Work, What Is It?
Essay title: Work, What Is It?
Work—What Is It?
Al Gini
Al Gini is a professor of philosophy at Loyola University of Chicago, a contributor to Chicago Public Radio, and associate editor of Business Ethics Quarterly. In this excerpt from his book My Job My Self, Gini explores the meaning of work in our society.

You can’t eat for eight hours a day, nor drink for eight hours a day—all you can do for eight hours is work. Which is the reason man makes himself and everybody so miserable and unhappy!

—William Faulkner
In perhaps the most poetic phrasing I have ever come across on the topic of work, Pope Pius XI said, “Man is born to labor, as a bird to fly.”1 More parochially, sociologist Peter Berger wrote “to be human and to work appear as inextricably intertwined notions.”2 The first sounds like a gift and a blessing; the other more like a report and a curse. The truth of the matter, I think, lies somewhere in between.

For most of us, working is an entirely nondiscretionary activity, an inescapable fact of existence. In its worst light, work is seen as something evil, a punishment, the grindingly inevitable burden of toil bestowed, along with mortality, upon the human condition. At best, work looms so large and problematic in our lives that we either take it for granted or we actively suppress its full significance.

In fact, none of us is neutral and completely silent on the topic of work. Everyone has an opinion. The reason is simple. Work, food, and sex are the most commonly shared behavioral activities of adult life. While the latter two are subject to aesthetic taste and availability and therefore constitute a discretionary choice, work, for 99 percent of us, is an entirely nondiscretionary matter. Most of us must work. What other option do we have?

As adults there is nothing that more preoccupies our lives than work. From the ages of approximately eighteen to seventy we will spend our lives working. We will not spend as much time sleeping, enjoying our families, eating, or recreating and resting as much as we will working. Whether we love our work or hate it, succeed in it or fail, achieve fame or infamy through it, like Sisyphus we are all condemned to push and chase that thing we call our job, our career, our work all of our days. “Even those of us who desperately don’t want to work,” wrote Ogden Nash, “must work in order to earn enough money so that they won’t have to work anymore.” So, work we must. And maybe if we’re lucky, a Voltaire pointed out, our work will keep us from the jaws of three great evils—boredom, vice, and poverty. But only maybe.

Because work, like time, is so much a part of our lived experience, a universally acceptable definition of work is difficult to formulate. Matthew Fox, in The Reinvention of Work, offers us a rather profound interpretation of our labor:

Work comes from inside out; work is the expression of our soul, our inner being. It is unique to the individual, it is creative. Work [is also] an expression of the Spirit at work in the world through us. Work is that which puts us in touch with others, not so much at the level of personal interaction, but at the level of service in the community.3

The curmudgeonly philosopher Bertrand Russell defined it this way:
Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relative to other matter; second, telling other people to do so. This first kind is unpleasant and ill-paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.4

While both of these observations correlate with the respective comments of Pope Pius XI and Peter Berger, neither of them offers us sufficient insight into the phenomenon. Both definitions are loaded and carry with them a whole series of subjective presuppositions about the nature of work. What is needed is a more commonsense look at what we mean by the word work itself.

In its most general and benign sense work can be defined as any activity we need or want to do in order to achieve the basic requirements of life or to maintain a certain lifestyle. Essayist Terry Sullivan argues that the central feature of any and all forms of work is compulsion or desire. Work is something we either have to do or want to do. Some forms of work can combine both of these core ingredients, and others possess only one of them. For example, many people would say that work is something, anything, they do for money, because, at a very basic level, they need money. Hence, when they are paid to do something, they generally feel permitted to call that work. This correlation of trading labor for dollars as a defining principle of work holds true

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Meaning Of Work And Work. (April 7, 2021). Retrieved from