We need to rethink how we discuss work and labor. It is all too common to only associate the word work with an activity you must do to receive pay. It allows us to talk about wages in terms of hours worked or unemployment and those not working, but I think it fails when it comes down to describing the actions of individuals. We can't describe the work of a mother caring for a child, the work of a student in studying her subject or the extra work of someone meeting racially-biased dress codes.
Work, I believe, should be defined as: an activity that we would not be doing except to avoid a cost, or receive some externally-granted benefit. In other words: setting aside society and the workplace, would we really be doing that activity?
Take, as a relatively uncontroversial first example, commuting: were it not for your obligation to your work, and those who depend on you at work, would you voluntarily get in your car and sit in traffic for thirty minutes? I think the answer for almost anyone would be: "No." While it is often the case that people naturally consider this "part of their job", when we are considering someone's wage we rarely hear of a calculation of their commuting time. To me, this is uncounted work, I think most would agree with me here.
Yet in the popular discourse, if I was hired to teach for "$15 per hour" and needed to travel 30 minutes each-way to each hour-long session, the immediate thought isn't: "Well, clearly, he's being paid $7.50 per hour." The worker is expected to take this extra work with a smile, happy to be employed, and deal with it. Now, this isn't a huge problem in and of itself, but these small amounts of uncounted work begin to add up, and with no proper form of measurement, are excluded from most analysis.
As a second example, and one that will resonate with some more than others: getting "dressed up" or "putting on makeup", or more generally "looking presentable." While some dress the same at work as at home, I think many spend a non-insignificant amount of time and money (an obstacle to many of our nation's homeless) to merely look the part for their employer. This is not time, money or energy one would be expending in a vacuum. Yet again, to me, this is work. While not the main focus of this post, I think we can start to see glimpses of systematic inequalities already, when we account for how much work "looking presentable" is, and how the standard is tilted to favor some over others (see: numerous ways natural black hairstyles are considered unacceptable).
[The work of "looking presentable" does not include, of course, time and energy to improve one's own appearance purely for the sake of their own self-esteem or confidence. That is something one is doing for themselves and their own enjoyment.]
The essence of this whole thought stemmed from a conversation with a friend who said (as I recall) that he enjoyed raking the leaves outside his house. While he was not being paid to rake, I was convinced he could still doing work. To me he could have merely been fulfilling an obligation that society has placed on him to keep his house, and its perimeter, tidy. In my eyes the vital question was: if no one but he could see the leaves on his lawn, would he still rake? If the answer is "yes" then he is just a man who likes raking, if the answer is "no" then he is doing unpaid work, for the benefit of society and his relations with it.
Below, I have included a silly, arbitrary chart illustrating the hypothetical utility (a fancy word designed to keep economists employed, basically: "happiness points") of raking. In this example the person dislikes the activity, receives no pay, but still does the raking because fulfilling society's expectations carries enough of a weight to push the total positive (assuming the alternative, doing nothing, receives a utility of 0).
In this basic framework, if your personal utility is negative for the given activity, you are doing work. Whether or not you actually do that work is dependent on whether society's influence and wages give an adequate enough compensation to outweigh your personal disutility for the activity.
Why though, does any of this matter to anyone?
The problem is that economists and people in the popular discourse will often implicitly consider anyone who is not receiving a paycheck from an employer in the classic fashion to be not working. When a parent cares for a child, it is work by my definition, but not included in GDP or the employment rate. Statistics indicate that no production is going on. However, if a baby-sitter was paid to fulfill all the same duties, suddenly the light goes off and that activity is now officially work and something is being produced. Thus while pursuing ways to expand the economy or increase GDP, we systematically encourage the latter, and discourage the former, which is not necessarily something we want to be doing.
Another problem that results from our poor definition of work (written about in far more detail by feminist economists) is that the work that is left unrecorded is done in disproportionate amounts by women. Care work, maintenance and "keeping up appearances" work is done without pay by many women in their own homes and for their own families (and in terms of our diagram, society & family pressure create utility to overcome the cost to personal utility, so the work is done without pay). To properly acknowledge this production, this work, is not only important to give credit where it's due, but to make more holistic economic decisions.
This is not to say the solution is to envelope more and more work into the standard capitalist economy, and thus record it more formally.
There are perfectly valid reasons that work done to satisfy societal judgement is valuable. One area this is increasingly pressing is in care for the elderly: receiving care by a professional in a nursing home may be a mutually beneficial arrangement in some circumstances, however many elderly patients feel extremely lonely and isolated, and would prefer that work was done by someone they know and trust, typically their children. However, naively judging by the statistics and our current definition of work, only nursing home-care increases GDP and provides jobs because children caring for their parents doesn't involve a traditional monetary transaction. We might, following economic data, believe a policy was a successful boost to the economy when it was merely pushing elderly care into nursing homes. To appreciate that work and production exists outside the standard capitalist economy, is to avoid decisions that arbitrarily increase GDP by cannibalizing other types of societal production.
There is nuance, of course. No one would consider women "entering the workforce" (a phrase I am not particularly fond of) in huge numbers in the last few decades a backward step for our society. Entering the formal economy has many benefits to individuals, particularly independence. Thus, this is not a call for less work to be brought under the umbrella of the formal economy, but for a redefinition of work in the discourse, such that these issues can be discussed fairly according to their own merits and not by some narrow view of what we now call work.