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The Disutility of Work

The Disutility of Work

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Why do we work? Just for the money? Or do we also work for other reasons such as the ability to socialise with friends and to use and develop skills? According to recent research, we work simply for the money it brings. When we are at work, our thoughts are on the things we could be doing instead and we long for the time when our work is done. In the language of economics, work is a "disutility" that all of us would prefer to do without. 

This view of work as a painful activity raises certain issues, however. There is no doubt that much work is experienced as a pain, but to classify all work as painful seems to be stretching things a little too far. Did the authors of the above research really experience their work as all toil and trouble? Or were there periods when they enjoyed the challenges thrown up by their work? During such periods, work may well have proved more alluring than leisure.

The idea of work as a disutility has figured not just in economics but also in Christian and Classical thought. The Bible represents work as the punishment for the original sin of Adam. Ancient Greek philosophy sees exemption from physical work as the route to human fulfilment. These views support the idea that work is to be seen and experienced as a purely instrumental activity devoid of intrinsic satisfaction.

In economics, the disutility of work has at least three separate meanings: (1) the pain of work itself (both Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham regarded work as an inherent pain); (2) the opportunity cost of work time (in neoclassical economics, the cost of work (time) is defined in terms of the lost opportunity for leisure time: here, paradoxically, the disutility of work is defined without consideration of work itself – instead, it acts as a proxy for the utility of leisure time); (3) the natural laziness of workers (modern principal-agent theory assumes that workers are effort-averse by nature: this definition of the disutility of work shifts attention away from the nature of work and towards the allegedly faulty genes of workers). Each of these meanings carries different implications, but all assume that workers must be goaded to work by some kind of extrinsic reward.

The point I would make is that work means more to us than just the money it brings. Work can be a source of creative expression and a route to self-realisation. Even where work lacks creativity it can still bring the benefits of social interaction. The problem with seeing work as just a disutility is that it fails to capture the dual-sided nature of work in human life. It misses the worth of work both as a means to an end and an end in itself.

To be sure, work is often endured by workers but this does not reflect anything intrinsic to work as such, rather it reflects on the way that work is organised. To see work as just a disutility is to abstract from the influence of the structure and organisation of work on the way that work is experienced by workers. To see workers as incorrigible “shirkers”, likewise, misses the endogenous roots of work resistance. It also lets employers off the hook by blaming workers for low productivity.  

There is a deeper issue here with regards to the conception of human nature. The portrayal of work as a disutility presents humans as consumers with no interest in work other than as a means to consumption. It misses the needs of humans as producers. The fact that as human beings we have creative capacities that can be met through the activity of work is not recognised. But it is evident from our own life experiences that work can be so much more than just a way to earn a living. Our fear of unemployment stems in part from the loss of opportunity to participate and contribute in work. Our desire to keep working is related in part to non-monetary factors such as the need to be productive and creative. This speaks to the deeper importance of work in human life. It also highlights the necessity to create and widen opportunities for people to experience their work as fulfilling, rather than as just a disutility. If we accept that work is a disutility, we risk creating a counsel of despair that ultimately undermines the case for progressive work reform. 

In sum, work has a profound influence upon the quality of our lives. To reduce work’s importance to a feeling of pain is to miss the fundamental role of work in the fulfilment of our needs both as consumers and producers. The finding that work makes us “unhappy” may be headline-grabbing, but it does not speak to the role that work can and ought to play in human life.


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