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.