Lynne Pettinger, What’s Wrong with Work?

Lynne Pettinger, What’s Wrong with Work? Policy Press, 2019, x + 230 pp, 1 4473 4008 9, pbk, £12.99

Work is ‘what gets done to make life possible’ (p. 5), and it is the diversity of this work that Pettinger’s book is all about.

In the first chapter, the author understands the context of work in relation to ‘environmental catastrophe, seemingly unstoppable technological change, … and unstable, unpredictable everyday life’, and also in relation to what she calls ‘capitalocentrism’ (p. 8), by which she means explanations that only take account of economic realities. For the author, the economy is not a given, but is something that we create, and a disordered capitalism is only part of it.

Chapter 2 shows how today’s ‘work as production’ has evolved, with capitalism evolving in tandem with colonialization; and chapter 5 shows how neoliberal ideology has driven today’s flexibilisation and precarity. Chapter 3 relativises the ‘four industrial revolutions’ narrative by recognising the ‘deleted labour and hidden work’ – caring work, rubbish collection, the slow science that is submerged by narratives centred on individual geniuses, and so on – that constitutes large parts of the world’s economies. Pittenger makes the hidden work visible, shows that ‘gig’ work is far from new, and also shows how private sector involvement in public services changes the character of public sector governance work and so can be counterproductive in the longer term. Chapter 4 understands work as social and cultural encounters that change human and non-human material realities, and questions the notion of dignity as autonomy on the basis that work is always relational.

Chapter 6 explores informal work, and how the many different kinds of work are intimately connected with each other: and here in particular we find a recognition of the diversity of different kinds of work that Pettinger lists at the beginning of her book: ‘paid work … the informal economy … care work, provisioning work, informal exchange of home-produced goods … voluntary work and domestic work … forced work and slavery, prison labour and welfare-to-work … co-creation attached to leisure and lifestyle activities … gig work and forced self-employment …’ (p. 5).

In chapter 7, Pettinger explores the fact that work creates new realities, both for the worker and for much else: and, in particular, that work creates new kinds of work, as when work on new technology destroys, changes, and creates work.


Chapter 8 explores some of the ethical complexities related to the green economy ( – for instance, in relation to the extraction of the minerals needed to make solar panels); and the final chapter descends into a somewhat chaotic list of some of the current problems and complexities of paid employment.

There is far more in this book than can be expressed in a short review: just as there is far more to work than any simple definition can encapsulate. The book is full of detailed evidence and of examples from everyday life: but clear definition is sometimes lacking – for instance, the word ‘economy’ is used somewhat flexibly throughout the book, and it might have been helpful to have provided a clear definition at the beginning of the book, and to have included the word in the index. Pettinger sometimes struggles to organise her material into coherent chapters: but that is largely a symptom of the complexity of the topic, and how, as Pettinger shows, work is highly diverse, and the many different kinds of work are complicatedly interconnected.

The lesson to take away from this book is that any narrative simplifies and excludes, so we need to seek out the less told elements of both the history and the present situation if we are to ask and answer relevant questions. If this mostly comprehensive book has left an element of the story untold, then it is the part of the story about incomes: earned incomes, social security benefits, taxation, and so on. These financial realities are intimately related to the many different kinds of work that Pettinger discusses, and to the many elements of daily life that she explores. It is particularly difficult to understand paid work and the effect of its increasing flexibilisation and precarity on workers and their families without an understanding of how earned incomes are becoming flexible and precarious and how tax and benefits systems are failing to cope with that. It is also difficult to understand voluntary work and care work without studying the ways in which earned and benefits incomes are distributed within and between households. Perhaps a second book from this highly capable researcher and author might be able to tackle this major remaining issue.