The Joys of Menial Labor

knittingWe have a new column in this week’s New York Times Magazine, which is a special issue on the boomer generation. Our piece is called “Laid-Back Labor,” and it actually germinated from a blog post here a few months ago. Here’s one paragraph from the column:

Isn’t it puzzling that so many middle-aged Americans are spending so much of their time and money performing menial labors when they don’t have to? Just as the radio and phonograph proved to be powerful substitutes for the piano, the forces of technology and capitalism have greatly eased the burden of feeding and clothing ourselves. So what’s with all the knitting, gardening and [as the U.S. Census Bureau calls it] “cooking for fun”? Why do some forms of menial labor survive as hobbies while others have been killed off? (For instance, we can’t think of a single person who, since the invention of the washing machine, practices “laundry for fun.”)

As always, we’ve posted some related research material elsewhere on this site. Comments welcome below.


There's the creative and skill aspects of it that people mention here. We like to become good at something, and cooking, gardening and so on are complex, open-ended enough to give us ample room to improve.

But there is also the very pointlessness. Why knit when you can buy a knitted piece for far less than you expend in material and time? It's _because_ it's not necessary that it becomes fun, I think. Precisely because it is not work - because our livelihood does not depend on the skill - we are free to experiment, be creative, do it at our own pace. We can focus on the fun, creative and meditative aspects without worrying about some production quota or outside standards.

Somebody (I believe Jerome K. Jerome) once mentioned an 18th century London nobleman that would drive a horse carriage (a taxi, essentially) in London for the fun of it. He did it for free; had he received money it would have become work and instantly distasteful to him.


James Clippinger

I think what's missing from the column's analysis is that some time spent on chores is spent because any alternative at the same cost is inferior. The reason you won't mow your neighbor's lawn for the same amount that you would pay to have your own lawn mowed is that mowing your own lawn also saves you the annoyance of not having your lawn mowed to your own standards.

In my case, I do my own laundry (with machines, but still "for fun") even though sending it out would be the rational thing to do because the negative leisure of having it done "wrong" outweighs the additional cost of my time. I have lower and easier-to-communicate standards for housecleaning, though, so I hire others to do that.

Productive hobbies are a different matter, though. I would say that the $140 scarf breaks down as a value for the scarf ($40, it sounds like), one for the ten hours of stress relief (that's a lotta yoga classes), and one for the "I made it" anecdote value. The anecdote value can be estimated by how much a similar hand-knitted scarf would sell for at a craft fair, since "It was hand-knitted by one of the Clancyville Methodists" is almost as good as "I made it" (compared to "I got this at Wal-Mart" or the stylish cheapskate's "it's from northeastern China, and an importer I deal with based out of Arkansas, of all places, found it for me").



Anyone who spends time in a useless hobby should be sent off to a productive work farm in order to salve the sense of righteousness of economists.


I was disturbed by your choice of piano. That is simply not an equivalent, since you must learn piano over an extended period, usually beginning when young (when your parents might make you). It is only after a number of years that you reach a proficient level that allows you a large measure of satisfaction. Mowing your lawn, even knitting, are quick entry choices. You have to know how to put gas in a mower - or how to plug in an electric or how to push a reel. Do it a few times and you reach proficiency.

I'm somewhat surprised you didn't discuss the feedback mechanisms linked to leisure activities such as hobbies. There is a body of research, much done by Csikszentmihalyi, which describes the mechanism by which people invest in activities and receive paybacks. TV watching, for example, is low investment, low payback while an active hobby like cooking or a sport are high investment, high payback. The more high payback activity you do, the less tolerable low payback activity is. This work suggests, for example, that a week without TV merely builds TV "addiction" because a week is not long enough for a person to invest in high payback activities.

To discuss the topic you guys wrote about, one might say there is a mechanism for happiness and that people pursue it with various levels of upfront investment and return. The "productive work" at home is a fairly gross measure to a person of return and that then fulfills that need to get a return.

The alternatives of pure leisure may require investment - as in learning a sport well enough, as in acquiring fishing tackle, as in setting aside sufficient time. Or they may provide a low payback, as in watching TV or reading junk novels.

To return to piano, it isn't surprising that this high investment activity fell off. Many people played because it was a social requirement before radio - before records even. That payback diminished as the need to entertain family and friends at the piano went away.



There's another part of this that hasn't been considered. You simply can't do all of the things that you enjoy most all of the time. In the Ramey and Francis study it was mentioned that the most highly rated activities were sex, playing sports and fishing. Well, when you get home from work you can't just have sex, play sports and fish all evening. You've gotta eat. You might as well at least pretend to enjoy cooking (although personally I find it tedious). Likewise on the weekends: The house has to be maintained so that your neighbors don't look askance at you. So you make gardening or lawn mowing into a leisure activity. Would gardeners rather be having sex or fishing? Who knows. In any case, if you decide that every activity that's not your favorite is an unbearable chore it's going to be a long life.


As one of the 1 in 15 who played a musical instrument recently, perhaps my experience illuminates one of the article's points. When I was a kid, my parents made me play the piano. I never practiced,and I hated it. However, when I reached my teens, I got into rock music, learned the guitar, practiced all the time, and my parents hated it. After all these years, I still play guitar, and now it bothers my own kids (particularly when I sing). Is this an illustration of the principle that an activity is only leisure if it's optional?
I think so; most of us resent being told what to do. When you take that negative reinforcement out of the experience of the guitar playing, it should seem more enjoyable. Or it could be that rock is just more fun to play than classical.


partially unrelated, but the New York Times magazine link led me to check out their great article today about the nature of wisdom, how to quantify it, and how it relates to age. It's worth the read.


Is coming home and sitting around while someone else mows my lawn necessarily more rational than coming home and mowing the lawn myself? Maybe despite earning a fairly high wage during the day, perhaps some hours of the day just aren't worth that much to me. I often don't have that many highly productive (or exciting) alternatives. I think more of us likely leed a more bland existence than we care to admit.


One person who washes her laundry in the bathtub: Dervla Murphy (author of 'Where the Indus is Young', 'Cameroon with Egbert', 'Through Siberia by Accident', etc)


This comment: Somebody (I believe Jerome K. Jerome) once mentioned an 18th century London nobleman that would drive a horse carriage (a taxi, essentially) in London for the fun of it. He did it for free; had he received money it would have become work and instantly distasteful to him.

And many other responses are simple examples of overjustification effects (or undermining effects). I will plagiarize this definition from Wikipedia:

Overjustification effect is the effect whereby giving someone an incentive (monetary or otherwise) to do something that they already enjoy doing decreases their intrinsic motivation to do it. As a result of the extrinsic incentive, the person views his or her actions as externally controlled rather than intrinsically appealing.

Sound psychological theory. =D


About "laundry for fun", well, although it's real fun to dump a load into the washer and press "wash", manual laundry CAN be fun, albeit in a kinky way.

Case in point, there is nothing I like more than, after a long sweaty bike ride, step into the shower with my spandex biking suit on. Good spandex being expensive, I avoid machine washing it so I wet myself up and soap-up to properly wash the biking suit.

Need I elaborate on the titillating fun of rubbing soap-soaked spandex on your body to see why I also do it for fun?


It will be interesting to look at the number of inputs vs. outputs. I am no cook at all, but when I watch my stepfather (restaurant owner) cook, I am amazed at the fact that he can use so many inputs to create something so tasty. Of course, my stepfather is a genius in using those ingredients (inputs) to produce the tasty food (outputs).

On the topic of cooking vs. doing laundry, in cooking, we use a lot more inputs (different ingredients) than doing laundry (dirty clothes, though many pieces, they have one thing in common – dirty). In cooking, we produce a lot more outputs (number of dishes) than laundry (cleanliness). I tend to think the same applies to gardening.

I can't help but to wonder how many different kinds of ingredients (number of inputs) do chefs usually need to produce tasty dishes? How many different kinds of variables do people use to produce things that are the outputs of a so-called creative processes? Will there be an “optimal” number of inputs that people find the maximum enjoyment? Are there ways to generate a random sample of inputs that might produce surprisingly outstanding final products? Can we find an easy way to generalize such a process?



I agree with smili. I make a set amount of money during the week, so I would not be earning any income during my hobby time. During my leisure time, I might very well be spending money on more passive entertainment. Instead by having a hobby, I might save a little money, and I have produce from my garden, or food that I've cooked, that meets my specifications in a way I can't get from outsourcing these activites.

I understand that my free time is worth something to me, but I think this is true only if it is filled with an activity I enjoy.

You can't consider the cost of my labor when I'm cooking, because the cost of my labor doing everything else is the price that must be paid to keep me from going home to my kitchen.


The real definition of work. It is work only if you dislike doing it. If you enjoy it, it cannot called be work and you have no right to use it as an excuse to shirk from real work.

That is why we search for 'real' jobs to fund our lesiure times. And leisure activities more often than not are activities which might actually be careers in their own rights, if people looked at them in that way.


The popular "labors" are those that produce some tangible, customized product that has some bragging rights attached.



I both agree and don't agree. With a hobby like cross-stitch, I would not want to be paid for it (and for the time and effort I put in, I wouldn't be able to charge a reasonable amount anyway). But I were doing it for pay, it would become something I had to do rather than something I wanted to do and I would have less motivation.

However, I have a part-time job teaching fitness classes. Most people go to the gym "for fun" to keep in shape and the only return they expect is to improve their physique. But I've found that adding a monetary recompense into the mix hasn't decreased my motivation, it has actually increased it in that now I want to spend more time learning new things and teaching them to my classes.

I think that the line between leisure activity, chore, and work can be a very gray area (I have mentally flitted through all three at the gym). For one person cooking may be a chore to getting themself fed. To another person, it's a form of artistic expression or social interaction.



Sorry, the quote I meant to put in that last post was from the following comment:

Overjustification effect is the effect whereby giving someone an incentive (monetary or otherwise) to do something that they already enjoy doing decreases their intrinsic motivation to do it. As a result of the extrinsic incentive, the person views his or her actions as externally controlled rather than intrinsically appealing.


My brother, a successful executive in his 50s, is never happier than when he's doing (and grumbling about) major home improvements. It seems like he moves into a newly-built home every few years just so he can build a deck, or finish a basement.

He's not as fast as the plumbers, carpenters, electricians, tilers, drywallers etc that he could hire, but his work is easily their equal in quality, and it occupies him, and fulfills him, in ways that meetings and telephone calls cannot.

What more needs to be said about why we spend our free time in certain ways and not others?


I think the overjustification effect does play a role in this. I knit (obsessively) and love it. However, when a family member approaches me to knit for them or if I have a random person pay me for my work, I find that I put it off as long as possible and hate the whole experience. However, if I'm knitting a gift or something for myself, it's a pleasurable experience.
I guess when someone requests something, you are limited to the pattern they want and the yarn they want and have no creative input in the finished product.


I have cooked professionally in the past and also love to cook at home. Believe me, home hobby cooking is a totally different subjective experience from paid menial labor cooking. The stress levels are on two completely different planes.