Work as a concept escapes easy definition. Conflicting attitudes to work over time mean that different activities or spheres of life have been included and excluded from the definition of ‘work’ during different periods. What we define as ‘work’ has political consequences but also a personal aspect; despite being unable to define it easily, we think we know what work is. It is in fact possible to find a unifying element between different kinds of work: obligation. The idea of an obligation or sense of responsibility—that an activity ought to be done, for whatever reason—is common to all forms of work, even when they are also pleasurable or voluntary. Thinking of work in this way can help explain the tension between the concept of work as painful and work as meaningful. It also suggests that a reduction in paid work due to automation might create the opportunity to define work more broadly.
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