Working for Nothing: The Breaking Point

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working for nothingInitially, I was taken aback by the CNBC headline “Greek Workers Keep Working Without Pay” and the illustrative report that staff at the Henry Dunant Hospital in recession-wracked Athens are still working, despite being owed five months pay, and even after having agreed to a 15% pay cut.

“Wow! Working for nothing!”, I was tempted to think. But then, I thought the obvious: Working without pay, even indefinitely, is not as bad as really working for nothing.

However, a weird question then intruded: Who has ever worked, really works or would work for literally nothing? Besides, what does it mean “to work for nothing”?

A Breaking Point Below Break-Even

Yes, most people will cite volunteers and interns as types who work for nothing. But, no, despite the absence of an associated income, volunteers and interns do not work for nothing; there is always something rewarding (expected) to be gained from volunteering and interning. Ask any volunteer or unpaid intern. You must resist the temptation to limit your understanding of rewards to monetized ones, if you are going to understand “working for nothing”, job markets and economies—both pre-money barter economies and modern intern-dependent ones.

That June 14, 2012 headline is a battle banner for and a testament to these workers’ great faith, can-do spirit, desperation, supportive family and friends, access to whatever government safety nets exist,  perhaps some savings or a lack of perceived alternatives.  But, the longer that battle rages, the more working without pay is going to resemble “working for nothing”, whatever the latter is.

Working without pay is a tough situation to be in—and one that may be even tougher to get out of. The question these struggling Greeks (and others) may be forced to ask is how long to let it ride before desperation is all that is left to fuel the search for or creation of other income, places or ways to survive, however awful, yet survivable?

That’s the breaking point, well below break-even, toward which such Greek workers are being pushed.

But, given economic history and the economics of the moment, there can be no assurances—smug or otherwise—that such a painful and stark choice won’t be faced at some point, in some place, including elsewhere, farther from Greece and closer to home.

So, assuming the question is one worth being prepared for, what’s the best reply to “How long should we stick it out, and continue to work without pay”?

When to Quit the Job without Pay

The easiest, although, in the absence of some explaining, not the clearest answer, is the one already hinted at: In the absence of any visible alternative employment, give up the non-paying job when working that job without pay becomes affordable or when it becomes working for nothing, meaning working with neither anticipated rewards nor provision of subsistence.

Since a non-paying job is generally affordable only to the likes of $1-a-year professors, lottery winners or pro bono lawyers who otherwise aren’t, the breaking point is reduced to that point at which doing the job means unaffordably working for nothing.

It is obvious that, up to a point, working without pay makes sense, so long as it is not seen as working for nothing.

The most sensible cases include working, as the Athens hospital staff is, in anticipation of eventual payment; as a pensioned volunteer; or as an intern, which is still not working for nothing, to the extent that the experience counts as a career foothold or as a foot in the door of the sponsoring company.  As everybody knows, even if being a company intern foot-soldier doesn’t create some career footing, it’s still not working for nothing, if the experience turns out to be rewarding in some other way, e.g., the sheer fun of the job, skill set enhancement or the social contacts it affords.

Crime Doesn’t Pay (Less Than Subsistence)

However, although it is obvious that volunteering and interning are not working for nothing, it is much less obvious what working for nothing is, even though seemingly simple logic suggests it should be comparably transparent. After all, if it is obvious what X is, it should be equally obvious what X isn’t (and vice versa). Right? (Actually not always, since although it may be obvious what the cause of the cosmic Big Bang isn’t—for example, Donald Trump, it still isn’t obvious what the cause was or even that the concept of “cause” is at all relevant to its occurrence.)

But, because working for nothing is more extreme than working without pay, it may be more challenging to find historical examples of anything but very short-term forms of this. How common has working for nothing been?

What about slavery or hard labor in prison? No, neither of these is an example of working for nothing, since, as a rational minimum, scraps of food, water and some semblance of shelter (however meager) for forced laborers have generally been required in the name of “efficiency”, “rational allocation of resources” and “productivity”.

Ironically, if those currently working without pay in Greece and elsewhere never do get paid—not even enough to buy food (e.g., the Athenians in 2012 food handout queues), their situation could theoretically be worse than those working on chain gangs, the latter at least having basic subsistence provided in exchange for their labor.

Hence, anyone unfortunate or unwise enough to try to cope with the breaking point by “breaking into prison”, e.g., committing a crime just to get State “room and board”, will still not have transitioned from working without pay to pure working for nothing.

Ironically, the reluctant felon would actually be moving up a pay grade, from utter destitution and non-subsistence to a frequently labor-free, yet provisioned set of circumstances behind bars. In a case like this, the maxim “Crime doesn’t pay” remains true, but as short for “Crime doesn’t pay less than subsistence.”

Don’t Confuse the Outcome with the Process of Self-Employment

Then, how about having a stab at working as a self-employed entrepreneur, when desperate and when the risk of really working for nothing appears, either way, to loom large? Should a worker who hasn’t been paid in months, chuck the job and go it alone? Or is that to take on the risk of really working for nothing? Suppose he fails, with net gain of zero, or worse, incurred losses? Is that an example of “working for nothing”?

The answer is again, like choosing to go to jail, no—if viewed collectively as the average fate of the average entrepreneur, who, like the average gambler, is hoping to come out ahead, but, who, again like the gambler, often, maybe usually, does not. Hoped-for profits that never materialize are like interest on bad loans that is never collected: Both are, like anticipated wages or other compensation for work, rationally expected rewards for risk-taking, which, all too often, fail to materialize.

What this means is that, by definition, being a self-employed entrepreneur entails accepting the risk that there may be no net gain, or worse. Even if the eventual outcome amounts to working for nothing, the process and “rules of the game” do not. Indeed, the process of running one’s own business has built into it the understanding and acceptance of the possibility of gaining nothing. Hence, not having shown a profit is not equivalent to having worked for nothing (as a process or anticipated outcome), even if the effort and outcome didn’t cover as little as basic subsistence.

Subsistence and “The Little Engine That Couldn’t”

This raises and revisits a crucial concept in classical economic thinking: the idea of a subsistence wage as being only marginally better than working for nothing. In light of those emergency food queues in Athens, for those who simply have neither food nor money, it is germane to ask whether, at some point, those working without pay, and upon exhausting all other resources, would accept employment that pays nothing above bare subsistence (viz., food, water and shelter)—just enough to enable them to work more, to earn more of that subsistence.

Clearly, anyone who must line up for food is not earning a subsistence wage.

Marx and other critics of capitalism paint a gloomy picture of workers given only subsistence wages—augmented just enough to allow them to breed and raise their own replacements in squalid tenements or camps, while low enough to prevent breeding competing well-fed, well-educated entrepreneurs.

However, the productive gains of industrial capitalism and the consumer society vividly disproved that notion for more than a century, as the “affluent society” bloomed. The digital technology and information age has, around the world, extended those gains since the early days of the industrial revolution.  But what about urban workers in a G20 country like Greece, where in 2012 there are those food lines? To the extent that they appear to be on the verge of working for nothing more than subsistence (denominated in food handouts, rather than income), are they not, in effect, caught up in a “working-for-nothing” scenario?

True, like bed-and-board prison inmates, any unpaid workers queuing up for food are not literally without any compensation for their labor, viz., food, however indirect and charity-based. But, when work merely facilitates only more work and seems “pointless”, it will feel like it is working for nothing—unless surviving for survival’s sake feels, as the struggle for existence and natural selection incline us to feel, like an accomplishment.

That’s because, from the worker’s standpoint, subsistence labor involves nothing more than earning the fuel to keep one’s engine pumping and running up a hill, only to roll back down, and when the only accomplishment of the engine is to pump more fuel into itself to repeat the uphill climb (or to produce more copies of themselves as engines that merely fuel themselves).

But, human ingenuity and determination being what they are and have been, and given the evidence of the last century, there is ample reason to hope that, around the world, regression to or continuation of the worst working conditions under which many workers merely subsist will, as risks, be permanently swept away, into the dustbin of history.

In any event, as an individual and collective goal, attempting to accomplish that is truly working for something.


Image: WORKING FOR NOTHING?/Michael Moffa

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).