Work, Labour, employment

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· The term ‘work’ in everyday life has a lot of different meanings and is often used without a clear understanding of what is really meant. It becomes even more complicated if the term is translated into different languages.

· The definition of work, therefore, cannot be taken for granted. Work is much more than wage labour or employment. It comprises all determined activities to produce and reproduce goods and services that are required to ‘make a living’ and to sustain livelihoods.

· ‘Work to make a living’ in people’s minds is often reduced to paid employment. However, the process of making a living comprises a broad range of activities such as paid work, informal work, volunteering, domestic work, neighbourhood and self help, etc.

· Unemployment, on the other hand, is more than just the loss of paid work. It results in social exclusion and a loss of active participation in the societal process of production and reproduction.

· Work as a whole can be considered as an anthropological term. That is, the principal condition of human existence when in confrontation with nature and with culture.

· There is sometimes a debate about whether or not ‘work’ has a future and what sort of future it will have. It is likely that the form of work will change. There may be a reduction in paid employment and an increase of different and new forms of work. But there will be nothing like an ‘end of work’.

· Some languages use different forms of work in the same expression (like the German ‘Arbeit’). Others differentiate between ‘work’ and ‘labour’ like in English. In the English language context the term ‘work’ characterises more individual, practical and concrete aspects of the activities: while ‘labour’ is centred around the more societal and abstract side.

· This phenomenon was reflected in economic theory as the double or hybrid character of work as a source of ‘use values’ (the concrete side) on one hand and of ‘exchange values’ (the abstract side in terms of money or profit) on the other.

Historical development of work and employment

· In the modern processes of production (and in particular manufacturing), technological progress and innovation was mainly implemented to reduce the cost of labour. This resulted in an increase in productivity on one hand and a massive loss of workplaces and job opportunities on the other (given the fact that the increase of productivity was not accompanied by a similar expansion of production).

· There was an expectation that the service industry would compensate for the loss of jobs in manufacturing and more traditional industries. This expectation has not been fulfilled and through rationalisation and a perceived need to reduce costs there has also been a loss of jobs in the service industry.

· In the past, capital was much more dependent on the labour force which could influence progress by disrupting the production of goods and services with strikes etc. in order to better the conditions of the workers. However, technological progress has not only increased the so-called ‘reserve army’ of unemployed people that might replace them in the work force, but also created a new army of workers which may never get the chance to be integrated in the work force again.

· Economic growth within a national economy does therefore not guarantee an equivalent growth of employment. This is sometimes called ‘jobless growth’ – and it is often the case that economic growth can only take place to the detriment of jobs. The consequence of this is that paid employment in the private sector in particular is being reduced, not necessarily in numbers of the overall employed, but in terms of the paid volume of working hours.

· It was once thought that through expansion of the service industry, there would be a compensatory increase in employment in the public sector. But this, generally, does not happen - on the contrary, the level of paid employment in the public sector also shrinks. Linked to this is the increase in contracted work being done by those people who are independent and rely on ‘portfolio working’ (eg. freelancers).

· The resultant drop in paid employment in the private and public sectors means that low paid work and precarious labour becomes more common. This puts more people into the marginalised category of what is sometimes referred to as the Three-Third Society of (a) included people (people with work); (b) marginalised people (people with precarious jobs such as contract workers); and (c) excluded people (people outside the system of work).

· This can result in more socially indispensable work is either not done or is marginalised into the shadow economy which covers family supportive work, neighbourhood self help based on mutuality, work through social networks and illegal economic activities.


Birkhölzer, K. (2008): Local Economic Development and its Potential. Berlin: