According to the official numbers, the state of work in America appears excellent. Unemployment is low, and wages are perhaps, finally, inching upward. But much of what makes work beneficial to our common life is uncountable; the Department of Labor’s monthly jobs report doesn’t address the condition of the social contract or work-related anxiety or despair. But the authors of several recent books do address these qualitative aspects of work, and they find that workers’ lived experience is in bad shape and stands to get worse in the decades ahead.
Many office workers aren’t tasked with anything useful to do. They have what the anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs,” in a book of that title. Working-class jobs have diminished in quality, undermining the life of countless cities and towns, as Ellen Ruppel Shell shows in The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change (reviewed by Oren Cass in the Wall Street Journal). And as Gabriel Winant writes in a review of the Austrian historian Andrea Komlosy’s book, Work: The Last 1000 Years, the “social contract with formalized gainful employment at its center…is in a state of disarray,” and so “the political system that emerged parallel to it is also decaying.”
These books are mainly diagnostic, but they do offer a few solutions. Graeber calls for universal basic income; Louis Hyman, in Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary, favors “empowering people to create platforms for the other skills that they already have.” That’s a good start, but it’s not enough to reorient work toward large-scale societal flourishing.
That’s because the authors do not adequately address the moral shift we need to make in our approach to work. Max Weber’s image of the iron cage is an apt one. Our moral imagination is constrained by work; indeed, it’s largely confined to work. We reflexively call any meritorious activity “hard work,” whether it’s parenting or marriage or school. Shell wants to curtail work’s demands on us and leave the search for meaning up to the worker herself. There’s much to commend in this approach. But we won’t be better off if we trade striving after status at work for competitive parenting.
In my essay in the current issue of The Hedgehog Review (“When Work and Meaning Part Ways”), I make my own diagnosis of the problem with work as we face the prospect of automation further upending the labor force. Because we’ve built so much of our system of meaning upon our system of employment, mass automation will lead to cultural collapse. To find a path forward, I look to philosopher Jonathan Lear’s book, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, which analyzes how the Crow chief Plenty Coups envisioned a new life for his tribe after the U.S. government forced it off its traditional hunting grounds.
Weber, too, offers a shard of hope: “Perhaps new prophets will emerge, or powerful old ideas and ideals will be reborn at the end of this monstrous development.” We need to get out of the cage. In the movies, every jailbreak begins with an audacious act of imagination. As I write in the essay, “There are plenty of dissenters [from the work ideology] living among us; ascetics, van dwellers, disabled artists, and slackers already understand their worth in terms other than work. Let’s learn from them.”
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