So What Is Work?


Work: Do you do it because you have to, because you want to or because you need to? And lest you think having to and needing to are the same thing, I’d argue there’s a difference.

I suppose the question of work, and how you choose to answer it depends entirely on your personal definition of what it means to work. Work to some means doing something that requires effort as in, “she’s had to work for everything she’s got in life”. To others it means something negative, as in, “He worked his fingers to the bone”. Unlike other articles I’ve penned where I sought to lay out a common working understanding of a word or concept for discussion, this time I choose to leave it up to you the reader about what work is to you.

There’s the distinct possibility that your view of work changes over time. You may see work at one point in your life as something enjoyable, something that gives you purpose. Then it may become a necessary activity to generate money that is then used to build a desired lifestyle. Later it may become a burden; something that must be endured until retirement releases one to enjoy life without the need or compulsion to work. For some, a return to work – full-time or part-time after retirement isn’t about needing the income but needing the inclusion, the mental stimulation, the social connections or the enjoyment of working on one’s terms.

‘Work is work’ others argue; if you’re enjoying what you’re doing you’re not working at all. This is where that saying, “find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” comes from. But to believe this, you must also believe that work necessitates doing things you don’t love; rather things you must do and wouldn’t choose to do otherwise. You’re welcome to hold this view if that’s what it means to you of course.

Yet there are many without work who feel badly. Without work they feel low self-esteem, being dependent on others for the roof over their head, the food on the table, the clothes on their back. I know many who feel this way, and they don’t like the dependence for income, nor do they like what they see as the endless hours spent doing little productive.

On the flip side, I know some who have grown to find the lack of work in their life appealing. They have no qualms about relying on the generosity of others; in fact they count on it. They live simply and are content to have their basic needs in daily living supplied by others via shelters, food banks, charity kitchens, clothing give-a-ways, religious groups, donations and hand outs. Their ‘work’ is defined by exerting the mental energy to find out where to get access to goods and services and their physical energy takes them to these places. They do not seek traditional work as others understand it, only choosing employment if it suits, choosing to quit when it strikes them or when they’ve earned enough for what they want.

There are all kinds of people, with all kinds of views on what it means to work. We run the risk of painting any one group of people as all feeling the same about work don’t we? The capitalists feel this way, the socialists feel that way, those marginalized feel such and such, the ‘working family’ feels this way.’ There is no unified single response for any group that captures the impression of each person in it; and yet we categorize groups of people’s views as similar.

Some work because they need to; not for groceries and the mortgage but because they are driven to work. Work provides purpose, with things to do that give back to the communities that they’ve benefitted from being a part of. While extended time off from traditional work can hold its appeal, often in retirement you’ll hear of or see someone first-hand who has returned to some kind of work to feel useful.

Work then isn’t bad; to be avoided if one can, to be seen as a drudgery or a chore. While it can be extremely physical and straining, it can be rewarding and fulfilling too. And it’s funny how we perceive the work others do as legitimate or not based on our own definition and what our own work entails. One person might look at another and say, “Well, that’s not REAL work. Try doing my job and you’ll see what work means!” To which someone might say, “My work is valid on its own and need not be compared to yours – they’re just varying kinds of work.”

What is work to you? Is it physical labour, mental stimulating, something done out of necessity? Is it a 40 year sentence? Does it define you perhaps? Has it brought you discipline, made you better, consumed your best years, kept you apart from the one you loved or helped you find them?

Work may be your place of escape. That place for 7 hours a day when you feel normal, included, valued and appreciated. It can mean so many things to so many people which is why I ask.

How you see work and how you define it goes a long way to shaping your view. So with it being Monday as I write, time to stop and get to work!

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