New Labor Forum

Archive for June, 2014|Monthly archive page

The Problems with Work

In Regular Edition on June 4, 2014 at 2:13 pm

By Kathi Weeks

Despite my use of the singular in the title, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (2011) explores several problems with work. My focus is not so much on the difficulties of this or that job but on the failures of the system of waged work together with the values and ways of life that support and are produced by it. Some of these problems fit under three general headings: underwork, overwork, and non-work.

The first and most obvious problem is that of underwork. In a society that expects most individuals to engage in waged work, the fact that there are not enough jobs to go around is devastating to individuals and communities. The current unemployment numbers and the prospect of a “jobless recovery” make it all the more clear that waged work is too precarious and incomplete to function adequately as a system of income allocation or a means of social inclusion. Then there is the problem of overwork. I refer here to all the ways that work monopolizes our time and energy. This includes not just the long hours we spend at work but the time spent preparing for work, searching for work, worrying about work or its absence, and recovering from work. The problem is that too much of our lifetime is subordinated to work. Finally, we should add to this list the problem of what I call non-work, which comprises two elements. One refers to all the forms of social productivity that are not covered by the wage system. For example, feminists have long insisted that unwaged housework, child care, and eldercare are all forms of socially necessary “reproductive” labor without which the “productive” waged labor economy could not function. These are not the only examples of unpaid work upon which waged work depends; employers profit as well from the time required to develop the knowledge, physical capacities, artistic output, communicative abilities, emotional skills, and even the social networks that they do not remunerate us for. The other problem of non-work is meant to evoke our inability or unwillingness to conceive a life not so relentlessly limited by the exigencies of work. The world of waged work so dominates our values, institutions, laws, and symbols that we have a hard time conceiving any other way of organizing productive activity, allocating income, or fashioning a meaningful life. We are valuable to ourselves and to one another to the extent that we produce at work. This limits our understanding of what is a worthy social contribution to a narrow conception of waged labor and then makes that a key requirement of citizens. So our ideas about individual achievement and social reciprocity become affixed and reduced to waged work.

New Labor Forum 23(2): 10–12, Spring 2014

Copyright © 2014, The Murphy Institute, CUNY

ISSN: 1095-7960, DOI: 10.1177/1095796014526859