From Meals on Wheels to the volunteer CEO: What is work anyway?

Korea before the Empire

I have a small piece of paper that I have been saving for 29 years from a trip to Japan and a stopover in South Korea in Seoul. Every time I went to discard it, something about it made me hold on to it.

In September 1990, Seoul was continuing to weather some major student protests. They had toned down somewhat but we could not venture out much beyond our hotel without being sent back by police. An armed personnel carrier circled the square in front of our hotel.

Reasoning that sight-seeing was not an option, we ventured out of the city to see some countryside attractions. One was a Korean folk village that showcased life in what we call the middle ages in the Joseon period that lasted 5 centuries from 1392 to the late 1800’s. The village had opened to the public in 1974.

The visit was unsurprising in most ways but I happened upon a sign that was loosely translated into English that listed the 6 objectives of life for someone living in a village in what is now South Korea during that period. I jotted down the list on a small scrap of paper. Paraphrased, these are the 6 life objectives:

  1. To have good untroubled children
  2. To be satisfied with your station or place in life
  3. To live in a safe community
  4. To have a functional body and mind
  5. To be a worthy opponent; and
  6. To experience a peaceful death.

All of these make sense. Certainly before the days of clinical mental health intervention, untroubled children would be highly valued. To be happy with your place in life is an understandable goal even if it does tend to discount ambition. Safety made sense back then just as it does today. To have good health is similar to our objectives today.

To be a worthy opponent is interesting. It suggests resisting the bully and standing your ground. These are not foreign concepts. Equally understandable is a preoccupation with a peaceful death before the days of anesthesia when one would have noted some dying in great pain while others passed painlessly in their sleep.

All these objectives are familiar. It’s what is left out that is surprising. Not one of the folk village life objectives says anything about acquiring wealth nor do any of them even mention a career, a vocation or an avocation.

Was this a society that was unconcerned with work or simply a society that wove what we think of as work into their daily lives? Work, it appears, was not something separate and apart.

Perhaps the division of labour was seamless and everyone did a bit of everything to support individual and community life.

But objectified work, as a conceptual entity in one’s life course, did not seem to be present even though a rigid hierarchy of classes of officials, slaves, merchants, and farmers dominated the Joseon social structure. The six life objectives were very supportive on the whole to this highly rigid and stratified society.

But it is significant to me that the modern western family life cycle of acquiring wealth and property along with skills acquisition and wealth transfer was not present conceptually in the Korean folk village of the Joseon period.

Canada in the 20th century

When the Joseon period ended in 1897 to be replaced by the Korean Empire, Canada’s labour force was dominated by farmers, fishers and foresters. According to work by Richard Florida, here’s what our labour market looked like in 1901 with a comparison to 2001:

Table 1:  Canada’s labour market shares – Broad classifications: 1901 to 2001
Labour market category 1901 2001
Farming Fishing and Forestry 46% 4%
Working Class 37% 23%
Service Classes 13% 41%
Creative (Professional) class 4% 32%

Jobs requiring muscular strength and physical activity went into steep decline in the 20th century. In 1901, those jobs represented 83% of labour but by 2001, they had declined to 27%. In contrast, jobs requiring non-physical brainpower and the jobs that serviced it rose from 17% in 1901 to 73% in 2001.

Toronto in the 21st century

The trend towards larger labour market share for professions and the service economy has accelerated in the 21st century and nowhere is it more pronounced than in the Toronto region. The following tables* show job increases and decreases over a 28 year period that straddles the new millennium. Over this time period, employment has increased, it has changed, it has racialized, it has gendered, and it looks entirely dissimilar to the labour market that we had as recently as in the 1980’s.

The professional class and the service class needed to keep it going have exploded and the brawn jobs of yesteryear have been exported and have largely disappeared.  Working class jobs are in sharp decline and only one service class job was a casualty of change: secretaries. The service and professional classes of employment are on balance more female friendly. Traditional male jobs not requiring advanced academic educations are in sharp decline.

Table 2: City of Toronto: Top ten growing occupations – 1987-2015
Occupation % growth Classification Gender trend
Health support services 165% Service Female
Judges, lawyers, social work, religion 165% Professional n/a
Paralegals, social services 131% Professional Female
Professional business and finance 124% Professional n/a
Prof. natural/applied science 109% Professional Male
Food and beverage 108% Service Female
Teachers and professors 105% Professional n/a
Professionals in art and culture 71% Professional n/a
Technical and related in health 71% Professional Female
Technical in art culture and sport 70% Professional n/a
Table 3: City of Toronto: Top ten declining occupations – 1987-2015
Occupation % decline Classification Gender trend
Secretaries 85% Service Female
Machinists and metal forming 68% Working Class Male
Assemblers in Manufacturing 58% Working Class Male
Trades miscellaneous 54% Working Class Male
Supervisors in manufacturing 51% Working Class Male
Heavy Equipment operators 46% Working Class Male
Trades construction and transport 44% Working Class Male
Energy and Communications 43% Working Class Male
Mechanics   42% Working Class Male
Machine operators manufacturing 40% Working Class Male

There is a lot going on here. Labour market inequality between the dominating classifications of lower paid service work and higher paid professions continues to trend, marking the most important aspect of income and wealth inequality of our time. It may be only second to climate change in its importance.

What we call work in a largely service based and professional economy is so far removed from the mid 1980’s that it is hardly recognizable.

I deliver Meals on Wheels

For the past 17 years, I have delivered meals on wheels for WoodGreen Community Services and its predecessor program at Eastminister United Church. In the old days at the Church, when I needed to take a day off for other things, another volunteer took my place. At WoodGreen, sometimes a paid staff has to make the delivery.

When I deliver the meals, there is no payment to me. It is not paid work. I get no T4. I get no statement. I pay no money into CPP or EI nor does an employer. I have no income tax deducted and I pay no income tax or get any money back.

When staff members deliver the same meals on wheels, they receive payment through their wages. It is paid work. Their T4 accounts for the time spent on this form of paid work. They receive a pay statement that recognizes this work. They pay into CPP and EI as does their employer. Income tax is deducted and it goes into their income tax calculation.

It is the same delivery to the same people on the same day. The activity is identical.

The staff members’ payment contributes to Canada’s GDP. Their tax deducted figures into Canada’s overall balance sheet.

My identical volunteer work does not contribute to Canada’s GDP. This same ‘work’ does not figure into Canada’s overall balance sheet.

The meals on wheels customers pay the same amount for their meals if delivered by staff or a volunteer. The value of the paid commerce is identical.

If real ‘work’ is paid work, then on one week, the delivery is not work. The following week it is work. Perhaps the week after that it is not work.

The same is true for volunteer work in hospitals and in other health related institutions. A task performed by volunteers is not ‘work’ because it does not meet the definition of paid work. A task that volunteers don’t perform becomes paid work. It goes back and forth just like meals on wheels.

Health support services along with food and beverage are the two leading service occupations in the top ten advancing jobs in Toronto over the past 28 years. Health support jobs have more than tripled in that time while food and beverage jobs have doubled.

But volunteerism was also increasing in the first part of the new millennium and it was increasing faster than our population growth.

All well and good. But lately we see a different story, one that might show a clearer trend with ‘2020 hindsight’ next year.

Meals on wheels volunteerism is going down and so is volunteerism in other areas including health supports. As time commitments to paid work go up, time available to volunteering goes down. In one British study, the top barrier to volunteering was work commitments.

Could it be that some job categories are increasing because volunteering is going down?

And does any of it matter?

Well it does matter because the wages of paid work can get pushed down when a job can be done and is done by a volunteer.  So perhaps I am being more virtuous when I take a day off volunteering because it may pressure agencies to pay higher wages due to higher demand for services that are obviously required.

It also matters because low wage service jobs are gendered and are done by women more than men. And women get paid less.

In Joseon Korea, there didn’t seem to be a conceptual division between paid and unpaid work among the common people – at least if the 6 objectives of a good life are to be believed and understood in context.

But Canadians in the 2020’s will make sharp distinctions between unpaid volunteer work and paid service jobs as labour market inequality continues to increase.

Maybe we can invent a new category of ‘volunteer CEO’ to help reduce the demands for high CEO pay. Maybe we can also increase volunteerism in business and finance, in law and in art and culture.

Maybe in an era where we make such a sharp distinction between paid and unpaid work, the volunteer CEO and the well paid service worker form part of an answer.

* Statistics Canada Labour Force survey: Accessed by City of Toronto Open Data catalogue at