In the NYT Sunday Review yesterday, a piece by Craig Lambert, “Our Unpaid, Extra Shadow Work”, in which the question of what counts as work is central; this is a matter of both categorization and labeling. The beginning of Lambert’s piece:

The other night at the supermarket I saw a partner at a downtown law firm working as a grocery checker, scanning bar codes. I’m sure she earns at least $300,000 per year. Even so, she was scanning and bagging her purchases in the self-service checkout line. For those with small orders, this might save time spent waiting in slower lines. Nonetheless, she was performing the unskilled, entry-level jobs of supermarket checker and bagger free of charge.

This is “shadow work,” a term coined 30 years ago by the Austrian philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich, in his 1981 book of that title. For Dr. Illich, shadow work was all the unpaid labor — including, for example, housework — done in a wage-based economy.

Lambert gives more examples of shadow work, including this one, and stresses the economic point:

… The conventional wisdom is that America has become a “service economy,” but actually, in many sectors, “service” is disappearing. There was a time when a gas station attendant would routinely fill your tank and even check your oil and clean your windshield and rear window without charge, then settle your bill. Today, all those jobs have been transferred to the customer: we pump our own gas, squeegee our own windshield, and pay our own bill by swiping a credit card. Where customers once received service from the service station, they now provide “self-service” — a synonym for “no service.” Technology enables this sleight of hand, which lets gas stations cut their payrolls, having co-opted their patrons into doing these jobs without pay.

Examples abound, helping drive unemployment rates.

Categorization is at issue here: we see certain activities (in particular, those done for pay) as belonging to one category and others as belonging to other categories: for instance, necessary activities done without pay (“shadow work”), activities engaged in for self-improvement, and activities engaged in for pleasure (“leisure” — recreation, play, hobbies, etc.). Correspondingly, the word work has become specialized over centuries to focus more and more on paid activities.

This development can be seen in OED2, in the sequence from sense 1 —

Something that is or was done; what a person does or did; an act, deed, proceeding, business ..

through sense 2 —

Something to be done, or something to do; what a person (or thing) has or had to do; occupation, employment, business, task, function.

to sense 4 —

Action involving effort or exertion directed to a definite end, esp. as a means of gaining one’s livelihood; labour, toil; (one’s) regular occupation or employment.

These senses continue to co-exist, and in any case the OED admits that they overlap. Still, in the law and in administrative practices, the distinction between work and other activities is often significant.

A small example. I am not employed; I retired from Ohio State some time ago, and have been off the Stanford payroll for a while, and did not earn much from Stanford for a while before that. My accountant tells me that as a result of my low income from scholarship, writing, and teaching, the Internal Revenue Service considers these activities of mine as, in effect, a hobby and not work, so that the associated expenses (for office equipment and supplies, including my computers; for travel to and expenses at conferences; for book purchases and journal subscriptions; for memberships in learned societies; and so on) cannot be deducted, to any degree, on my income tax.

I work, in one sense, a great deal, but it’s all shadow work — not real work.



2 Responses to “work”

  1. mae Says:

    Have you considered changing to a different accountant?

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Alon Lischinsky on Google+ on November 24:

    Arnold Zwicky on the semantics of ‘work’, and their economic and social consequences. If one were to rework Raymond Williams’ Keywords using corpus evidence, this would be a good place to start.

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