There are only two kinds of work

I recently read a 1932 essay by the philosopher Bertrand Russell called “In Praise of Idleness”. Basically he is arguing that as we become more efficient and productive workers we should be working less and less.

His argument (although he doesn’t make it this clear) is that when we become more efficient workers we have two choices:

  1. Work the same hours and produce more;
  2. Work fewer hours and produce the same amount.

Russell argues that we shouldn’t be obsessed with growth, and should rather take more time for leisure. Not really a sustainable idea because there would always be incentives more people to produce more while others settle for the same. And as Jack Sparrow told us – when there are incentives people will take them.

My favorite part of the essay however is pretty cool. Mr Russell says that there are only two types of work:

  1. Altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface;
  2. Telling other people to do so.

He goes on to say that the second group can be indefinitely expanded – “there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given.” Very cool way of looking at things – and largely true.

  • Gail

    I tend to disagree with Mr Bertrand, as I think that his argument has a sell-by date. There are many jobs that have developed in recent years that do not have tangible outputs and do not involve management or instruction. How about intellectual services such as research, development or communication? And where does entertainment fit in?

  • Alistair

    His answer in general is that these people are “giving advice as to what orders should be given.”

    However, I think that your point about those in entertainment is good. Although perhaps their’s cannot be defined as work! :)

  • Jules

    Work is for the birds.