Work Future 2: What is work?

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Work is an institution. An institution is “a significant practice, relationship, or organization in a society or culture1.” Institutions evolve. And the institutional evolution of work is what the Gig.Work project will consider.

Today the institution of work is largely conceptualized as employment. Companies are started and/or grow and workers are hired to do the work. Work is rarely thought of as something that can be reimagined. And only recently has the economic development conversation started to seriously consider the role of non-employment work in our economy. Examples of non-employment have always existed in the ranks of the self-employed, entrepreneurs and artists.

But to reimagine the institution of work, we need to first consider its functions.


  • makes a livelihood (money);
  • produces goods and services for exchange;
  • provides well-being, a sense of participation and health;
  • creates a sense of identity, of role.

Let’s consider how work fulfills these four functions.


The investment of time and effort in exchange for value is the core economic action of the individual. Individuals, whether employees, entrepreneurs or investors, hope for an outcome of their work that provides for their needs and wants. The livelihood function is how most of us internalize work. I work to generate the means to acquire the goods and services I want.

Goods and Services

Work is the most basic input in the production of goods and services (a.k.a. productivity). The opportunity to offer labor to the production process is the one thing that guarantees that people with nothing else to offer—no investment capital nor control of resources—will be able to participate in the market. The goods and services function is how most of us externalize work. That person does work that creates a good or service I need or want.

The combination of the livelihood function with the goods and services function is the essence of the market system. Time and energy are invested with the promise that one will be able to acquire what one needs to live. An important assumption here is that one’s productivity will be valued at a rate that allows one to live well.


Well-being is a role of work that has been greatly under appreciated, but the increasing discussion around the concept of work-life balance demonstrates its emerging importance2. While many are striving to improve work-life balance3, others are throwing the concept out completely4. Regardless, there is newfound energy for understanding how work affects well-being and health, and how well-being and health affect productivity. And beyond the pure economic discussion, the implications of how our work practices affect things as diverse as home life, child-rearing and the environment. The well-being function of work is an underutilized opportunity to improve a range of social systems such as strengthening the sense of community and advancing healthcare and educational outcomes.


The sense of identity that is associated with one’s efforts is immense. A majority of Americans for the past 15+ years have consistently said that their sense of identity is derived from their job5. And one of the few questions that is appropriate to ask when meeting a new person (in nearly every culture) is “What do you do?” or “What is your job?” The identity function of work is still largely overlooked by all parties: people doing the work, people creating the work, and people regulating the work.

In Closing

A practice I would like to introduce in this installment of Gig.Work are thought experiments6. The initial work on this project is exploratory and philosophical. This is intentional because impulsive solutioneering is a symptom of having access to infinite information in the Network Age. Gig.Work intends to open conversion and invite discussion. The smart paths forward are generally found through time and practice. So with that, I close with four questions for further consideration.

  • 2.1 How does your work meet the functions of livelihood, goods and services, well-being, and identity?
  • 2.2 What does work look like that equally values livelihood, goods and services, well-being, and identity?
  • 2.3 What functional alternatives to the current institution of work can we imagine and practice?
  • 2.4 If identity and well-being are functions of work, is work something only humans do? Can machines do work?

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