No, Really: We Don’t Have an Adequate Way to Talk About the Meaning of Work

I have an essay about work and meaning in the current issue of The Hedgehog Review. The essay has elicited some good responses from friend and stranger alike; I’m grateful for all. I always have mixed feelings when people write to say my essays about work resonate with their experience. On the one hand, my entire goal is to put words to the experience of having a shitty job (or, worse, wishing you had a shitty job) in 21st century America. But on the other, I wish people’s experience of their jobs wasn’t so shitty!

I recently got to Skype into a lunchtime discussion of the essay at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, which publishes The Hedgehog Review and is housed in my much-beloved Charlottesville, Virginia. As several scholars arrayed around a massive conference table crunched their kettle chips, I answered their really thoughtful questions about toil and boredom and whether we truly lack a vocabulary for our experience of work, or if the vocabulary we need is just dormant.

Of course, I’ve given more thought to the critics. Only one person emailed to, as he put it, “debunk” my argument, but we exchanged a few emails and managed to hug it out. At the lunchtime discussion, one scholar had, in his words, “more of a comment than a question.” He argued, not unreasonably, that the fully-automated future will more likely be a dystopia in which we’re all slaves to Earth-orbiting trillionaires than an Eden of leisure in which machines are slaves to the human collective. Maybe the nightmare will come to pass. But that doesn’t tell us anything about what we should do about the work ethic now. Working twice as hard at our jobs while we still can isn’t going to forestall the worst possible scenario.

Another argued that it would be just too much effort to do what I call for in the essay: to change our moral vocabulary around work and the good life. The scholar seemed to be saying we’re just going to have to be stuck with the present dreary situation forever, repeating the myths about how work earns you dignity and builds moral character. (Tell that to the women who miscarried while working at a shipping warehouse in Memphis. Tell that to the woman who died on the job from overwork at the same warehouse and whose body lay on the floor for hours, surrounded by orange cones, while the bosses made everyone work around her.)

Why is it considered radical to argue that we ought to find a way to define the good life apart from work? Why isn’t the status quo what’s truly radical, alien, and unnatural? Yes, I think we need a sharp — even “radical” — departure from the status quo. And I can’t say in advance what the new state of moral affairs should look like. That doesn’t make me wrong.

The highest-profile response came from Wall Street Journal columnist William Galston, who wrote last week about the future social arrangement around work. He noted that I looked forward to a tech-enabled world of much less work, but he sees that as a problem, because — again — work is such a powerful source of meaning, dignity, and character. “Until there is a clear alternative [social vision],” he writes, “it would be dangerous to undermine the moral centrality of work, a principle that can help reunite our divided society.”

I have two responses to that. First, work’s positive ability to shape our moral character has already been undermined. Adam Smith, who did so much to theorize and justify industrial workplace arrangements, thought so 242 years ago. He knew then what we see now: Work grinds people down and burns them out. Advocates for the moral value of work often elide the jobs people actually do. Second, if we need alternatives to the work-centered social vision, let’s start imagining them now! My essay calls for exactly that. We can’t say for sure what the right vision will be, but I’m convinced we have to start creating it now.

I’m a writer and a former professor and parking lot attendant. I cover work, religion, and education, and I’m currently writing a book about the spiritual costs of the American work ethic.This post is reprinted from my newsletter. Subscribe here!  Image: Wikimedia.

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