The Price of Work

When the work is done, the work is done
We’ll be bionic and beyond the circuits of our minds
We’ll get nothing done under electric sun
Leave the weight of labour far behind

We’re the greatest story that was ever told
But we don’t know where we’re from
And the walls became but a memory
Of the days when all the work begun
~ The Day The Work Is Done by Take That

After sunset, I was strolling along Lake Tekapo and admiring the crescent moon hanging low on the cobaltish-yellow night sky. Through the earphones plugged deep in my ears, I begin to hear the anthemic beats and catchy melody of “The Day The Work Is Done” by Take That. On a short sabbatical after quitting my job, the song instantly resonated with me and I looped the song a few times.

Night sky, Lake TekapoView of the night sky at Lake Tekapo

Back at the hostel after my stroll, I googled the lyrics. I felt disconcerted upon reading it. On first listen, I had the impression that the song was about the celebration of life away from work. Instead, with lyrics that go: “And every setting sun, when the work was done, was a day that didn’t go to waste” and “So don’t start thinking we can start again, start a riot in the streets my friend … cause idle hands make idle men”, the songs seem to exalt the productivity of work and how it has led to the progress of society through the ages: stone.. industrial.. technological.. and god knows what age we are in now.

View of skyline from Level 33, SingaporeSingapore, nation of skyscrapers: A testament to the progress of society 

However, not feeling convinced, I decided to re-read the lyrics. On second read, I think the song is meant to be ironic – through these phrases:

“Producing everything for everything to be replaced, and in dirty towns we will settle down, manufacture for the human race” implies that work always beget more work and it is a never-ending cycle.

“When the work is done, the work is done, we’ll be bionic and beyond the circuits of our minds” suggests that our minds are functioning like machines and we are becoming robots.

“We’re the greatest story that was ever told, but we don’t know where we’re from. And the walls became but a memory, of the days when all the work begun” means we have achieved many incredible feats, but have also lost ourselves in the process. Whilst the walls we have erected are testament to our progress, it has also entrapped our souls in it.

“Everybody’s counting hours, everybody’s counting hours. Til the day the work is done, til the day the work is done” Plenty of us know this feeling – for we are always counting down at work. Til the end of the day.. end of the week.. start of our annual leave.. promotions and bonuses.. etc.

Of course, work is but a necessary evil. Without work, we will not have money to have a roof over our heads and food on our plates. However, there is also a price to work – namely the opportunity cost: For every minute we spent at work, we can instead use that minute to participate in other activities (eg leisure). In economics, this is represented by the backward bending labour supply curve. Basically, as wages rise, we might choose to work more in order to earn more money (aka income effect). But, as wages rise, we can also choose to work less as we have earned enough money and we will rather use that time to partake in leisure activities (aka substitution effect). When the substitution effect begins to dominate the income effect, the labour supply curve starts to bend backwards.

As different people have different propensities for work and leisure, every person’s labour supply curve bends backwards differently. In my opinion, the factors affecting the backward bend of the labour supply curve can be summarised into: the need for money (an ‘external’ factor) and the want of money (an ‘internal’ factor).Labour supply curvesFor myself, I will like to think of myself as a free-spirited individual who is easily satiated with money, and that my labour supply curve bends backwards almost immediately! After all, I was blessed enough to be born into a relatively well-to-do family, and I do not have to worry about that much about providing for my family and myself (low need for money). I also seek a simple lifestyle that is hopefully adorned with more intangible experiences than tangible items (low want for money). Time, to me, is a more precious commodity than money, and I hope to spend as much time backpacking round the world!

As with all economic models, there are always assumptions. The backward bending curve assumes that work is an inferior good ie we will want to have as little of it as possible. For the few who have successfully integrated their passions with their careers and do not regard work as inferior, that is truly admirable! But, I believe that most of us still prefer to work as little as possible. If you are in this group and at the point where work is producing negative utility ie you are feeling f*ed up, then – in my humble opinion – it might be wise to adhere to the backward bend of the labour supply curve and start taking action to right that wrong :)

A smile that can’t be faked – only while travelling! 


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