“If you’re old enough to read this,” wrote the great blue-collar poet Philip Levine in 1990, “you know what work is.” What could be more obvious and more concrete than work? It’s your cubicle, your backache, your boss. Good or bad, it needs little explanation. Even to talk about it too much off the clock is to be a bore. It’s just there. Per the infamous American small-talk formulation, it’s simply what one does.
Over recent years, however, the definition of work has become more complicated, as a host of debates have flared up around it. What kinds of activity deserve recognition and reward, and what kinds do not? Which forms of labor create value, and which ones absorb it? Socialist feminists have long insisted that housework is work and should be paid, and a new generation of feminists have extended this insight: When women are expected to console and cheerlead in everyday life, isn’t this a kind of unpaid work? It’s certainly draining. The logic of this argument, in turn, travels from informal caregiving to the official caring industries: Why is it a teacher’s job to buy supplies for her students, instead of the responsibility of the employer? And why must a nurse exhaust herself on the job to make up for corner-cutting management decisions?
Nor are the only contested categories of work related to care labor. One finds such arguments across American society. Interns still labor in a gray zone of quasi-volunteer traineeship as much as employment. Universities claim that graduate students don’t do work, while a burgeoning campus union movement declares otherwise. Uber insists that its drivers are small-business people, not employees, as do 10 to 20 percent of other employers in America. Environmentalists call for recognition of the “services” provided by the ecosystem; some even argue that we need to acknowledge what political theorist Alyssa Battistoni calls the “work of nature.”
Naming an activity as work gives it standing. Through work, we gain entry into the powers of citizenship, the ability to participate in democratic life as valued, autonomous, and self-determining beings; recognized labor brings us into collective life. The question of what counts as work is therefore not a technical issue, but a question of who is valued, who bears rights, and who must be heard. It is, in this sense, ineluctably a political question and a question of power. Far from being determined by the market alone, the mutating definition of work tracks long-term historical changes and political struggles. If it’s difficult to maintain this perspective about our jobs as we go about them, it’s because work so often seems to be the same thing hour after hour, shift after shift, year after year: another day, another dollar. But in a larger historical context, it becomes possible to discern the constant churn in both work itself and our ideas about it.