Human Work Should Be Fulfilling – So Why Does it Feel like a Burden?

Ray Bradbury’s dystopian story “The Veldt,” published in 1950, depicts a future in which technology does everything, leaving humans to enjoy their leisure. Of course, they do not enjoy it. The parents, bored and anxious, smoke and drink too much. The children, spoiled and detached, create disaster. The reader is duly warned.

This and other dystopian stories (I, Robot; The Matrix; the Dune novels) have taught us to be wary about putting too much trust in technology, lest machines usurp our dominion. But still we fantasize about using them to disengage from the obligation to work.

This fantasy is not necessarily the product of a sloth-addled soul: written into creation is the idea that humans need rest, need times of grace and communion. When we commit ourselves only to work, we consume ourselves. Josef Pieper wrote in Leisure: The Basis of Culture: “Leisure is only possible when we are at one with ourselves. We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence.”

Some, of a conservative bent, may dream of an old world in which the lower classes labored while the leisure classes created art and pondered philosophy, but this model allowed only the few to enjoy leisure, at the expense of the many. And the creation of a philosophical leisure class presupposes a broader recognition of the value of “useless” things like art and philosophy, too, which even our once-liberal-arts-centered universities are starting to neglect in favor of business and technology.

Others may hope for sensible machines that operate in service to humans, allowing us to obtain greater leisure. But even if we avoid the catastrophic dominance of the machines portrayed in dystopian literature, technology still depends on ecological degradation happening somewhere. Those enjoying their leisure while machines do the work may be sheltered from this, but somewhere else land is being stripped, resources depleted, waterways polluted so technology can function. This is not sustainable.

So, the idea of a leisure class is at best a remote dream. But to give up this dream should not, necessarily, entail embracing the work-ethic of pure production. Our purpose on earth is not simply to be producers, but an increasingly utilitarian society values persons only for what we can produce. Even our consumption is a production.

We feel our obligation to work as a burden, a greater burden then it should be. An array of studies have demonstrated that Americans work more than others in the developed world. It’s difficult to compute, because not all work hours are clocked hours, and many of these studies depend on our word for it. We may say we are working longer because we hate our work more.

But perhaps the problem is that what we’re talking not about work but about a job or career. When we fantasize about not being employed, this is not necessarily because we want to lie about eating bon-bons. It’s not work per se that is the burden. It’s the way our capacity for work is utilized, in an economic system that plugs us into a larger machine.

The idea of the job suggests a space within a system that needs to be filled. Getting a job means filling out a space that was already created by some systemic demand. When that demand shifts or ceases, the job becomes obsolete. The work that one did no longer has value. Move on to a new job. You hope it will be fulfilling, but the economy does not care whether you are fulfilled or not. You work for it, not it for you.

Devaluing work means devaluing the person, the act of the person, through which the person is known. A Christian understanding of the social function of work necessarily stresses this personal dimension over the question of productivity. Pope John Paul II wrote in Laborem Exercens about a “Gospel of work”, according to which “the basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person. The sources of the dignity of work are to be sought primarily in the subjective dimension, not in the objective one.”

Our desire to be free from the demand to have a job may not mean we are lazy or desirous of special privilege. It may be an ethical and spiritual reaction to the unjust demand to give ourselves over to the market, to immolate ourselves on its altar. If the system were orchestrated on the basis of valuing human work as the act of the person, might not we find it more fulfilling and less onerous?

Rebecca Bratten Weiss blogs at “suspended in her jar” and is a part-time teacher and part-time farmer.


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