Work. For some, it’s an activity to be avoided. For others, it’s something you can’t live without. It’s not just that people work to stock the fridge and pay the bills. It’s that people work because, without it, their lives would somehow be less purposeful. If economics is the study of human action, work is a big part of thinking about economics. But it goes deeper than that, to questions about who we are as a species.
From the teenager who proudly trims the final blade of grass alongside the flowerbed, to the Walmart associate who helps a desperate dad be a better Santa on Christmas Eve, workers make the world go round. There is much to celebrate about them and their work.
Work can help you make ends meet. It can help you find dignity. It can even be rewarding. And beyond the fact that it’s got to be done, there’s no grand theory of work. It simply animates our economy. Some work can be useless, of course—like the output of a functionary who places stamps on official papers. Or think about the tax preparer: Even though he makes life a little easier as we navigate the tax labyrinth each winter, it’s easy to imagine a world with a flat tax and without H&R Block.
Some people work for the sake of the work—like the dollmaker who spends Saturdays molding tiny hands and stitching little outfits, but refuses to sell her work. Then there’s the guy who volunteers to coach kids’ basketball. What about the novelist who knows his chances of being published are remote?
We have to be honest about the kind of work few of us want to do (except maybe people who risked their lives to cross the Sonoran Desert to do it). I’m thinking of the dishwashers, the landscapers, and the folks who clean the slaughterhouse floor. Most of us don’t want to do it, but some are happy to do such work. While we might bristle at the Victorian horrors of factory labor, we know at some level it’s better than a world with no factories.
Marxists speak of alienation on the assembly line—a condition where pride-of-craft is absent and the worker may never even see the finished product. We now know people can and do take pride (and find flow) in even the most mundane sorts of labor, like factory work. But we should also admit that some jobs are pretty hard to romanticize—jobs David Allen Coe might offer for you to take and shove.
“Progressive” intellectuals view low-skill laborers and their work with a mix of pity and condescension. In her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich writes about her experiences posing as a working-class person (in this scenario as a maid):
Self-restraint becomes more of a challenge when the owner of a million-dollar condo … who is … an acquaintance of the real Barbara Bush takes me into the master bathroom to explain the difficulties she’s been having with the shower stall. Seems its marble walls have been “bleeding” onto the brass fixtures, and can I scrub the grouting extra hard? That’s not your marble bleeding, I want to tell her, it’s the world-wide working class—the people who quarried the marble, wove your Persian rugs until they went blind, harvested the apples in your lovely fall-themed dining room centerpiece, smelted the steel for the nails, drove the trucks, put up this building, and now bend and squat and sweat to clean it.
Where low-skilled laborers see opportunity, Ehrenreich sees offense. For people like her, the working class are people to be protected and paid according to the fancies of academics with agendas—as opposed to, say, labor market supply and demand. And yet even as she stews in her sanctimony about the world-wide working class, we can all relate to the idea that some jobs just suck. While we may never automate all the suckiest jobs—or take Huxley’s soma in order to cope—we can take comfort in the likelihood that work will become less sucky with time (if history is any guide, that is.) And, as we become more productive (and as long as those sanctimonious types with political agendas don’t interfere), we can, in a sense, buy time: fewer hours spent doing things we only do because we have to, or less of our working time swallowed up by mere subsistence, leaving more for things like cell phones, vacations, air conditioning—maybe even retirement.
In any case, less of U.S. economic output requires backbreaking work these days. With few exceptions, any person born today stands less of a chance than ever of having their job devour their lives—literally wearing their bodies and minds out with the task of merely keeping body and soul together. This holds even during these tough times: Your old job might not come back, but the complexity of our modern economy offers an enormous variety of things one can do to earn a crust. Twenty years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to develop a game for an iPad. Food trucks weren’t hip—you had to go all out and open a restaurant, or content yourself with dinner parties. Mixed martial arts was not bigger than boxing.
If the macroeconomists stop meddling and the government stops growing, we may return to a condition of growth that pulls more people with a willing heart back into lives of productivity and purpose.