What is work, anyway?

A fascinating recent Australian study about the effects of working beyond the age of 40 achieved some press coverage last week, and it prompted me to reflect carefully on what work actually means in our society.

The study analysed cognitive test results for 3,000 men and 3,500 women above the age of 40 in Australia, and compared these to how long they were employed per week, and found that people who were employed about 25 hours a week tended to get the highest scores. Those who did not work at all scored about 18 per cent lower on the reading test, 20 per cent lower on the backwards numbers and 15 per cent lower on matching numbers and letters, while working 40 hours a week was linked to a slightly smaller cognitive deficit, and working 55 hours or more seemed to be worse than being retired or unemployed.


The conclusion of the professor leading the study, Professor Colin McKenzie, was that “Work can be a double-edged sword, in that it can stimulate brain activity, but at the same time long working hours can cause fatigue and stress, which potentially damage cognitive functions”.

Of course, what the study did not do was to look at all the other aspects of work in a person’s life. We have grown so used to thinking that ‘work’ is only something for which people get paid, that we tend to overlook – and certainly undervalue – all the other types of work that human beings tend to do, from maintaining their household or organising their children, to volunteering in other organisations. This definition of work outside ‘employed work’ is still something which seems to apply more to women than to men, and even more so to those who are carers and parents; the wry observations in Ladybird’s spoof book, ‘How it works: the Mum’, are rather close to the bone for many.

(If you haven’t read this book, by the way, it will almost certainly make you laugh, especially if you are a mother. My children’s favourite extract: A Mum has just two jobs. One is to look after her children. The other is to do everything else as well.”)

Parenting is only one of the – essential – jobs in life which do not qualify as ‘work’ in the definition used in the Australian study, and it is interesting to consider what the results might look like if it took into account the hours spent by people on bringing up children, helping out neighbours, contributing to neighbourhood associations, collaborating on social projects, volunteering on boards of charities or other organisations, and the like. Fundamentally, in not exploring these elements, the study both fails to grasp the reality of people’s lives, and reinforces the widely-held – and arguably deeply unhealthy – perspective that valuable activity in society equates with money.

We know, deep down, that this is not true. Who we are is often as important (if not more so) as what we do; being a kind and tolerant person, for example, can have a hugely positive effect on the world, regardless of what ‘job’ that person does. More money does not necessarily mean more value to the world; so why do we persist in thinking that it does? Is it an embedded greed? Or the lack of strong enough, balanced, moral framework in our society?

While we ponder these thoughts, there is one lesson, that we might all take on board: “too much work can have adverse effects on cognitive functioning”. Worth at least bearing in mind, whether or not we can actually do anything about it …


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