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What is Work?

Our jobs often interrupt our lives, but that’s not such a bad thing as long as we can get some life into the office.

This morning I woke up at 6 a.m. to go to work. I sat on the edge of my hotel room bed and thought about my oldest son. It’s his birthday. He’s turning 9. I’ll call him later and give him good wishes. Then this weekend, when I’m back home, we’ll go for pizza—a late celebratory dinner. Work interrupts life, but I can try to make up for it. I can place a daddy-son Saturday afternoon on the life side of the scales as a counterweight to my business trip.

Not everyone has the opportunity to balance work and life. I have a friend who’s been looking for a job since he was laid off by a textbook publisher two years ago. The unemployment checks ran out months ago and now he’s working construction here and there, savings gone, trying to imagine a future that lasts past the next month’s rent. Work interrupts life for him too, but work is diminishing and the weight of life is beginning to overwhelm the scales.   

Is work just a job? If so, what is work in the context of things that aren’t part of our job? These are not idle questions nowadays, nor are they new. We’ve been trying to understand work for centuries, though I would argue that work versus life has only been contentious since the start of the industrial revolution in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Before mass production, before factories, the creation of goods and services was skill-based, and the skills were passed down through generations, as were the shops and stores out of which they were sold. As soon as people began leaving home to go to work for customers they didn’t know—that’s when the existential questions about life started.

Two hundred years later, the conundrum of work-life balance hasn't been solved—and as of late it's only gotten harder. With unemployment rates at their highest levels in decades, the notion of “job security” borders on the mythological. According to a recent poll by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average time people stay at one job is three to five years. The 25-year one-job career is a relic. This puts an even greater emphasis on work.

And yet, the dynamic of work in the year 2010 is much different. One could say that the tools we have now have allowed us to go back home to work, where we can at least work alongside our partners and spouses and children, even if we can’t give them 100 percent of our attention. A business trip is in some ways a refreshing reminder of the separation of work and life—you are literally removed from your daily life—but the fact is, work and life aren’t really separated at all. I regularly check emails on my phone at midnight or on Sunday morning. I often sit down at my computer after putting the kids to bed and doing the dinner dishes.

So what is work now? It’s more than the job. Work is life. We work at life. If we’re lucky, we try to shape our jobs to fit our lives.

As it turns out, the more engaged you are at work, the more satisfaction you have in life, lending more credence to the adage “do what you love.” A recent Gallup study found that there are three types of workers: engaged, not-engaged, and actively disengaged. When asked if they had gotten the things in life that were important to them, more than half of engaged workers said they had while only 9 percent of actively disengaged workers said they had. Happiness, too, is tightly intertwined with work when it comes to figuring out how to get satisfaction from life. Eighty percent of engaged workers said they felt happy at work compared to 10 percent of actively disengaged workers. (Note to employers: the happier a person is at work the more productive they are.)

Happiness is something we all want, but “how to be happy,” it would seem, is a set of guidelines that should be too subjective to commoditize or measure. Not so. “Happiness economists,” psychologists, and sociologists have been quantifying happiness for years (having been inspired by the king of Bhutan, who established a gross national happiness index for his country in the 1970s). As it turns out, most people agree that having the ability to engage in local politics or to have enough money to meet basic needs and feel secure correlates to satisfaction. More spare time also equals more happiness. Longer life expectancies are a good thing. Some have found increased well-being relates to a healthy environment. What’s clear in all the happiness-index models is that the more control we have over our lives and our environments, the happier we are.

And yet, we still have to go to work. I would be remiss to overlook the fact that most people have to take what they can get to pay the bills. For many, work will never define their lives or their happiness. Work may be something altogether unremarkable in relation to life. It may continue to be just work, nothing more and nothing less—just one part of life.

In his latest book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, the British philosopher Alain de Botton writes that “Our work will at least have distracted us, it will have provided a perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes for perfection, it will have focused our immeasurable anxieties on a few relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have made us respectably tired, it will have put food on the table. It will have kept us out of greater trouble.”

For that we can at least be satisfied, if not altogether overjoyed.

"Shirt and Tie Permutations" illustration by Stephen M. Johnson.

Sam is the director of publishing for frog where he oversees frog's global content, editorial, and digital publishing strategy. He is also the editor of design mind, frog's print and online media platform. Sam is the author of numerous books of non fiction and has written for Dwell, Metropolis, GOOD, and other magazines.