What is a Job? What is Work?

On NPR’s Marketplace yesterday, NPR listener Shlomit Auciello offered this profound explanation:

Jobs provide pay and tax revenue, data for the Bureau of Labor Statistics and talking points for political candidates. Work — at least good work — provides needed goods or services, a sense of useful occupation and dignity, and a good night’s sleep at the end of a hard day. When the two come together, it is very good indeed.

This gets at the heart of a very common misunderstanding. Politicians of all stripes obsess about jobs as if the key to improving the human condition were simply to make sure everyone in the world had a job. But what if these jobs provided absolutely no useful goods or services to others? From the perspective of a worker, the point of a job is not simply to have a paycheck; it is to have a paycheck that permits one to buy useful goods and services. Imagine that a government program managed to employ 100 percent of the planet in a completely useless task (digging holes and filling them back up again). Then we would have nothing useful to spend our hard-earned money on and we would have wasted our time.

It is possible for a “job” and “work” to be the same thing. But as Ms. Auciello points out, the two concepts do not always come together.

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