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.


Who in their right mind would trust a gardener or a knitter?


Knitting, gardening, and say, restoring furniture are things that allow poeple to be creative, and to work on projects that have a clear start and finish. When you've finished knitting a sweater you feel like you really accomplished something. But when I leave my job at the end of the day, I feel like I wasted 8 hours that I could have spent doing something productive. Hobbies allow people to have control over something - be it a garden, a model car, or a sewing room. It isn't menial labor - it's necessary for many people who, like myself, are trapped in jobs that are alienating, mind-numbing, and useless.


Do you have any specific proof that capitalism aided in this assumed achievement? If not, then that is the kind of generalization that gets glossed over, yet permeates our society as a given.


I'm with grungeglitter- work and creativity are necessary for fulfillment- I think the distinction is between work and labor that Marx deconstructed- if we have to do these tasks (viz. sweatshops), then they are menial labor and to be avoided- but if we work at them spontaneously, they can enrich our lives


Gardening, knitting and cooking yield a tangible final product -- a garden, sweater, or meal -- for which the creator receives recognition and admiration.

Laundry does not.


The average New York Times newspaper includes more information in one issue than the average person in the 1800s learned in a year. We are constantly bombarded with news, radio, email, blogs, internet popups, cell phone calls, and the breakneck pace of life (at least in the city). At my job, I have to write emails all day to communicate to people most effectively, make sure I'm on top of all relevant paperwork, deal with instant message popups from coworkers with questions. Then when I leave I go to my second job which is teaching, putting on a happy face and helping people. Don't get me wrong, I love all the above (or I wouldn't be doing it). But I need something to recharge my batteries.

I cross-stitch while I watch television. It gives me a sense of accomplishment and creativity, which grungeglitter mentioned. But it also just gives me a bit of a chance to zone out, spend time with myself, not have to compose my face or think of responses. I don't feel as relaxed just sitting and watching tv, because I get bored and don't have anything to do with my hands. Sitting doing something manual like cross-stitch is a tactile pleasure which lets my brain rest and recharge.

As for cooking - I do that for some of the same reasons. But it's mostly because cooking for myself is cheaper, healthier, and I know what's in the food I'm eating.



Gardening and cooking are artforms, creation is involved. If someone invents a garbage-a-pult, I'll definitely not carry the garbage out "for old time's sake" in middle of the "reminding-me-that-men-have-nipples-too" winter. Sorry for the over-hyphenation.


Making my own things takes less time than shopping for them. I have very particular tastes and often it's difficult to find what I want. Why should I travel to several stores and spend my time looking for just the right shoulder bag when I can buy material and sew one in a Saturday afternoon?


I don't know anyone who does laundary for fun, but "extreme ironing" is a fast growing recreation activity.


first of all, hello! I just found this blog and have been reading quite a bit of it. I'm new to the blog world and commenting so be gentle with me. also, please forgive me if I'm repeating anything someone else has said before, I haven't read the entire backlog of posts.

I work in the "hardcore" games industry ( and yes we're working on wii titles ). what we are often perplexed by is what is called the "casual" games industry. allot of these casual games have extremely repetitious small tasks with few rewards. something that I would relate to the act of, say, knitting. one could think of it as electronic knitting perhaps. what I think ( and I don't pretend to be an expert of any kind, just a person that likes to have "theories" ) is that there is something hard-wired in peoples brains that make them want to do "Menial tasks". I think that its pure instinctual drive. that's not to say its wrong, or right.

another thing that I've noticed about hardcore games. is we have things called MMORPG's ( massive multiplayer online role playing games. MMO for short ) in these MMO's people do the most boring, time consuming, menial tasks you can possibly imagine. chopping wood, hammering metal. its time consuming and in now way can be considered "fun" by anyone except, well by MMO players. but people do it and they love it. why? I don't know. ( I do play MMO's as well and still have no idea )

one more point. why do we like to pop bubble wrap? my theory is that its a instinctual residue from nit-picking. an activity engaged in by our ape-cousins.

thoughts ?



these are not necessities, but pleasures.
there's no pressure, no deadlines, no bosses. you do as you like, and you enjoy your own work.

modern works are so specialized and fragmented that we hardly get to be involved in the whole process. a lot of jobs are actually boring and unfulfilling. but not crafts or DIY projects.

also these labors are relaxing to our stressed minds. i love gardening. it's so healthy. you breath fresh our door air, move around your body, and be part of nature. no worries, no fears, no intense calculations. we are animals and we must have innate needs to be part of nature.

thanks to efficient capitalism, an average person has more time on his/her hands now, so we can be creative. there was a recent study (believe i read on "economist" magazine.)proved it. you don't have to be a serious artist to express yourself. bravo to capitalism!

i do a lot of cooking, because i cook better and healthier than lots of restaurants. my family loves my cooking. i also cross stitch. it's relaxing, but somewhat addictive. part of the fun is to hunt for new interesting patterns wherever i travel to, and exchange with friends.



I think that we are hard wired for repetition and exercise and sitting in an office all day in addition to being boring and at times stressful is unhealthy.

Our lives of ease, promoted at every turn by the agents of capitalism that surround us are killing us.

Walking to work, riding a bike for transportation or exercise, working in a garden are ways to get back to a more "normal" human existence. This is how we have been shaped by evolution, not as consumers, but as producers with our own hands.


You couldn't have efficient communism or socialism? I think this so called "joy" from the manufacture of goods is derived from Marx's fetishism of commodities. Furthermore, what about the ills of capitalism? Enron's failure provides a good example of how inefficient capitalism is. On more point, please do not confuse capitalism with the so-called free market concept.


If there was a way to mix your laundry detergents and adjust the cycle speed and rinse speed of the washing machine, and if, by doing so, you would end up with far softer and brighter-colored clothes than your peers... If, at the end of the process, the shirt or pants or dress stayed clean and neat and pressed for weeks on end...

And, last but not least, if doing laundry the regular way involved dumping everything into a machine and having it come out clean and folded at the other end with virtually no effort from you....

Then, you'd see people doing laundry for fun, because it would make a statement.

Until then, it's just a chore, because you have to do it all the time, and the results get ruined within days or hours.


I will be planting in a week or so - tomatoes, cucumbers and a third vegetable TBD. Did peppers last year - did not work well. I think green beans may be a good choice.

I can stop down in Hyde Park in late August/early September with some fresh produce for Steve.

Given the amount of labor that goes into it, these are probably $20 tomatoes - but they are worth it. I have to wait about two months after they run out before I can eat a store bought tomato again.


Laundry not fun? I enjoy nothing more than hand-washing a dozen or so of my wife's thongs. I love it. How could this be considered "menial" labor? It so brightens up my backyard to see them dangling from the line in the sun on a spring day. Hand-laundering really can be very satisfying. I could go on but won't.


I find Grimmy's post fascinating (about hardcore vs. casual games) and a great example of what's at work in this discussion.

Growing up I played all kinds of different games, from Tetris and Bust-a-Move (casual) to Tekken, Gran Turismo, and Counter-strike (more hardcore games). In my ripe old age of 25, however, I pretty much only play my Wii and cell phone Tetris. I'm sure this experience is not unique (see PS3 vs. Wii).

I think people truly crave simplicity in their lives. At work, I have long-term projects coordinating multiple agencies, constant deadlines, and instructions from three bosses. At home, I have complicated personal issues as well. These are time-consuming, stressful, and often have no solution in sight.

When I pick up a game like Wario Ware or Tetris, there are simple, achievable tasks, and accomplishing them gives an immediate feeling of gratification. If I'm trying to learn Tekken, I'll have to spend an hour trying to figure out what button combination will yield a 10-hit combo, and even that won't guarantee any success.

Basically, simple and achievable tasks create a sense of accomplishment and often a usable end-product. Complicated and long-term tasks just seem like work.

I am more fascinated by why so many people watch TV. No sense of accomplishment, no usable end-product, just a lot of wasted time from my perspective.



Strangely enough, I have actually encountered people that prefer to hand-wash their laundry. Generally, they were of the earthy (read: pseudo-modern hippy) sort.

Their reasons for not using a washer and dryer were quite simple--the added stress on the fabrics more than halves the lifespan of the clothing (or so they claimed). By hand washing the clothing (including skipping the fabric softener), they would not need to purchase clothing as frequently.


I'm not so sure about the need for repetition but I definitely agree with grungeglitter's point about creativity. Echoing what other's have written, there is also the crucial element of control over an end-result, and we have complete autonomy over most of these menial tasks in question.

It's an interesting debate about what tasks constitute pleasure and what tasks constitute work. In a world where many folk have even managed to relegate the act of 'eating' in to a chore to be achieved in as little time as possible, it begs the question of what exactly it is that we want to be doing with our time. Indeed, even your paragraph refers to feeding ourselves as a 'burden'.


Cooking is still a necessity. Yes, food is cheap, but cheap food is not healthy or enjoyable (for me at least). To get somebody to cook good, healthy food is expensive for even somebody with moderate income.

But about the enjoyment of cooking, there's nothing like inviting a few friends over and sharing a meal you cooked on your own. Food is also very personal. Also, us guys love to light up a big fire and barbecue. Who would want somebody else to do that?

What I find more fascinating is the opposite of this post: art from prehistoric times. Weren't these people too starved looking for food or busy fighting off predators or suffering from diseases? Where did they find time to paint something in their caves or carve some statue? Where did they find the time? Now that's cool.