Friday, May 24, 2013

The Philosophy of Work

Lately I've been thinking a lot more about the concept of "work." It's one of those human activities that most of us just do, without thinking very deeply about it. Let's see if we can plumb the depths of work...just a bit.

There are several related concepts that conspire to shape our beliefs about work. Perhaps the most obvious is our distinction between "work" and "leisure." At it's most basic level "leisure" is understood to be something pleasurable that takes place independent of work; with perhaps the unspoken connotation that work is not necessarily pleasurable. For most of us in the U.S.,  the standard work week is about 40 hours, or 8 hours a day (9-5), five days a week. Leisure activity usually takes place after 5 PM, M-F, weekends, holidays, vacations, and after retirement. We also distinguish between different kinds of work; most notably based on how dirty we get at work. Hence the longstanding disinction between "blue collar" and "white collar" work. Blue collar work (or work where your clothes get dirty) is usually compensated on an hourly basis, while "white collar" work is often paid via a set "salary." As a general rule, "white collar" workers tend to earn more than "blue collar workers, but not necessarily. There are two hidden assumptions here that most of us accept without much thought: 1.) the more hours you expend at work, the fewer hours you can expend on leisure; and, 2.) the less you earn at work, the less money you can afford to spend on products, services and leisure activity. Given the amount of time that we expend "at work," our "co-workers" tend to play an increasingly important role in our lives. Most of our closest "friends" work with us, and more often than not we "date" and/or "marry" people we meet at work.

Compensation in the U.S. is comprised of both wages and benefits. (Some employers also give out honorary prizes such "certificates of merit.") The total amount of compensation that workers receive, is invisibly shaped government policies; especially tax policies (which tax different kinds of work at different rates) retirement savings (Social Security), health care (Emploment-Based), and a mountain of regulations that control what can and cannot be done under the auspices of "work." Some kinds of work require a license or a "degree" from a governmentally "accredited" educational institution: high school, undergraduate, and graduate. We also distinguish work that produces products and work that provides services. Some kinds of work require previous experience. As a general rule, the more education and experience that is required for any work, the higher the level of compensation....but not necessarily. There is also the unspoken assumption that the "harder you work," and the "better you work" the more your employer will "reward you" in terms of promotion, higher wages, better benefits, and/or personal or public praise.

Now here's where the philosophy of work enters in! In the U.S., our personal identity (who we are) is based largely on what we do at work. When we meet someone, one of the first questions in  conversation is usually: "What do you do for a living?" What's interesting here is that although it's socially acceptable (even obligatory) to ask a stranger "what do you do," it is NOT acceptable to ask: "How much do you make?" Nor is it acceptable to volunteer that information. "Hi! my name is Ron White, I earn $100,000. a year? (I wish...) Yet, most of us unconsciously base our "self-worth" on what we do, who we work for, and how much we earn. Some work carries with it a positive connotation:"I am a doctor." Some negative: "I am an auditor for the IRS." Or. "I am a used car salesman." Some work carries a mixed connotation: "I am a professional musician."

In the U.S. one's "self worth" is seriously undermined by the admission: "I am currently 'out-of-work' or "unemployed." But why? I think there are three unspoken variables here. First, if you are "out of work" others unconsciously conclude that you are either: lazy, living on welfare, or uneducated. Second, if you are "out of work," you lack income and therefore can't afford buy the kinds of things that impress other Americans like a new car, big house, or an expensive vacation. And third, if you're "out of work" other Americans equate being "out-of-work" with being "on vacation," and therefore, out of sheer jealousy, they assume that that your days are spent in undeserved-leisure. "Gee, I wish I could stay at home all day and watch television too.! But I've gotta go to work!"

As a philosopher, I'm certainly well aware of these hidden dimensions of work, therefore, I try to look objectively at how I ought to spend the limited time I have left on this earth. (I'm 62 years old.) The basic question for me is how much time should I expend at work? As a tenured, salaried "professor" I have a lot more control over how much time and energy I spend at work. However, like other Americans I feel trapped by the cultural-assumption that I ought to work more, not less. As an older (experienced) teacher-scholar, there is the added fact that I'm currently "at the top of my game." Therefore,  since I'm finally a "good teacher" I ought to teach more; and/or, since I'm finally a "good scholar," I ought to write and publish more, participate in more scholarly meetings. On the other hand, I'd really like to spend more time, energy, and resources with my wife and kids, playing guitar, and sleeping out back by the pool. So how should I go about rationing the last few years (hopefully 20 years?) between work, family, and leisure? Although I still enjoy the "teaching" aspect of my work, the "culture of teaching" has changed to the point where I spend more time doing things unrelated to teaching, such as complying with unrelated mandates.  (My book orders for Spring 2013 are now past due.) I also spend more time complying with mandates associated with "assessment" of teaching and learning. Moreover, although I still enjoy the thrill of getting something published, I already have about 100 publications (of various kinds). Given that I am already at the top of my salary scale, there's no longer a "reward" for excellent teaching or scholarship. Thus, most of my motivation to excel at teaching and scholarship is internal rather than external.

So how have I been doing, recently, in reallocating my time, energy, and resources? Well, I'm working on (hopefully) my last journal article, but I also scheduled two scholarly presentations for next fall, and I agreed to be the program director for another national conference. I also have a book review due next week. Overall, I'd conclude that, for me at least, it's a lot easier to think about untangling my self-identity from "work" than it is to actually do it.                               


Unknown said...

I feel that with the technological advances we have in today's society and the idea that people have of always wanting "bigger and better" work is immensely effected by this. This relates to your reflection of the challenge between leisure and work because I think a lot of people struggle with how much work plays into their leisure time and what work is really worth putting effort towards.

Morgan Vincent said...

I think it is rather interesting that we tend to value ourselves or others based on how much work they do and what kind of work we do. It is a rather sad statement about the values of our society that we consider what the person does more then who the person is. We spend so much time and energy on assessing how much work we are doing and what the quality of our output is that we lose sight of what our end goal is working actually is. For example with teachers, so much energy is put into meeting state requirements and proving that we are actually doing our job that we have less and less time to actually teach our students.

Lynn Miller said...

"Self-worth" and its association with what we do (i.e. work) is a learned response. We learn the value of the reward program from our parents, from our educators, and even from our peers. The value we place on ourselves and the lives of others shouldn't be based on what type of work we do, or how many toys we can accumulate before we die. After all, is this how we really want to be remembered? Shouldn't community and how we as an individual can provide value in our community be a better indicator of "self-worth?" The jobs we do does have an impact on community, but our leisure time does to. Balance is a necessity. I think you must feel accomplished in one aspect (i.e. work), before you can recognize the value of the other. As I grow older, I am recognizing more value in the leisure time I have with others than I am finding with work.

Unknown said...

From the time we are toddlers and our mom is telling us to pick up toys we learn what work is.(Granted as we get older we learn the dynamics of money and more responsibility)
We know that in order to survive we have to work. I really think this article makes one think, just how American's in general view working. We work our entire lives to get to the end where we have to make decisions on if we ant to work anymore or spend time with our families. It's not an easy option by any means I would guess. I agree with you when you say we think we have something to prove, we all want to have the best things and the big houses. It comes at a price, and I see living within comfortable standards being the prize. Living outside of ones means to fit in is not being smart, and will cause the person to work harder, not smarter. -Brandi Bryant

Unknown said...

I never thought about how true it is that in the United States we base a lot of our worth on what we do. It makes it seem like our jobs are the most important things in our lives. Yes, it is very rewarding to have a white collared job and to make a high paying salary, however it is more rewarding to spend time with your family or do what you want to do. A lot of people do struggle with a leisure and work balance, especially when it means paying the bills. I think that it depends on where you are in your life. If you are just graduating college and are paying off student loans or are looking to buy a house, then the job would have to outweigh the leisure. If you are at an age where you are well off with money and you are wondering how much time you have left to live, I think you should enjoy time for yourself more. This article really made me think about how my future job might determine how much I actually get to enjoy my life.


I think this is in interesting article.It's very interesting how we determine self worth by the occupations that we hold or don't hold.I also think that some work is appreciated more than others for example teachers have one of the most important jobs but,athletes are paid a fortune just to entertain.What about the people who work in various ways illegally? Even though hard work is associated with being successful. I think that we shouldn't have to work so much we should be able to have more leisure time especially since our days are numbered.

Unknown said...

Not only is the question, "What do you do for a living?" one of the first ones asked in adult conversation, but it is also frequently asked when we are younger in future tense: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" From the time we begin school, we are asked this question and I feel as though people base a lot about us off of our answer to this question. School itself has a primary purpose of preparing us with knowledge for our future careers, from the time we begin, which for most people is around the age of 5. I've never really thought about it in this way and it is quite crazy now that I'm taking the time to think about it. We really do base a lot of our self-worth on what we do; therefore, our jobs seem as though they are our top priorities in life. Making and having money is always a positive aspect of working; however, we must always remember what it is we are working for, which in most cases is usually a family to support and house to live in. Love is one thing you cannot buy so don't forget to spend your time around the people and things that do, and will always, matter the most in your life.

Unknown said...

I really liked this article. Most peoples views on life is that we go to school to get an education. Once we get our basic education, we move on to college to be educated specifically on a subject that we want to dedicate our work to. Once we graduate with a degree, we find a job that will utilize the skills we spent time in college polishing and getting ready to use in the real world. We become the "newbies" the the job and begin working our way up in the field. Once we have established our position and have worked for so many years, we all look forward to retirement and taking time to spend with family and doing the things we love to do. This article opened my eyes to an angle I hadn't really considered. The idea that as we get older and more skilled, we should work more rather than less. Our wisdom and skills that have been improved upon should not cease just because we are at the retirement age. Although I still look forward to the day that I can retire, I don't see myself as being someone who is ok not working at all. I look forward to continuing to pass on my knowledge and skills (even if it is in the smallest form). If I can reach once person, that is enough for me. I also believe that our "self-worth" should not be based on what we do but rather who we are as a person. Take a doctor for example. There are those doctors who are personable, caring and truly want to be a part of their patients care. Then there are those doctors who don't want long patient interactions and just want to basically work alone and tell others what should be done. If I had to choose, the doctor who truly cares for the patient has more self-worth because he/she is putting others above themselves. I believe that working for the common good and helping others will show a persons true worth and value.