Why work?

Edited summary of an online talk given by Richard Glover on 17 June 2020

One of my early recollections about the nature of work came from an advertisement for something rather sweet which suggested that consuming one a day “helps you work rest and play”. At the time, this distinction of work being very different to either rest or play was so obvious; we will return to this distinction later on.

We can see results of work almost everywhere. A glance out of the window shows how natural resources have been transformed through human effort to form our material wealth such as houses, cars and fences; even the trees, roses and hedges were planted. Any such effort is certainly work.
But consider the cable carrying the signals for this Zoom talk; all of the technology associated with this represents a sophistication of knowledge which has been the result of years, decades and even centuries of effort. This kind of effort is also work.

Also consider the communities and societies which desire, deliver and enjoy such material wealth and associated services. These are strengthened by institutions, customs, traditions and laws that have been the result of effort; some through law givers and law makers, some through inspiring individuals and some through the collective will of the people. Such collective understanding and its refinement is also the result of work.

Adam Smith started his great work “Wealth of Nations” with the acknowledgement of the prime significance of human effort in the human world.

“The annual labour of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniences of life which it annually consumes…”

So work is not just physical effort, it includes whatever subtle emotional and intellectual resources being directed to the task.


Making a LivingIn the Economics with Justice course, this diagram is used to represent the prime factors giving rise to our human world, land (everything that Mother Nature provides, the whole ecosystem) and work (everything that human beings utilise, physical, intellectual and emotional) in transforming “land” for our benefit.

Produced capital, being the result of “work on land” is secondary, albeit very important.

This diagram highlights “conditions at the point of interaction” to remind us that the prevailing conditions where work meets land can significantly affect the result; consider the effects of ignorance or wisdom, slavery or freedom, monopolies or open markets, war or peace, and so on.

Work is precisely defined in physics as being the product of force (effort) and distance (or time). This probably accords with our experience; in moving an object from A to B, it being heavier and the distance further both increase the work required. This definition is a useful starting point to expand our understanding of work.

Distance is usually associated with a particular direction or purpose; nothing useful arises from a headless running round in circles. Making headway or moving towards a specific goal could be regarded as productive effort.

Effort, as has already been considered, is more than that which results in perspiration; it includes use of intelligence and emotion. We may have experienced the difference between being well served or subjected to dis-service where the same physical effort is being expended; which it is makes all the difference.

Perhaps most important but least apparent is the distinction between work on the world around us, and the work on our inner world. This latter could be a matter of learning a new language or skill, a matter of establishing discipline and practise in preparation of a marathon, or even a matter of spiritual discipline related to surrendering one’s desires.

So from the elementary physics definition we now have work as having purpose, involving everything a human being can utilise of themselves, and including both internal and external aspects.
Not all of these aspects of work appear in the standard measure of a nation’s annual product known as Gross Domestic Product or GDP. What is included in GDP is all of the paid work in a nation which covers a huge range of activities.

In our love of systemisation, occupations are classified at an international level into a list of 9 major categories and hundreds of subcategories. For the UK[1], these major categories are:

  1. managers, directors and senior officials
  2. professional occupations
  3. associate professional and technical
  4. administrative and secretarial
  5. skilled trades
  6. caring, leisure and other service
  7. sales and customer service
  8. process, plant and machine operatives
  9. elementary occupations

There is a general understanding of grades of skill level (1 down to 9) associated with this. The pattern changes with time, and it differs between nations. At any one time and place, a particular skill might be the most important, as Boris Johnson understood whilst being nursed for COVID-19.

This system of classification certainly shows a wide range of human activity, and much of the work that contributes to GDP comes under these categories; but isn’t something missing?

GDP is mainly concerned with paid work, whereas unpaid work is happening all around us. The work associated with our early years is, thankfully, not invoiced. Few of the activities within the family or household are paid for; meal preparation, clothes washing, cleaning and so on. And the voluntary work in communities would be nigh on impossible to replace with professional services.

None of this appears in our national tally of official work, but it is very real. Compilers of the GDP statistic are aware of this and efforts have been made across the world to gain some sense of its extent, even though not directly including it. What are known as satellite accounts are compiled to include many aspects of human activity that would otherwise be missed. Household Satellite Accounts estimate unpaid work in the nation; in 2014 it represented 56% of the GDP; we actually produce 56% more goods and (mainly) services as we had believed. And this tends to be quality work, work that directly makes people’s lives better.

So we have considered aspects of work and types of work; but not all find they are engaged in work. Let us explore some aspects of non-work.

non-workAt the top of the list is “unemployment”, which is carefully categorised by economists into structural, frictional, cyclical, involuntary and classical. Approximately 172 million people (5%) were without a job (but available for work) in the world of 2018 (Wikipedia, Unemployment). Experience of being out of work but wanting to work is very uncomfortable indeed.

“Restriction” is not an official category of non-work; it is included to represent economic “injustice”. Economics without justice allows public benefits to be privately appropriated; the consequences are to restrict opportunities for working or creating a livelihood. This is beyond what can be considered in this talk; it is however a consideration of vital importance and very much the subject of our Economics with Justice classes which you are welcome to join.

“Incapable” of work covers a huge range of conditions which may be physical, emotional or intellectual. This is a difficult area BUT it can be argued that it is aggravated by the “restrictions” being hinted at. Perhaps we can work harder to see how everyone can contribute to society in some way.

“Unwilling” to work could be seen as an individual’s impediment, but maybe that is not the whole story. Again, one aspect of “restriction” is the limited forms of work that are available to people, coupled with the significant challenges of self-employment. One current concern is of AI (Artificial Intelligence) coupled with robotics; will this take the remaining interesting jobs and leave us with even more menial tasks that are too expensive to automate? Work does need to be rewarding. Nevertheless, unwillingness to work can be a significant hindrance. Faced with a task, the initial response may be “I do not want to” for any number of apparent reasons. On occasions, we may have experienced what we may call “a change of heart”.

“Resting”; remember work, rest and play? Stopping all activity for a period gives the body, mind and heart time to settle and bring refreshment. This is a vital aspect of work and we could well practice little moments of ceasing activity, coming to one’s sense, during each day. It is worth a try!

“Effortless” is here to remind us how much work is normally associated with effort. One example that can challenge this view is of rowers practicing on a stretch of river; some definitely are experiencing extreme effort, yet others appear to be at the same speed with little of apparently no effort. We probably all know something of this. Economists have spent centuries trying to measure value of goods in terms of effort or labour required; but what if it was an experience of pure joy or of complete non-effort?

A state of complete non-effort is sometimes experienced by top sports men and women. This can be known as being in the zone or experiencing the flow. Descriptions can be different, but they are common in the sense of being completely uncommon, not anything like our normal sense of effort.

effortless - in the zoneHere is the late great Ayrton Senna’s recollection of his Monaco F1 experience and also of Michael Johnson running. Both worked hard with extreme effort to perfect their art and skill, an aspect of inner-work which will have embrace physical, emotional and mental effort. Every now and then they were graced with an out of the ordinary experience of no-effort.

This talk is “Why Work?”. One answer could be related to motivation. In ordinary circumstances we would probably not even raise an arm without motivation, and motivation itself implies some form of fulfilment at the end of it. When considering motivation, it can help to turn to Maslow’s model.

Why Work -Fulfilment

He continued working on his motivation model throughout his life. After encountering religious and spiritual devotees, Maslow presented this extended version which includes these more subtle aspects of motivation.

We have had the example of the inner and outer effort needed to perfect sporting activity. Something similar may be said to occur with the practice, for example, of mantra meditation. A word is repeated inwardly for a period and the effort is to bring the attention back to the mantra whenever it becomes distracted by memories of today’s activities or perhaps an itchy nose; periods of effortlessness can be the experience.

Continuing with the more spiritual aspects of work, we can explore a wonderful little booklet “Work and its Secret” by Swami Vivekananda with an abstraction and a quotation presented here.

Work and Its SecretThe four aspects described in his book tell us something about work. The means refers to the work which brings about the effect or result; it makes sense to give your attention to the work itself rather than to ideas about the result. Being detached from the results can help refine this attention; however, the attachment referred to is the love for the work which can make all the difference.

The sense of working for the work’s sake rather than for any results for oneself is also expressed here:


But thou hast only the right to work, but none to the fruit thereof.

Let not then the fruit of thy action be thy motive; nor yet be thou enamoured of inaction.

Bhagavad Gita ch2 v47 translated by Shri Purohit Swami


Continuing in this direction of work in the context of a human life, here is an expression of the four aims of a reasonable human being according to Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Material prosperity here is acquired so as to be able to support right living and well-being for all.

As we near the end of this all too brief presentation on Why Work?, we can hear something of what the founder of the School of Philosophy and Economic Science, Leon MacLaren, had to say about Economics.

The first extract presents economics as an essentially human subject. The second extract expands the sense of freedom to live fulfilling lives through a wholesome understanding of economics. Both are taking from his book The Nature of Society.

“Economics is the study of the relationships between human families and individuals living and working together in communities.”

“The object of economics is that people may learn how to live, and to live more fruitfully.”

If economics really is about learning how to live, and to live more fruitfully, then looking around the world it becomes obvious that there really is much work to do. We need a wholesome understanding of principles for economics with justice, and we need to avail it in terms of policies in our nations and practice in our lives. There is definitely some work to be done.

And so we come to the close, and perhaps a wiser reflection on that childhood lesson. Work and be challenging and difficult, but it can also be effortless. Perhaps on occasions we can even experience work as no more than play. Work, Rest and Play may not be so different.