When Work and Meaning Part Ways

Pocket Worthy – By Peter Ravn – Thursday September 26, 2019

The American work ethic is built on a promise: Work hard, and you’ll earn more than just money. You’ll earn social dignity, moral character, even spiritual purpose. In short, you’ll live the good life. For centuries, Americans have believed that work is indispensable to human flourishing. It’s been a useful belief. In absolute terms, American society is rich: American companies dominate their industries. American workers are productive.

There are only two problems with the work ethic today: Work doesn’t reliably deliver the social, moral, and spiritual goods it promises, and artificial intelligence is about to render the work ethic moot. Its central promise is like rickety scaffolding that doesn’t reach high enough. People fall off of it all the time as they climb in pursuit of the prize supposedly awaiting them at the top. At the same time, the whole structure stands over an unstable geological fault; sooner or later, a quake will reduce it to matchwood. Even so, we insist that the structure is sound. Anyone who gets off is deemed lazy and earns derision.

The very meaning of work is in jeopardy right now, and a big reason is that we expect too much meaning from work. We believe the false promise that work confers dignity, character, and purpose, and we inculcate that belief in our children and students. But in the present stage of American capitalism, working means having a job. It means having an employer who puts our time, sweat, and (one hopes) talent to use in accordance with current managerial doctrines and for the sake of profit. So what we say about work—at the dinner table, at graduations, in opinion columns, in sermons, on the floor of the Senate—doesn’t match the reality of the work we do. This mismatch leads us to a sad, profound irony: Our commitment to the work ethic, meant to help us live the good life, is actually keeping us from doing so. It will take an effort engaging our entire society to replace the cultural mythology that created this problem, before the profit motive leads companies to do away with human labor altogether. Our first step in this effort must be to understand how each component of the promise fails us.

Makers and Takers

Soon after Captain John Smith took command of the diseased and dying Jamestown settlement in 1608, he issued a decree that would lodge in the American mind for the next four centuries: “He that gathereth not every day as much as I do, the next day shall be set beyond the river, and be banished from the Fort as a drone, until he amend his conditions or starve.”

Smith’s pronouncement excluded any middle ground between workers and worthless people, or the deserving and the undeserving, or members of society and rightful outcasts. The distinction remains with us in the contrast between “makers” and “takers.” It’s built into the ideal of “full employment,” valorized equally on the left and right.2 It’s the basis for arguments that Medicaid and food stamp recipients should be required to work, and it grounds proposals for a universal job guarantee. Smith’s threat, borrowed from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians (“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat,” 2 Thess. 3:10), is the flipside of the promise of the American work ideology: Having a job is the sole pathway to dignity, which the sociologist Allison Pugh defines as “our capacity to stand as fully recognized participants in our social world.”3 If you have a job, others acknowledge you as a contributor to society and thus as someone with a say in how it operates and a right to claim its benefits. In short, work is how you earn the right to count in American society.

Given that just under half of the country’s total population is in the civilian labor force, many Americans’ dignity is in question.4 To shore up the nonemployed majority’s claim to social citizenship, we describe parenthood and schooling in terms of work. We call these activities “jobs” not simply because they’re difficult, but because we lack a vocabulary to talk about meritorious noneconomic activity. A friend of mine reports receiving a letter from his first grader’s school that stated, “It is important that we start on time. We are training our children for the work force.”5 Another friend tells me that her kindergartner’s teachers lead the kids in a call-and-response chant every day at lunchtime: “Hard work…pays off!”

Retirees get past the social checkpoint because they’re resting after decades of hard work. They’ve put in their time. People whose illnesses or disabilities keep them from working get, at best, a grudging pass. They’re exempt from the social requirement to work and can legitimately accept meager public benefits (even John Smith made an exception for the seriously ill), but they often have to endure skepticism about their condition. They are always under the suspicion that they’re faking their disability. He sure looks like he can work says the strangely envious person of the neighbor who bears an invisible disability or suffers inescapable pain.

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Posted by Teri Perticone


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