anti-work,” as I actually liked working outside the confines of a job. In that post, I defined work loosely as “any activity that makes a change in your environment, whether internal or external.”
A few redditors answered that they (and I guess a lot of activists) use “labor” to refer to what I called work, and that “work” was labor done for pay. I thought that was arbitrary, if interesting, so I kept my own definitions.
Lewis Hyde’s gift of redefinition
I've been reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift (which may possibly end up on our canonical list) and he defines “labor” separately from “work” usefully and beautifully.
First, he rather narrowly defines “work” as an activity with a predetermined, externally obvious goal that has to be accomplished within a set timeframe. Though it doesn’t have to be, work is usually done for pay, as its explicit external nature and time-boundedness make it a neat fit for the confines of jobs as we know them.
In contrast, “labor” is more internal, harder to pin down, schedule, and regulate. We perform labor, but we can’t fully control when it’s done, to the point that we feel like it’s not really up to us. Hyde describes it:
“Labor has its own schedule. Things get done, but we often have the odd sense that we didn’t do them..[it’s] usually accompanied by idleness, leisure, even sleep…something dictated by the course of life rather than society…more bound up in feeling, more interior, than work.”
It’s common for us to engage in important labor without even knowing what the goal is, often starting with a mistaken sense of what it is. In this sense, creative and artistic projects, which almost by definition feel out of the maker’s control, fall under “labor.” So do projects of psychological or spiritual healing and growth.
Also, labor’s projects are hard to make money from. They’re hard to make concrete promises around, because they’re not the type for which one can easily write a proposal and convince others to pay1.
I imagine that there was a time where people had a strong sense of what was “labor” and what was “work”, the role each had to play, and had an easier time allotting time and attention to each. But as Hyde points out, that changed with the industrial revolution:
“One of the first problems of the modern world faced with the rise of industrialism was the exclusion of labor by the expansion of work.”
Fast forward a couple hundred years, to a society that overemphasizes work and confuses it with labor (if it even remembers that labor exists at all). Through that lens, Sara Jaffe’s Work Won’t Love You Back is basically a catalog of how employers trick employees to confuse work for the company with their own life’s labor.
“Labor” and “Work” need their separate spaces
I think labor and work very much need their separate space, or else interfere with each other. Labor is currently harder to perform, and two reasons come to mind:
Work tyrannically rules the current age. Crying in the middle of the day is the labor of processing your emotions. Doing so at the office is your body desperately trying to cram this labor into a world where we feel it’s perfectly normal for work to stamp out any non-work activities.
We’ve been conditioned to be overly motivated by external validation–something labor rarely attracts. A great misunderstanding of finding our “life purpose” is the assumption that it will make us famous and loved. More often than not, no one’s gonna give you a trophy for conducting the labor of your life.
Is it possible for your life’s labor to be your work? Sure. But I think this is a rare state that we’ve marketed to ourselves as common. In actuality, most of us who work for someone else are helping them in their life’s labor at the expense of ours. (and this assumes we don’t work in a fully-zombied enterprise, a publicly-traded corporation that has long ceased to be anyone’s life labor)
Terminology update, with the same spirit
For now, I’m adopting Hyde’s definitions. One thought I still share with my first article is that I still feel mostly positive about “work”--as long as we don’t have universal basic income, it has a place in a balanced life (we gotta eat, after all). And I still think jobs are a noxious container for executing work, one that seeks to extend work to all areas of life, instead making space for the labor that our life also demands.
So, I’m advocating we relearn to value labor more (or at least as much) than work, and to value both much more than the state of having a job. I now feel less hypocritical slinging the term “work-humper” at people. You could say I’m a proud labor-humper instead.
Hyde makes an interesting point about services like psychotherapy, coaching, or anything else where someone pays for help attaining spiritual or emotional growth: “there’s no way to pay for a higher state unless you’re [already] in it! The labor must precede.”
I believe that therapy and coaching are worthwhile investments, but am amused by people who complain that “it’s been four sessions and the therapist hasn’t done anything to me,” not understanding that their required investment involves time and effort along with (in fact, much more than) money. You’re basically paying someone to help you in your own labor. But you still must labor.