This is a hard discussion to have. A lot of people who don’t agree with me will first point out that a friend shouldn’t be paid for showing up and giving hugs when needed, or I shouldn’t be paid for messing around with a guitar. And of course, I would agree.
So when we’re talking about what sort of creativity and care work should be paid, the starting point has to be a better definition of work. With a few exceptions, we’ve all grown up within capitalism, so we understand work as something that is paid. Designing digital ads to manipulate people into buying something they don’t need is considered work (and well-paid, respectable work at that), while breastfeeding a baby is not.
I’d like to offer up a more useful and humane way of seeing work; as something that society needs. So, playing a guitar as a hobby isn’t work, but playing music for an audience is, because society definitely needs music. Taking a mate out to the park wouldn’t be considered work, but a friend dynamic that is unequal and unhealthy where one friend functions as a psychologist could be considered work. Society does need mental health care, so in that second case I would say the friend is doing unpaid mental health care work.
Normally, when council or municipality workers clean up the streets as part of formal employment, on a specific hourly schedule, it is considered work. But, when volunteers get together to clean up a beach or river, it is not. Even though both sets of people are doing the same thing — cleaning public spaces, the pay is the factor that currently defines the first as work and the second as not, but it shouldn’t be.
Capitalism prioritises what is profitable, and most governments prioritise what will get them re-elected and make their corporate sponsors happy. This means that a lot of paid work is not the most useful work, and because we all need to earn money to survive, we often have to prioritise such paid work over our children, our community, social justice, and our creativity.
Because creativity, care, and community work is not typically paid, we also don’t usually do it as well as we would like. Our child, sick parent, or the novel or the community painting workshops we give may be one of the most important things to us, but we have to compromise this unpaid work while we slave away in our paid work, making plastic toys or writing advertising slogans or selling mobile phone cases. Or many of us have to choose between dignified living standards, or a dignified use of our time, while the majority of the world don’t even have this choice, as they have to focus on trying to survive.
Ultimately, most of us aren’t happy with the way we spend our days, and the sacrifice isn’t even worth it as the world is also seriously lacking in the things that matter most. Imagine the intellectual and loving abundance we are missing out on because so many people are not able to write the book and compose the song they have within them, or be as loving as they would like. Imagine the world we could be in if community care and planet care were seen as some of the most important things we could possibly do, and were compensated accordingly?
But the consequences of not paying for care and creative work go even further. That my friend’s breastfeeding isn’t paid can impact her sense of self, her perception of how “productive” or socially useful she’s being, her relationship with her husband (who is doing paid work) and so much more. For myself, even though I believe that books are vital food for humanity’s soul, I can feel like I am not working hard when I spend time on my novels. In fact, because the activist and writing work that I do isn’t paid, I end up working about double the amount of hours of many other people. I am often exhausted, and also stressed about paying for basic things like medicine.
The way work is defined and paid for also has an impact on class, race, and gender disparities.
For example, women often do the work that is socially important, but not paid. Apart from unpaid child-rearing, women are also often the unofficial, unrecognised home administrators, the mental health carers of partners, the community volunteers, or the ones helping migrants while governments sit back and do nothing. And so one of the consequences of not paying for real work is gender inequality — not just in terms of income, but also in terms of respect, social status, voice, and empowerment. Women’s time, brains, and energy is taken for granted. We are undervalued, neglected, tired, used, and unhappy- on a mass scale.
So it is important that we change our understanding of what work is, and demand better treatment and conditions for creatives, carers, campaigners, and community builders.