Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Redefining Work, Again

Work was redefined in the early years of the 20th century, and it may be time to redefine it again.

The old definition of work, from the agricultural and industrial ages, was based on physical toil. If you were lifting and carrying something heavy, such as a bushel of apples, you were working. But if you were lifting and carrying something light, such as a book, you were not working. This definition was carried forward long after it had lost most of its descriptive force so that business leaders could put themselves forward as being exempt from work.

The current meaning of work is focused not on toil, but on status. If you are a worker, if you are on the clock, then you are working, regardless of what you are doing or how easy or hard it is. If you are not on the clock, then you are not working, again regardless of what you are doing. Thus, the exact same actions may be work or not work depending on whether you are on the clock.

To take a very simple example, if you are walking to a conference room for a late afternoon meeting, that’s work. But when the work day is over and you are walking down the street, that’s not work. The quality of walking could be exactly the same, but it’s part of your work, or not, depending on your status as a worker.

This way of distinguishing work based on status made some sense when nearly all of the important actions that led to a business result were done by workers. But that’s much of a distinction any longer. Many important things are the result of the combined efforts of workers, customers, and volunteers, and this is a trend that seems likely to increase going forward. How much sense does it make to call one part of the effort work, while lacking a corresponding word to refer to the other part?

The tight legal framework that surrounds employment won’t be going away anytime soon. If anything, it is getting tighter, with new rules about proof of identity and health insurance set to go into effect over the next few years. With such a clear line drawn around employment, the status associated with employment will continue also. Yet at the same time, the previously tight connections between employment, work, and income are unraveling. We’ve reached a transitional point that calls for a new look at the meaning of work.