Feb  2017 28
Let’s Talk About Work

The topic of “jobs” is in the news frequently. How many jobs were added to the economy this month? Would current citizens do all the jobs that immigrants do? What is the relationship between immigration and jobs?

Infrastructure spending programs will create (fill-in-the-blank) good-paying jobs.

In which fields are jobs growing, and which endeavors are going the way of the buggy whip? If manufacturing jobs came back to the U.S. rather than outsourced, how many jobs would a fully-computerized plant actually yield?

Energy jobs versus environment: which will win, and isn’t there a way to avoid win-lose scenarios? Or, one of my favorite lines laugh or serious (depending on context) lines from the 1960s, resurrected by the Grandpa in the movie Up: “Get a job, hippie!”

The national talk about jobs is highly controversial and political (OK, so are a bunch of topics). I wonder what kind of conversation we might have if we were talking more about work rather than jobs.

Let’s elevate the conversation from “jobs” to “work” and include philosophical, moral, and religious dynamics.

In the 1960s, a great deal of the conversation about work focused on its supposed opposite: leisure. We thought we were heading for a society with more leisure than work.

With all the innovations in automation, sociologists postulated a high tech society would work less and play more. College majors in leisure studies were developed. And, of course, that icon of the 70s, “leisure suits” (an oxymoron, in retrospect), was invented and (yes, I did) worn.

Well, that leisure society is not so much what developed. Amusing ourselves to death (the title of Neil Postman’s powerful book), yes. Real rest and restoration, no.

In Japan, national leaders are worried about a large segment of the population that is in danger of working themselves to death. The Lucy and Ethel scene in the chocolate factory—sheer panic because life is coming at us too fast, the calendars are overflowing, the weight of the unattended to that deserves our attention grows, the feeling of being overwhelmed with inboxes and the undone—is much more our reality than leisure or rest.

So, how about a national conversation about the value of work? For some people, work means bliss, for others degradation.

Read Studs Terkel’s classic book, Working, and you’ll see painful stories from people whose work degraded them. “Work with your mind rather than with your hands,” was a hope of my parent’s manufacturing generation for my first-generation-to-go-to-college cohort.

And now there are books such as Shopcraft as Soulcraft that argue for the spiritual, physical, and mental health superiority of making things with one’s hands rather than laboring in the knowledge class.

Providing work, working together for a shared purpose, money given in exchange for work—these and a host of other questions reveal the deeper assumptions about work that might change our national conversations about jobs.

Where might inquiries such as the following lead if local, regional, and national leaders considered jobs questions in light of work questions?

  • What is the purpose of work?
  • What is the connection between working and the human vocation, what humanity is here to do?
  • Are we here primarily to dominate the planet, or to care and tend?
  • For persons with physical or mental limitations, what is meaningful work?
  • What is the work of retirement?
  • What should be the premises for a 21st century work ethic?
  • If we understood work in the context of what it means to be human, what are a government’s responsibilities to foster meaningful work, and what are the responsibilities of employers to provide meaningful work?
  • What kind of jobs would a morally grounded understanding of work foster, and which jobs would a morally grounded understanding of work discourage?
  • In what way is work an element of our social covenant with each other, to engage in work together, for some common purposes?

Work and the meaning of work is an essential aspect of many religious traditions. From a Judeo-Christian perspective, there three ideas stand out for me.

First, the goodness and blessing of a God who works. In the ancient Near East, leisure was the highest form of existence. Rulers enslaved people, as the gods enslaved human beings, in order that the ruling class could live like the gods. The Bible tells a radically different story, of a God who works and who gives humankind ennobling work to do.

Second, work must not sully the dignity of any human being. No one is to be mistreated in working. Everyone and everything—including beasts of burden—are deserving of Sabbath, that weekly godly day of rest and restoration that balances the demands of work.

Third, human work is fundamentally a partnering with God to complete and to mend the world. Judaism knows the phrase tikkun olam, to mend the world. The tagline of Tikkun Magazine is, “to heal, repair, and transform the world.” I love that. I think these words express the essentials of what authentic religion is meant to do and be. Ultimately, what is the purpose of work of human work? Partner with God to heal, repair, and transform the world toward more love and more good.

Using our moral and religious traditions to reflect on the meaning of work would change the conversations and arguments in the U.S. regarding jobs.

PHOTO: Women workers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York, turning out National and signal flags for the expanding Navy. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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