Work for Profit (or Not)

Nancy Folbre
20 August 2015

Most introductory economics texts assume that most of the work performed in the U.S. takes place in profit-maximizing firms. One important exception is Understanding Capitalism.

Understanding Capitalism, by Samuel Bowles, Richard Edwards, and Frank Roosevelt, has long observed that “commodified” work represents less than half of all work performed. Asked to help update this text, I came up with the pie chart below: Bottom line: only about 38% of all hours of work in the U.S. in 2013 qualify as work “for profit.” All these numbers are based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and you can find the source Excel file here.

Data on unpaid work come from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), one of my all-time favorite sources of information. But I can’t help but complain that the ATUS summary tables uses the word “work” only to refer to paid work, using more specific terms such as “household activities” or “caring for household members” for unpaid work. This nomenclature is confusing, as well as incorrect. For more discussion of this issue, check out my earlier post “Is it Work?”

Economists accustomed to the conventional definition of work are often so amazed by these numbers that they ignore them. But they make sense if you reflect on the following: Almost everyone who does work for pay also does unpaid work–especially evenings and weekends. And only about 60% of the adult population in the U.S. is employed–due to a large number of students, retirees, and people who specialize in unpaid work (a.k.a. “housewives”).

In some ways, I’m more surprised by the approximately 23% of all paid employees (and about 11% of all “workers” as defined here) employed either by government or non-profits.

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