What is work and is it good?

I’ve struggled over the past few years with a number of related questions:

  • What do people mean by work?
  • What, in that definition of work, is (socially) positive?  What in that definition is negative?
  • What should we be encouraging?  What should be discouraging?
  • Should be seeking to define work as something to be encouraged, or something to be discouraged?
  • Do we need a new word to describe the thing we want to encourage, or the thing we want to discourage?

The Oxford dictionary gives me a primary definition of work: “activity involving a mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a result”.  I’m happy with that definition, though I note the open-ended nature of “result”.

I believe that work (defined this way) is socially positive and should be encouraged, if (and only if) the achieved results are socially positive, relative to alternatives.

In other words, I think it is dangerous to promote work without considering the results (to you and to society, now and in the future).  And money being created isn’t a result – you need to consider whether it will be used positively or negatives.

And I don’t consider work positive, even if its result is positive, if there was a more positive alternative.  For example, if caring for a child or parent produced a more positive result (eg better relationships), we shouldn’t support taking a job with a less positive result.  If a job drains you, leaving you unable to do better work, that isn’t good.

There are some common additional assumptions about work:  the result must be money; there must be an employer; you must do it during specified hours and in a specified place; it must be unenjoyable.  I appreciate that for many people, these will be the case.  But these aren’t essential to work.

So, there is such a thing as good (socially positive) work, and bad work.

Unfortunately, when some people think of work, they assume the good sense, while others assume the bad sense.  And they each ignore the other kind.  This makes it very difficult to create a common vision of what we want going forward.

Are there words that we can use when we want to unambiguously refer to what I’m considering socially good or bad work?  Or do I need to make a point of always preceding the word work with one of good or bad?


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