“Labour is an activity imposed by necessity and lacking any element of free choice. While I am labouring, I have no sovereignty whatever over my time. In our society, I am a labourer if what I do to support myself and my family has no personal significance or interest to me, and, which, therefore, if I did not have to earn my living, I would not do. As a labourer I am a slave of society; I am aware, however, that my labour is important to others because, if it were not, I should not get paid for it.
At the opposite extreme is play. Play is a completely gratuitous activity in which I enjoy absolute sovereignty over time. I am free to play or not as I choose, and my only reason for playing is that I enjoy it for its own sake. But this absolute sovereignty necessarily implies that my play is of no concern to others and has no consequences beyond itself. Professional sportsmen who earn their living by playing a game, and compulsive gamblers who play for stakes which may ruin them or make their fortune, are not playing. Time spent in play is, as we say, time out, without relation to past or future.
Between these two extremes comes the activity I have the extraordinary good fortune, granted to – what shall I say? – not more than 16 per cent of the population, to be a worker. I am a worker if what I do is, like play, something I enjoy doing for its own sake because it is in accord with my interests and talents, but, like labour, is of importance to others, so that I can earn my living by doing what I enjoy doing.”
The above is an excerpt taken from poet W.H. Auden’s essay “Work, Labour, and Play.” When I first read this essay nearly seven years ago, I didn’t think much of it, but now the apparent distinction between work and labor is as haunting as ever.
As someone who plans to go to graduate school in two years and then complete a postdoctorate after that, I’m putting off “getting a real job” for as long as possible. But when that inevitable moment comes, how do I know that I’ll have found something I genuinely enjoy doing? How do I know I will become a worker rather than a laborer?
Auden describes a laborer as “a slave of society” which sounds pretty depressing to me. Yet he writes that most of us are laborers, with workers comprising maybe 16 percent of the total workforce. What I want to know is how do the workers do it? Is it with luck that they happen to find their perfect niche? Or maybe an emotional predisposition to be satisfied and make the most of what they have?