Housekeeping, 10/5/2009

Work? What kind of work is this work?
(Richard Foreman, Catastrophic Conversations with Mr. X)

There are plenty of tactful ways to say “I’m unemployed.” At the time of this writing, the unemployment rate in America is 9.8%. That’s a lot of people, which means that “I’m unemployed” is going to become a lot more common. Acceptable, even. After all, it’s not your fault you got laid off. It’s just the way things are.

But there is an edge in this kind of unemployment: what do you do with your free time? Look for new jobs? Finish the grout-work in the bathroom? Eat ice cream and watch the news all day? It seems like the temporarily non-working worker still does “work” during this time. However, this “work” is distinct from a “job” for several reasons:

  1. it’s unpaid
  2. it occurs in the home
  3. it accrues value from the time put into it, not the market receiving it

For example, a man who has worked for 15 years at a chainsaw factory gets laid off. He goes home, mopes for a few weeks, and then decides to pursue his passion. He begins creating massive, totemic carvings, using his chainsaw to sculpt uncured wood. He works tirelessly on his art, longer hours than he ever put in at the factory. Nobody will buy these things. They’re ridiculous-looking, crude, and difficult to ship. The art has no market value, because nobody will pay for them—and the buyer certainly wouldn’t pay what the carvings are worth.

If the man worked on a piece for 100 hours, and applied his usual factory wage, he’d probably set the price at around $1800. (That’s for bare labor, without material costs, medical benefits or half-hour lunch breaks included.) If the other aspects of creating the piece are included, at least another zero can be appended to the price tag. If the man holding the chainsaw is named Henry Moore, yet another zero.

But the man has never been to college, you could argue. He hasn’t studied art. He doesn’t have an MFA. He can’t name any of the great sculptors, nor could he describe his influences. He works in his backyard, not in a studio. The chainsaw carvings are folk art, not “high art.” It’s practically a hobby.

Does that matter? Should it?

Take a different scenario. A woman works ten hours a day in the home. She cleans, sews, shops for groceries, prepares meals, and does at least eight hours of childcare. She does not leave her home unless it’s to run an errand, or maybe meet another mother for a playdate and coffee. The woman does not have an insurance plan, except as her husband’s dependent. She has no income of her own, unless she has personal investments or runs a small-scale business. She does at least five different kinds of tasks every day, often multitasking to save time. Hiring a professional to do the work she does would be astronomically expensive—but the woman is not paid. In fact, when her husband comes home from his white-collar job, the house looks very much the same as it did when he left that morning.

Does that mean her work has no value?

If there is no money that changes hands for this non-work, what is the reward? There’s no paycheck, no benefits, no boss giving you a pat on the back. So is fulfillment derived from the creative process, the knowledge that you did a good job? We do it every day (it holds the world together). What kind of work is this work? (CRF)

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