Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Work and play

I'm interested in what people would continue to do if they were no longer paid for doing it. Obviously, there is a large class of not particularly enjoyable jobs which are necessary for the effective functioning of society. And there is a class of activities - like games - which are not necessary in a practical sense but which people engage in just for fun. The interesting areas are between these extremes.

Of course, a lot of people enjoy their paid work, but part of that enjoyment usually derives from the status and the money that it brings, and I suspect that, even if they could afford it, few professionals would continue to work if all the work was pro bono!

My brother is a professional actor, and he will occasionally help out with a student film, or do something he considers worthwhile on the stage for a pittance. But his identity as an actor is dependent on properly paid work.

Journalism is an interesting case. Bloggers generally blog for no financial reward and a fair percentage of the material is professional standard. Obviously, the intrinsic rewards of writing and research (if it is being read and/or utilized) are sufficient to keep these sorts of activities going.

Another interesting area is academic research in the humanities. I know a university professor who spent years (on and off) as part of a team translating Proclus (a 5th-century neo-Platonist with some pretty crazy ideas) into English, which was good for his career - but would he have done it if it did not enhance (albeit indirectly) his pay packet? I doubt it - but I may be wrong. I know of other, older scholars who will happily take their labors of love into retirement.

Despite the exceptional cases, funding matters - in the arts, in social areas and in science. Many - most? - areas of the arts and the humanities would wither away without financial support. Individual initiatives could never replace social spending by government and large private organizations*. And most areas of science depend on a combination of government and commercial support to maintain critical mass.

The hard truth is that much of the support that these activities depended on in the past can no longer be relied on.

There are humanitarian issues at stake here (I would place them above the arts and pure science in importance), and many will suffer.

However, in areas in which human suffering is not at issue, the process may be bracing to watch. A giant social experiment is in train which will determine which (intrinsically valuable) human activities will remain live options into the future.

*Spending by government on social welfare and similar programs can, of course, have adverse consequences. However, I am making the (relatively uncontroversial) assumption here that governments do have a legitimate role in providing a safety net for those in need.


  1. There is a difference between not doing something (which one is not paid for) because one must do something else to earn a living and not doing it because one is not paid to do it.

    I live in Chicago, which swarms with semi-professional theater groups. Almost none of these people are "paid" to do it.

    The monastic scholars of the Middle Ages were not paid for their work; they were freed of daily drudgery by the support of their order, and they lived minimally. There are some such even today - like Dr. Guy Consolmagno of the Vatican Observatory, a Jesuit lay brother and working scientist.

    There are also categories of work which require outside funding for materials, facilities, and overhead. Most scientific research falls in this category.

  2. I know this is a hugely complex topic, and I might have another shot at aspects of it later. I suppose it's futile to try to figure out what is worthwhile (intrinsically valuable) in itself - we all have our personal views. The social aspect remains, however. It's not much fun learning Latin or classical Greek if nobody else is doing it - and the closure of classics departments in universities changes the landscape of possibilities.

    Maybe with retired people living longer there will be a revival of people doing serious things for no pay.

    The theater issue is - again - too complex to deal with satisfactorily. In European countries and in Australia there is a tradition of the government subsidizing theater and the inevitable cuts in funding will have profound effects. (I think a large number of German provincial theaters - largely funded by the state - are closing down.) But I agree with your implication that plays will still be put on (as in Chicago) even if the performance spaces are not state of the art and the actors are not being paid much. And the quality of the work may be very high. But it will be different people doing different sorts of plays from what would have been the case with heavily subsidized theater.

  3. I didn't take the question as a complex topic, so much as a question about an "inner drive" some (perhaps most) people have, such as a talent or pursuit that would motivate them whether the exercise is paid or not. Most bloggers seemingly have an urge to write, for instance. Every hobby has the same quality: a pursuit done for its own sake, with its own perceived rewards. Many "amateurs" in any field (art, photography, poetry, automotives, aircraft design ...) are as well versed in the field as any professional, but do it for love not money. For myself, I must write and most of that is philosophy; I do it first because I'm born to write and philosophy is my most natural writing style. It's how I think, you might say. And because I'm not a professor of philosophy (ie, I don't make my living from PHI), I have more academic freedom than any professional academic. In fact, it's a thing I could not do professionally because of all the baggage & constraints inherent in being a professor.

    So I think there's always something one person or another "does naturally" that motivates regardless of compensation, where doing that is its own reward. Like commenting on other people's blogs as extensively as working on one's own, for instance. LOL.

  4. There's more to it than the "inner drive" I'm sure you'll agree, at least in many cases. Some activities are not really social, but most are, and the social dimension is what can make things complicated. Writing needs to be read (no?) if it is not to be just a kind of therapy. (Or at least there must be the prospect of a future audience.) Likewise photography and other arts, especially performing arts. Singing in the shower or an empty room is not enough for the serious amateur.

  5. What would people do if they were no longer paid to do it? It's an interesting question. Why not go one step further. Life without money? How and what engenders gratification? Fascinating isn't it.
    Money often carries with it some ego, so can choice to live without it.
    There was a great documentary on the BBC a while back follwing a minister of a church who decided to spend some time living life without money. Inspired by St Francis of Assisi. In anycase, I thought it fascinating.
    I have no answers to your question, if it is indeed a question. Perhaps rhetorical in nature, yes?
    A tidbit to chew on.

  6. A very open question, anyway, TalesNTypos. What started me thinking about it was the example of the philosophy professor being funded for a project which otherwise I suspected he would not be doing. The work didn't have real extrinsic value, and not enough intrinsic value (I guessed) to motivate him to do it without that support. I'm just trying to think more clearly what I think is worthwhile for me - but I see that the social dimension complicates things a lot, because we are all essentially social beings after all.