The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 3 (Fall 2018)

When Work and Meaning Part Ways

Jonathan Malesic

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 3)

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.

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Jonathan Malesic teaches first-year writing at Southern Methodist University and is the author of Secret Faith in the Public Square: An Argument for the Concealment of Christian Identity. His essays on work have appeared in The New Republic, Washington Post, Chronicle of Higher Education, America, Commonweal, and elsewhere. He was a 2004–05 visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.3 (Fall 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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