Over the past 50 years, the main source of employment in the United States has shifted from the manual to the mental—from doing things with one’s hands to delivering a service or a feeling. As Enrico Moretti points out in his 2013 book The New Geography of Jobs, any given American is now statistically more likely to work in a restaurant than a factory. Not all mental work is equal, though: The divide between hospitality and knowledge work defines the new economy. Together, these two forces are proving that the phrases the past century has left us with—“gig,” “work,” “job”—are obsolete and inadequate.
Today’s knowledge economy is defined by a duplicitous charm in its categorical refusal to see work as labor. Desk workers are everywhere encouraged to “love what you do”: to embody their company’s values, identify with its brand, and then celebrate its accomplishments through internal and external marketing. For these creative workers, it is a badge of honor to never be off the clock. As they go about converting their own creative passions into making a living, these professionals are offered a spread of services, such as Evernote or space in a WeWork site, that are designed with them in mind. From Uber to Munchery, Fancy Hands to TaskRabbit, the generation that missed out on secretaries now has a surfeit of support staff at hand. To be conscious of time passing on the job is a sign that one has yet to learn the art of delegating mundane trivia to others.