‘Earning a Living’ and the Dilemma of Unpaid Work



“Earning a Living” and the Dilemma of Unpaid Work

On the Injustice of a World Without Unconditional Basic Income

by D. JoAnne Swanson

[Author’s note: It is my custom to use quotes for the phrase “earning a living” to call attention to its moral injustice.]

All of us have basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, rest, and health care. But all of those things cost money, and for most of us the only way to get money is to “earn a living” through employment. We’re expected to sell our time to employers in order to earn money to pay for these things.

This confronts us with an inescapable dilemma. It puts those of us who do valuable but unpaid work – caring labor or art, for example – in an especially difficult position. Our choices are:

  1. Find another type of work that earns money.
  2. Find ways to monetize work we do that is currently unpaid.
  3. Sacrifice or neglect our own needs so that we can continue doing unpaid work.
  4. Rely on support from friends, partners, family, charity, and/or community.

Note that “receive adequate food, shelter, and health care to meet our basic needs regardless of our employment or relationship status” is not on the list. This is a fundamental injustice that causes a great deal of unnecessary coercion and suffering. It is an immense source of pressure to enter into, and stay in, jobs and relationships we might never accept if we could survive without them.

Even those of us who accept gainful employment often find that it is precarious, exhausting, and poorly paid, with no benefits such as health care or vacation time. Add in the many forms of invisible and devalued labor we do, such as the disproportionate burden of emotional labor shouldered by women and marginalized people in relationships, and it’s not difficult to understand why leisure time is so scarce for us. Between paid and unpaid work combined, we are overloaded. Yet our dilemma often goes unnoticed, because creative work, care work, and housekeeping are not considered “real” work.

We are expected to pay for our own basic needs, lest we become a financial burden to others. The need to “earn a living,” then, acts as a structurally coercive force that pushes those of us who do unpaid work into one of two economic arrangements. We can be

  1. …economically bound to relationships, or
  2. …economically bound to employers (or clients who pay us).

If neither of those arrangements are available to us, or if they are for a while but we lose them and have an inadequate safety net, we’ll likely end up living in poverty. Opting out of marriage or employment altogether, so we can do valuable unpaid work (and enjoy leisure!) on our own terms, yet still meet our basic needs? That’s not even on the menu.

In the absence of an unconditional basic income, unpaid workers cannot truly and fully consent to employment. Nor can we truly and fully consent to relationships. The coercive force exerted upon us by the need to “earn a living” renders our true consent irrelevant. In order to give meaningful consent, we must be free to say no.

What message are we sending when we frame paid employment as “independence” or “free choice” or “being self-supporting” while those of us who do unpaid work are structurally coerced into accessing capital through relationships or employment?

What message are we sending if we tell people “if you don’t like your job, just get another one” when we cannot meaningfully opt out of “earning a living” altogether, and choose for ourselves how to spend our time?

In a world where we must “earn a living” under threat of poverty if we don’t, how can we ever know for sure which employees are taking jobs because they truly want to? How do we know they aren’t just doing the emotional labor required to convincingly perform enthusiasm for their jobs, when actually they’d rather be elsewhere?

We pay an enormous price, individually and collectively, when valuable unpaid work is neglected or not done because we are forced into full-time paid work to “earn a living”. When the bulk of our time and energy is consumed by compulsory paid employment, our families and communities are deprived of the benefits that could otherwise be gained through our art, our care, and our service. We often end up too busy, distracted, and exhausted to develop our talents and gifts outside the context of employment. We are deprived of leisure and rest. We are deprived of the joy of offering our work to those who need it without regard to their ability to pay. We are even told, directly and indirectly, that if we don’t or can’t serve capitalism we become expendable – that our lives have little or no value aside from our ability to be productive on employers’ terms.

This is fundamental moral injustice.

Every single day that passes without unconditional basic income is a day we suffer great losses, as most of us are forced to prioritize work that “earns a living” over valuable unpaid work, regardless of our true will.

We pay a price for this in relationship neglect and estrangement.

We pay a price for this in shame and blame heaped upon us by people who dismiss us as lazy or treat us as useless if we can’t or don’t work “real” jobs, while the work we do every day remains largely invisible or devalued.

We pay a price for this in structural pressure to marry, or to stay in unhealthy relationships.

We pay a price for this in creative talents that remain undeveloped or unharnessed – lost opportunities, and artistic work that might have otherwise existed if artists weren’t coerced into day jobs to pay the bills.

We pay a price for this in sorrow, anger, and grief, as we consider the lives we’ve lost and the lives we and our loved ones might have lived without this fundamental injustice in place.

We pay a price for this ecologically. In many cases, we could do a great deal more to contribute to the health and resilience of ecosystems by not having jobs than we could by having them.

And that’s just for starters.

Unconditional basic income would provide a financial foundation to support valuable unpaid work that benefits our communities, without requiring us to monetize our work or sacrifice our own needs to do it. However, even though the movement for UBI has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, I suspect we’re still years away from actually having it widely implemented.

Crowdfunding has provided some artists with funding for their work. Patreon, in particular, provides ongoing funding for creators in a way that has enabled some of them to quit their day jobs and create full-time. But it’s a far cry from UBI.

As much as I have wanted to believe that Patreon can provide something like a basic income – or at least a sufficient financial foundation for many of us who want to do unpaid creative work – the sobering reality is that Patreon is not at all like a basic income. It’s more like a form of #2 above: monetizing our unpaid work.

Success on Patreon is a full-time job that requires popularity, marketing skills, and media visibility. In order to succeed at the quit-your-day-job level, most of us must first monetize our social networks, develop our “branding,” and make ourselves into public figures. That’s difficult to do, for all kinds of reasons, and monetizing unpaid work comes with costs of its own. The more time we must spend on self-promotion and social media work, the less time we have for creativity. Only a small group of highly skilled and visible people are receiving enough patronage to permit them to live without another means of financial support, and I’m willing to bet most of them got there with the aid of behind-the-scenes support or fall-back options that give them an advantage (e.g., spouses, savings accounts, etc.) For the rest of us, I’m afraid, Patreon is mostly “hope labor” for the time being. It’s got potential to be liberating for some people. The platform is growing quickly, and for good reason. But there’s a catch-22.

Here’s how that plays out in my own situation as a writer on Patreon.

In order to bring in more Patreon support, I’d need to spend more time releasing work, handling media and publicity matters, and interacting on social media. But in order to release more work and spend more time on publicity and social media, I need an income that is sufficient to free up that time. I’ve been working on The Anticareerist and its predecessor projects for over 20 years now, and my other project, The Black Stone Hermitage, for six years. I’ve got an audience that would like to read more of my work. I’d love to deliver more work! But until I have more free time and energy to write what is in me to write (which means I must first have more money, or some other means of support), my unpaid writing is pushed to the margins of my life. So, unless something major changes in my life, I’ll be keeping my day job.

There are many things I like about my day job. But the creative work I want to do most – the work I have long felt is my calling – is all unpaid, and there are good reasons why it should probably remain unpaid. Yet I still have bills to pay, of course. That’s why I structured my Patreon campaign for The Anticareerist on a gift model. I do not want to write for the money. I just want to write. Period.

I hasten to add that I’m not implying that my self-motivated creative work, or anyone else’s, is unworthy of monetary support. I’m delighted to accept financial support from people who appreciate my work! I can accept funds – gift patronage – when the work is completed, but I cannot tether those funds conditionally to the release of the work without compromising the spirit of the work in some way.

As a writer, a great deal of the most important unpaid creative work I do is thinking. Pondering. Contemplation. Reflection. Introspection. Synthesizing and reframing ideas. Thought experiments. Critiquing. Detecting and teasing out deeply embedded patterns in seemingly disparate areas. Sorting out. Classifying. Organizing. Mucking around in the dark muddy waters of the imaginal realm, and shaping what I find there into something worthy of being called art. This work – and it is work, despite its invisibility – requires deep leisure. It requires unstructured, uninterrupted stretches of time, usually in silence and solitude. The invisible labor of deep thinking comes before the visible labor of writing. If I have insufficient leisure time, silence, or solitude – say, because I’m spending the bulk of my time in wage labor – the quality and feeling tone of my writing suffers. When writers say we’re working while we gaze out the window over a cup of tea, we mean it. We’re giving our deep mind the necessary space for good writing to emerge.

Deep leisure is not optional for a writer like me. It’s a necessary stage of my creative process – a prerequisite for my best writing. In a world without unconditional basic income – a world in which wage labor is compulsory for basic survival – access to deep leisure is severely restricted, because people who do unpaid work do not have sovereignty over our own time. Because we must “earn a living”, our time belongs to whoever has money: employers, spouses, wealthier family members, sponsors, and/or clients. We are forced to find ways to buy back our own time from the people or employers who own it by default.

The people who own our time.

That’s one of the ways the structural violence of “earning a living” functions: it colonizes our time and our labor. If we want the “luxury” of doing unpaid work, we must figure out some way to buy back our time.

It’s maddening, isn’t it? As things stand now, we can’t help but perpetuate this structural violence, regardless of how much we may object to it. Why? Simply because we happened to be born into an extractive capitalist economy in which everyone must have money to live. The need to ”earn a living” forces us to directly participate in our own oppression. Our consent is rendered irrelevant, and there’s no opting out for anyone. We’re expected to shoehorn ourselves into paid jobs – any jobs – or, for those of us who rely on government benefits, prove that we’re trying to (which is a job of its own).

Why is it so widely and uncritically accepted that people don’t even deserve basic food, shelter, and health care if they don’t or can’t “earn a living”? Do those of us who do unpaid labor, and those of us who can’t work at all, not even deserve to live? Or, as the late Kellia Ramares-Watson put it, “Why must we pay to live on the planet we’re born on?”

The bitter truth is that if we and our communities suffer because so many of us are consigned to life-long drudgery doing “bullshit jobs” (as David Graeber aptly puts it) and work that is ecologically destructive, well, that’s no problem for capitalism. In fact, it’s far better for capitalism if we do suffer, because there’s a great deal of money to be made from suffering.

“Doing what you love” is not an adequate solution to the dilemma posed by the need to “earn a living”. Not everyone can find paid work they love, and some of those who do find paid jobs doing work they love discover that doing it for money drains the joy from it – especially if they must do it for 40+ hours per week, endure grueling daily commutes, and suffer the never-ending anxiety of knowing that market forces, divorce, ill health, or other factors beyond their control could leave them unemployed and without an adequate safety net. (Particularly in the US, which exerts powerful coercive force through tying health insurance to employers and spouses). Having a job we love can be great for those of us in that fortunate position, but it does not address the fundamental injustice and vast losses we suffer every day by requiring every able-bodied adult to earn a living or pay a heavy price for not doing so.

For most of us whose true callings involve unpaid work, the best we can hope for is to minimize our participation in wage labor, which means we must make sacrifices somewhere so we can carve out as much time as possible for the work we really want to do. But there’s a price to be paid for that as well.

Once we realize that requiring people to “earn a living” in a world without UBI is fundamentally unjust, and that we cannot truly opt out even if we find a job we love, many of us become depressed. Our souls resist this non-consensual conscription of our time – our only true wealth – into the service of job culture and capitalism. As well they should! Charles Eisenstein calls this mutiny of the soul.

If you dare to speak out publicly about the fundamental injustice of “earning a living”, you may become a target of the ire that is routinely directed at people who resist. Accusations of “laziness” are usually the first that are leveled at us. Aside from its use as a rhetorical device or a reflexive defense mechanism, however, I would argue that if we inquire more deeply into this “laziness,” we’re likely to find rebellion – not against work per se, but against the injustice of being coerced by monetary need into jobs we don’t want just to “earn a living.”

As long as the injustice of “earning a living” remains in place, even those among us who have found some measure of success by doing work we love – say, by reaching critical mass on Patreon – still live under the threat of being forced back into a position of financial struggle. If our patrons (or employers, spouses, etc.) have to tighten their belts and can’t afford to support us anymore, or if we become too ill to deliver our creative work to our patrons anymore, or if Patreon changes their policies in ways that hurt our bottom line, we’ll have to figure out another way to “earn a living”, or face the harsh consequences of not doing so. So our time must still be bought from those who own it by default.

This doesn’t sound too hopeful, does it? It’s a far cry from “Why I Love Patreon,” an enthusiastic piece I wrote in 2016. However, I want to be clear that it isn’t my intention to disparage Patreon as a platform. What I wrote in that essay still stands. I do still love Patreon, for all the reasons I mentioned. In  a world without UBI, it’s the best alternative available for many of us. It’s still the only platform that offers the possibility of gift-model crowdfunding. Nonetheless, I’ve come to realize that for most of us, it’s unlikely to become a long-term solution for supporting unpaid creative work at the quit-your-day-job level.

I wrote this to express solidarity with everyone who yearns for a world beyond “earning a living”- a world in which all of us who do unpaid labor could be free to devote ourselves to our work wholeheartedly, without having our time conscripted against our will into the service of capitalism.

It’s deeply ironic that one of the most common objections to UBI is a fear that people wouldn’t work. Only a culture deeply invested in the notion that remunerative work must entail suffering would entertain such a preposterous idea so widely and seriously. The truth is just the opposite: UBI enables work. It’s an investment in human potential. It’s a vote for a world where work is done by true consent, rather than by coercion born of the need to “earn a living” and the struggle to survive. It frees us up to do things we enjoy, instead of just taking any job to pay the bills. It enables us to do valuable unpaid creative work, domestic work, or caring labor without having to go hungry or stay in unhealthy relationships for financial reasons. Not having UBI is in fact preventing a lot of us – myself included – from working to our full potential.

It’s helpful to acknowledge that there’s a difference between jobs and work. Upon receiving UBI, undoubtedly many people would quit jobs they hate, or jobs they’ve taken mostly for a paycheck. But very few would stop working altogether.

With UBI, jobs would be freed up for people who actually want them, and those of us who do unpaid work wouldn’t be forced to compete with them for those jobs.

If I had a UBI, I would definitely continue working. It would be difficult to stop me from working, in fact. I particularly love to write, and if I had the means, I’d spend the bulk of the rest of my days doing exactly that. I would also enjoy ample leisure time, and would gladly do what I could to help build a culture of leisure that could be accessible to all. But I wouldn’t seek wage labor. I’d accept financial support for my finished work, certainly…but in order to preserve full creative freedom, I wouldn’t try to monetize the creative process. Since my basic needs would already be covered by UBI, much of my time would be freed up, and my creativity would flourish.

One of the deepest satisfactions I can imagine is using my gifts to be of service. I’m confident that I could contribute a great deal more to society by not having a day job than I can by having one, since it would free up my time for the work I do best. I have readers who tell me they need to hear what I have to say, and I feel a strong need to write. Every day that I do not do so – every day my unpaid writing work is neglected or compromised because the bulk of my time and energy is consumed by “earning a living” – is a day of joyful service that I cannot give, and that the world will therefore never have.

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