Work (human activity)

Work or labor (or labour in British English) is intentional activity people perform to support the needs and wants of themselves, others, or a wider community.In the context of economics, work can be viewed as the human activity that contributes (along with other factors of production) towards the goods and services within an economy.

Work is fundamental to all societies, but can vary widely within and between them, from gathering in natural resources by hand, to operating complex technologies that substitute for physical or even mental effort by many human beings. All but the simplest tasks also require specific skills, equipment or tools, and other resources (such as material for manufacturing goods). Cultures and individuals across history have expressed a wide range of attitudes towards work. Outside of any specific process or industry, humanity has developed a variety of institutions for situating work in society.

Besides objective differences, one culture may organize or attach social status to work roles differently from another. Throughout history, work has been intimately connected with other aspects of society and politics, such as power, class, tradition, rights, and privileges. Accordingly, the division of labor is a prominent topic across the social sciences, as both an abstract concept and a characteristic of individual cultures.

Some people have also engaged in critique of work and expressed a wish to abolish it. For example Paul Lafargue in his book The Right to Be Lazy.

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Kinds of work

There are several ways to categorize and compare different kinds of work. In economics, one popular approach is the three-sector model or variations of it. In this view, an economy can be separated into three broad categories:

  • Primary sector, which extracts food, raw materials, and other resources from the environment
  • Secondary sector, which manufactures physical products, refines materials, and provides utilities
  • Tertiary sector, which provides services and helps administer the economy

In complex economies with high specialization, these categories are further subdivided into industries that produce a focused subset of products or services. Some economists also propose additional sectors such as a “knowledge-based” quaternary sector, but this division is neither standardized nor universally accepted.

Another common way of contrasting work roles is ranking them according to a criterion, such as the amount of skill, experience, or seniority associated with a role. The progression from apprentice through journeyman to master craftsman in the skilled trades is one example with a long history and analogues in many cultures.

Societies also commonly rank different work roles by perceived status, but this is more subjective and goes beyond clear progressions within a single industry. Some industries may be seen as more prestigious than others overall, even if they include roles with similar functions. At the same time, a wide swathe of roles across all industries may be afforded more status (e.g. managerial roles) or less (like manual labor) based on characteristics such as a job being low-paid or dirty, dangerous and demeaning.

Other social dynamics, like how labor is compensated, can even exclude meaningful tasks from a society’s conception of work. For example, in modern market-economies where wage labor or piece work predominates, unpaid work may be omitted from economic analysis or even cultural ideas of what qualifies as work.

At a political level, different roles can fall under separate institutions where workers have qualitatively different power or rights. In the extreme, the least powerful members of society may be stigmatized (as in untouchability) or even violently forced (via slavery) into performing the least desirable work. Complementary to this, elites may have exclusive access to the most prestigious work, largely symbolic sinecures, or even a “life of leisure”.

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