It might be helpful to view the word “work” in comparison to the word “job.” The archaic phrase “job of work” suggests that we did not always use these words interchangeably.
Even now, the connotations are different: work has a more direct connection to a productive activity. So work can apply to everything from factory labor to writing a poem. A job, on the other hand, is generally tied to some pay-for-service system. In a job, the terms of employment are usually created by somebody else: an HR department, a federal agency, a boss. But you’re far more free to define work for yourself.
Maybe because of this, work can be satisfying on its own merits. Even something as simple as stacking firewood can give you a sense of accomplishment. But, according to Gallup’s recent State of the American Workplace Report, fully 70% of us are disengaged when doing our jobs.
Maybe because jobs are so often on somebody else’s terms, they don’t match the nature of the work that needs to be done and thereby alienate us from what’s satisfying about working. Things like 8-hour shifts and 40-hour weeks are historical artifacts, the results of a few centuries of industry and labor negotiations. And while these things may to some degree protect workers, they also empower employers to define the value of work.
Something as simple as an hourly wage is another attempt to quantify what is, at heart, unquantifiable: the satisfaction of doing work well, and in a socially relevant way.
And since the job is where our struggles over the value of work take place, finding a way to honor work, as Karl Marx noted many years ago, will be a long and messy struggle indeed.