“Get a Job!” by Justin Douglas

[Ed. Note: With the author’s permission, I’m re-publishing essays from his former site asobinomics.net, as they originally appeared in 2012. Here’s the second in the series!]

“We don’t want full employment, we want full lives!”
— slogan from the 1968 uprising in France

I wrote previously about how our use of the phrase “incentive to work” cleverly dodges philosophical questions such as, “What is the purpose of work?” The next question is why.

Well, because it’s messy. It forces us to ask, “What is work?” — a question which many are ready to answer with ideology, but few are ready to answer with philosophy. However, there is no doubt that work, and anxiety caused by work or lack thereof, has come to dominate Americans’ lives. We’ve coined the phrase “work-life balance,” which reflects not only that the proportion of each has gotten out of whack, but, more regrettably, that we view work as something that is opposed to our lives.

As Sarah Seltzer of AlterNet wrote last week, “America has a broad cultural emphasis on working hard as a goal in and of itself, and not on what working hard means.” It’s apparently gotten to the point that in our nation’s capital, saying that someone is taking time off to be with their family is understood to mean they got fired.

Indeed, modern American work culture, shaped by the “work ethic” and consumerism (as I have explained), is fundamentally opposed to freedom and self-reliance, and as Americans, we should be outraged at how dehumanizing it is. It pressures people to submit to increasingly intense workloads and schedules by stigmatizing those who don’t accept it: “lazy,” “slacker,” and “bum” are its scarlet letters. It nudges people into depending on employers by means of tax regulations and benefit structures that penalize self-employment and part-time work (health insurance is probably the most salient example).

Ultimately, it perverts our notions of leisure and (ironically) work by making both of them undesirable; our system seems to regard work as a necessary evil and leisure as a frivolous vice. Yet most people aren’t really aware of this contradiction as they enter (or navigate) the “real world.” They just feel a vague sense of resignation, which is expressed quite clearly in sayings like “Only two things in life are certain: Death and taxes.”

That bleak premise usually leads to the conclusion, “So get a job.”

The word job has its own interesting history, but nowadays (along with career, another odious term) it’s practically synonymous with work.

The conflation of job and work — let’s call it “jobism” — is more than just sloppy English, though. Jobism holds that for an activity to be deemed worthwhile, it must be paid. And only full-time paid employment is regarded as “gainful.” Unpaid work, as mothers well know, is considered less worthwhile than paid work. Hard-working artists are regarded as not having “real jobs.” This pernicious hierarchy is partly the fault of economists, who categorize human activity based on whether or not a given activity stimulates consumption. Socially and environmentally destructive behavior is “economic” and therefore laudable, while uplifting and progressive art and pro-social behavior that is at the root of strong households and communities (home cooking, child-rearing, volunteering) is “uneconomic” and therefore trivial, a waste of time. Yet because those terms are such sterile euphemisms, they slip by us largely unnoticed.

What’s more, jobism rests on shaky semantic foundations. To see this, one needs only to negate job and work: The absence of a job is unemployment. The absence of work, on the other hand, is leisure, a concept that, in its truest Aristotelian definition, is itself largely absent in contemporary American life. It seems quaint, like the world of a Norman Rockwell painting. Jobism has demonized it. And replaced it with television.

Our culture imagines unemployment as a slovenly figure reclining on a sofa, with a bag of chips in one hand and remote control in the other, to be whipped into service like a horse. Those on the right regard the unemployed with scorn, advocating personal responsibility (stick). Those on the left regard the unemployed with sympathy, advocating job creation or even full employment (carrot). But both solutions reflect and reinforce the cynical worldview on which they are based — a view that assumes that people need to be goaded to use their time productively; that any time not spent working is necessarily wasted; that a McJob is better than no job; that crippling debt is better than having “no incentive” to work. In reality, jobs do not necessarily serve as an outlet for meaning-making, and often achieve just the opposite. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to abandon the duality of employment and unemployment, and empower people with the means to create meaningful, balanced, whole lives for themselves instead?

If people are to truly contribute to society, we need to separate the superficial material need for food, clothing, and shelter from the deep spiritual need to do meaningful work. Fulfilling the former is a matter of money and political will. Buckminster Fuller said it best:

“We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living… The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

That is where the basic income comes in. Now, I do not believe the government should “subsidize our lives.” (That would eliminate the need for all work, including the constructive, empowering work that will move our society forward.) When I say basic, I mean basic; people would still need to work if they wanted more stuff, or better stuff. However, work would no longer be a matter of survival and poverty — and in a country that calls itself wealthy, that’s how it ought to be.

Satisfying the hunger for meaningful work is a little more complex. To quote Sarah Seltzer again, it first requires “a willingness to let go of the idea that every hour working is somehow more valuable than an hour of our own time. Work should not be the only conferrer of dignity and status.” And people need those chunks of their own time — measured in new neural connections, not hours — to develop their worldview, venues where they can acquire skills, and opportunities to indulge their curiosities and become passionate about something (or better yet, many things). In short, people, in order to work, and simply to be human, need leisure. But in this country, our artistic and cultural institutions have become so defunded, the humanities so derided, and working with your hands so disdained, that true leisure has found itself on life support.

And to resuscitate it, we need to salvage our popular culture from the Roman circus it’s become, and give everyone, not just the privileged, the ability to use their free time to discover and refine their potential. We could start by pumping money back into our starved cultural institutions, and then working toward an educational system that bestows true wisdom upon future generations, not just pieces of paper. Only then can work and leisure regain their dignity.

Incidentally, it’s worth noting that the ancient Greeks had no word for work in and of itself. There was slavery, to be sure, and the Greeks acknowledged it as such. But as far as free men were concerned, Aristotle noted: “We are not-at-leisure (ascholia) to be at leisure (schole).” The Greeks knew how to live. And their society flourished for it.

So, to those who would say, “Get a job!” — I say, “Get a life!”

E-mail author Justin Douglas at: tabidots at gmail dot com.

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