What Is Work?

In a broad sense, work is the effort that goes into achieving an outcome, or the action of doing this effort. It can refer to a variety of activities, from the mundane (like answering the phone or baking bread) to the heroic (like saving someone’s life). It also can mean the effort and persistence required to achieve success in a particular endeavor, such as learning an instrument or becoming an Olympic ice skater. It can even be applied to a particular activity in the context of parenting: if your child wants to be an Olympic ice skater, you’re going to have to do some serious work to get there.

The word work has a specific scientific meaning as well: it’s the transfer of energy, either into or from an object or system. In physics, the SI unit of work is the joule, named after 19th-century English physicist James Prescott Joule. The work done by a force on a displacement is equal to the product of the force strength and the displacement. The relative direction of the force and displacement determines whether the work is positive, negative, or zero.

Work is a critical part of our lives, and it can have a profound impact on who we are. It can help us develop skills, grow in confidence and wisdom, build relationships, and contribute to our community. It can help to fulfill our personal ambitions and provide a sense of purpose, identity, and belonging. It can also provide financial security and a means to pursue our passions. Depending on how it is valued in society, work can have both positive and negative impacts on individuals, families, communities, and the economy.

While many of these benefits of work are widely acknowledged, few seem to question how we define “work.” Too often, conversations about the future of work focus on re-envisioning existing structures and practices, and return to executing them in routine fashion. A more expansive vision of the future of work would include identifying and solving unidentified challenges/opportunities, and continually creating more value to internal and external customers, employees, and other stakeholders.

Historically, societies and subcultures have valued work differently. Hunter-gatherer groups varied their work intensity based on the availability of food and other resources, and agriculture introduced more sustained efforts over longer periods. In modern times, different societies have created hierarchies of status and virtue that assign qualitatively different levels of esteem to certain types of work. In some cases, the least powerful members of a society may be stigmatized and even violently forced into doing the most menial tasks, while the most elite members enjoy largely symbolic sinecures that are considered to be “work.” Regardless of the type of work involved, all work involves some degree of physical and mental effort. So, when was the last time you did some actual work?