“Work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do.”
Radio journalist Studs Terkel interviewed hundreds of people for his 1974 book Working. Here are a couple quotes from it:
“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
“Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.”
Apparently not much has changed in the 43 years since Working came out. Consider this from The Power of Meaning, by Emily Esfahani Smith (2017):
“Today, about 70 percent of all employees either are ‘not engaged’ in their work–that is, they feel uninvolved, uncommitted, and unenthusiastic about it–or are ‘actively disengaged’ from it, and less than half of all workers feel satisfied with their jobs.”
Or consider anthropologist David Graeber’s widely circulated 2013 article On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant:
“In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.”
“Virtually no one talks about it.” Why not? The Financial Times ran an article a couple months ago called Britain’s Joyless Jobs Market Can Be Bad For Your Health. (It’s here, but you’ll have to subscribe to read it.) It makes the same point as the following quote from the article published by the Lawyers Assistance Program of British Columbia which we looked at a few weeks ago:
“[I]t is unhealthy to do meaningless, unchallenging, uncreative work, especially for those that are intelligent and well trained.”
Seems like a pretty uncontroversial thing to say, but you can’t tell from the nastiness in the comments that follow the article — one more sad case of polarized opinions talking past each other and the loss of meaningful discourse. Not only can’t we talk about economics, but apparently we also can’t talk about how crummy jobs ruin our health.
Why has it become so inflammatory to suggest that boring, meaningless work might not be a good thing? Because of the widespread “truths” about work that have become culturally sacred. To many — maybe most — people, work represents a moral good, no matter how boring, trite, thoughtless, and demeaning.
“Work means everything to us. For centuries–since, say, 1650–we’ve believed that it builds character (punctuality, initiative, honesty, self-discipline, and so forth). We’ve also believed that the market in labor, where we go to find work, has been relatively efficient in allocating opportunities and incomes. And we’ve also believed that even if it sucks, the job gives meaning, purpose, and structure to our everyday lives–at any rate we’re pretty sure that it gets us out of bed, pays the bills, makes us feel responsible, and keeps us away from daytime TV.”
“Those beliefs are no longer plausible. In fact, they’ve become ridiculous, because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills–unless, of course, you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way.”
“[Work] no longer functions as either a moral calendar or an economic calculator. You will learn nothing about character by going to work at the minimum wage because the gangsters or the morons at corporate headquarters control your opportunities; you will learn nothing about the rationality of the market because the same people determine your income.”
More next time.
 1650 is the year René Descartes died.