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Love's labor's lost? the disutility of work and work avoidance in the economic analysis of labor supply


  • David Spencer


This paper explores the origins and evolution of the concept of the disutility of work. The original formulation of this concept developed by Stanley Jevons and by Alfred Marshall recognizes the variability of work motives stressing the effects of both the quantity and quality of work on labor supply. Subsequent writers, notably Lionel Robbins, and later Gary Becker, focus on the opportunity cost of work time, to the neglect of the content of work. These writers lose sight of the influence of the nature of work on the supply of labor. Contemporary research on the economics of labor supply, while accepting the presence of agency problems surrounding the enforcement of the labor contract, continues to consign the determinants of work motives to a black box. The new emphasis on the problem of “shirking” by workers, in particular, offers an unbalanced treatment of the causes and consequences of work resistance.

Suggested Citation

  • David Spencer, 2003. "Love's labor's lost? the disutility of work and work avoidance in the economic analysis of labor supply," Review of Social Economy, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 61(2), pages 235-250.
  • Handle: RePEc:taf:rsocec:v:61:y:2003:i:2:p:235-250 DOI: 10.1080/0034676032000098237

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Alchian, Armen A & Demsetz, Harold, 1972. "Production , Information Costs, and Economic Organization," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 62(5), pages 777-795, December.
    2. Milgrom, Paul R, 1988. "Employment Contracts, Influence Activities, and Efficient Organization Design," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 96(1), pages 42-60, February.
    3. Joseph E. Stiglitz, 1991. "Symposium on Organizations and Economics," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 5(2), pages 15-24, Spring.
    4. Canice Prendergast, 1999. "The Provision of Incentives in Firms," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 37(1), pages 7-63, March.
    5. Grossman, Sanford J & Hart, Oliver D, 1986. "The Costs and Benefits of Ownership: A Theory of Vertical and Lateral Integration," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 94(4), pages 691-719, August.
    6. Demsetz, Harold, 1997. "The Firm in Economic Theory: A Quiet Revolution," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 87(2), pages 426-429, May.
    7. Robert Gibbons, 1998. "Incentives in Organizations," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 12(4), pages 115-132, Fall.
    8. Bowles, Samuel, 1985. "The Production Process in a Competitive Economy: Walrasian, Neo-Hobbesian, and Marxian Models," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 75(1), pages 16-36, March.
    9. Derobert, Laurent, 2001. "On the Genesis of the Canonical Labor Supply Model," Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Cambridge University Press, vol. 23(02), pages 197-215, June.
    10. Spencer, David A, 2000. "The Demise of Radical Political Economics? An Essay on the Evolution of a Theory of Capitalist Production," Cambridge Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 24(5), pages 543-564, September.
    11. Shapiro, Carl & Stiglitz, Joseph E, 1984. "Equilibrium Unemployment as a Worker Discipline Device," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 74(3), pages 433-444, June.
    12. David Spencer, 2002. "Shirking the Issue? Efficiency wages, work discipline and full employment," Review of Political Economy, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 14(3), pages 313-327.
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    Blog mentions

    As found by, the blog aggregator for Economics research:
    1. Behavioural Economics and Organisations
      by Martin Ryan in Geary Behaviour Centre on 2011-01-25 02:02:00


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