15 February 2014

What If I Can't Get A Job? Work and Worth

An interesting piece here from The Economist online about the dignity of work. For one who accepts the testimony of the Hebrew Scriptures, that work should have dignity is entailed in the ur-commandment  to the first humans to "cultivate" the garden. The high place of work is exemplified in the New Testament by the identification of the occupation of Joseph and Jesus as carpenters (probably better "builder'). The Apostle Paul emphatically makes the point in his letter to the church in Thessalonica when he writes about his working to support his ministry among the churches and goes to command that "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat."

The Economist's point is less peremptory but no less telling: the solution to the current dearth of meaningful employment opportunities is not in denying work's dignity as some, including Paul Krugman, have suggested. But The Economist goes on to point out that the concept of the dignity of work has a negative side when meaningful work is not available. Rather than finding satisfaction in the work of one's hands, many whose jobs have been rendered redundant feel shame at their lack of contribution. If such is the future of a high-tech, robotic economy, The Economist suggests that we employ a new source of dignity, the dignity of endeavor.

The problem is real but The Economist's solution seems a bit foggy. The disconnect between work, money, and dignity has been the case historically. Most slaves and the workers described in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle certainly didn't get much dignity from their work. But it was still work. In other words, human beings are designed to work and the lack of reward commensurate with work's worth has been a systemic problem since the Fall.

The solution to what might be a long-term phenomenon of a market-economy that doesn't provide enough opportunities for meaningful work isn't straightforward. And the best we may be able to do is to increase opportunities for work that, at least in the short term, don't provide as much "meaning" as the sort of work that dominates top compensation in the information/financial/technology economy. Less pontificating about entrepreneurship might not be a bad idea, either. Yet work remains part of the human calling and should not be disdained even when it's not what it should be.

Even human beings who for developmental reasons cannot work bear the image of God. As I developed at length in my Looking for Bedrock piece, human capabilities are insufficient to ground human dignity. Even those who lack the capability--and, I might add, the opportunity--to work should not be stigmatized. (Check out some earlier posts here and here.)

 In short, we should recharacterize the dignity of work as the dignity in work. In other words, work is the result of our dignity (as creatures in God's image) but work is not the source of that dignity.

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