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The Future of Work: Unpaid, in Spite of Their Value

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
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(Photo: Sestovic/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Sestovic/Shutterstock)

“I sit as artists have sat for centuries, laboring unpaid. Yet I am sure this is work. I am sure it is productive, and I hope it will be of value.” Marilyn Waring wrote this in the first paragraph of her 1989 book, If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics. The contributors to this series could have written it now, in 2015.

Anne Focke is a freelancer who has worked part time, full time, on contract, and in organizations she founded, as an editor, writer, researcher, non-profit executive, organizer, and artist.


I am sure it is work for all of them, and I am certain the columns are of value. As a whole they raise questions that matter in a big way, offer a wide range of perspectives, identify problems, and suggest directions we might take to pursue answers, maybe even inspiring us to action. Yet payment was not part of the bargain.

The work of writers and journalists and poets is an essential public good and a fundamental part of civil society. In most cases we work for something more than a financial return. You might say it is a “calling,” a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action, one we probably consider morally good.

When Marilyn Waring wrote her book, I was an artist and moved primarily in artists’ worlds. Observing us as a group, I wondered why artists didn’t seem to fit into the economy, despite hard and persistent work and the value the art gave to others. The artists around me made a distinction between the “jobs” that paid them and the work they felt they had to do, their “calling”—the paintings or poems or songs. The distinction serves me still. Although some artists find a niche that pays well, the percentage of income that most artists earn from their art work—that is, not from their teaching, waitressing, or office jobs—is nominal.

Although I first saw this scenario among artists, many people do work of value to others that goes unpaid or is paid poorly. Work that strengthens the common good—caring for the young and the old, teaching and sharing knowledge, efforts to improve the environment or to engage civically in other ways—seems to fall low on the pay scale or outside it altogether. And increasingly, inequality is making this worse. I’m reminded of Lydia DePillis’ question in “Making Service Work Pay,” earlier in this Future of Work series. “Why should a fast-food cook or a home health aide make less than a machine operator anyway?” Is the work somehow inherently less valuable to society?

Many of us who work in public service or for the common good care about our work. We often actually like working, especially when it matters in the lives of others. The problem is it’s hard to make a living this way.

Can we who labor for the common good find common cause? Can we activate our collective will to be part of finding solutions that would allow us to dedicate ourselves to work with meaning while also making a decent living—with health care, time off, and savings for when we can’t work?

We won’t find common cause in the workplace. The fact is, many, if not most, of us are among the people to whom Frances Zlotnick refers in her Future of Work essay, “Uniting Workers in the Gigging Economy.” We are scattered across distances as independent contractors, freelancers, volunteers, or part-time workers. We don’t have a shared workplace in the conventional sense, though some of us make our own as when artists come together to share a studio space or when we work in close proximity in coffee shops or co-working spaces like Office Nomads, Impact Hub Seattle, and Metrix Create: Space.

Poets and other artists can use words, music, images, and stories to help us find common ground, an essential starting point. We need sources of knowledge to spark ideas and put words to what we’ve experienced. We also need places to gather and talk, both for the chance to share our experiences and what we’ve learned, and also for the kind of creativity and ideas that, in a workplace, often results from talking around the water cooler.

As I look around me, I see these places being created. I hear of new conversations and salons, post-event discussions and roundtables more now than I have in all my decades. These conversations don’t emerge from specific workplaces, and they tend to be, like our work, dispersed and unconnected. They have names like Soup Salon, What’s Up?, Geeks Who Drink, Penny University, Civic Cocktails, Poetry Potluck, Honoring Beloved Community, World Dance Party, Pecha Kucha, Think and Drink, and lots more in Seattle alone. Many are started by young people who may be active in the digital and social media world, but who use the same tools to find each other in physical space.

Speaking in Seattle in 2014 about the future of work, former Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern stressed the importance of aligning our economy toward work that is needed and valuable to society. For one thing, he suggested we find a way to provide a baseline income to people who do that valuable work. We just don’t have a great set of new ideas, he said. His greatest hope is that “a whole group of people will come up with a whole new set of ideas about how to do this.” As artists have learned through time, we’ll just have to have to do it ourselves, laboring purposefully but unpaid. Coming together in many different configurations, across different industries and interests, asking questions, sharing what we know, being inspired to learn more, and beginning to connect with other groups doing the same is the way we can start to find those great new ideas.


For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.