Thursday, March 27, 2014

Working For Work

[W]e want people to reach their potential and so the dignity of work is very valuable and important and we have to re-emphasize work and reform our welfare programs, like we did in 1996. We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.
Paul Ryan (R) Wisconsin
When I go to work every day, I am unconcerned with dignity, value or culture. I, for my part, am concerned with a paycheck. If, by some chance, the paychecks stop, then I will no longer go to work. Instead will apply myself to either looking for a new job - one that comes with a paycheck, or to acquiring certain skills and/or tools that I may lack that, once I have them, will make it easier for me to find a new job, and the resulting paycheck.

But I have known, and still know, people who do not work. And I do not consider them to be lacking in values, culture or dignity. Living, as I do, in the general vicinity of Microsoft, I've encountered a few Microsoft Millionaires - some of whom have availed themselves of the opportunity to retire early and fill their time doing things that are important to them, but that we do not normally consider “work.” Would Representative Ryan decry them as not having the value or culture of work? Or consider them to have fallen short of their potential and lacking the dignity of work? (Not, I suspect, as long as their checks are good.) And what about those people who retired after a lifetime of work, but are now, effectively considered poor and making a living from welfare programs? Are they in this tailspin of culture? If not, why not?

On the flip side of the coin, as anyone who has fruitlessly hunted high and low for a job in “this economy” can tell you, employment, work, does not grow on trees. We are no longer a significantly agrarian society. The resources required to keep oneself clothed, housed and fed are not available simply by going back to the family farm and picking up a hoe or a scythe. But even back when it was a possibility for many people, their labor wasn't about dignity, value or culture - it was materal support for their livelihoods. The famed “Protestant Work Ethic” that many people claim is lacking from the inner city was not about a love of toil - it was about not starving to death. And, for the record, some people starved anyway.

But as the Industrial Revolution took hold, and people moved from the farms to the city, they didn't do this because they decided that were uninterested in the dignity, value or culture of farm work - they did so because they saw better opportunities.

When I was growing up, my parents drummed into me the idea that I had to work twice as hard to be considered half as good. I finally asked my mother to stop saying that, asking: “Do you know how demotivating that is?” The Japanese, I am told, have a saying along the lines of “don’t do worthless things.” In an economy where there are more job-seekers than jobs and people with low skills are consistently last hired and first fired, looking for a steady job is often a useless thing. (We won’t even talk about the effects of having an arrest or conviction record, both common in poor neighborhoods) Work, effort, toil - whatever you want to call it, is not an end in itself. It’s intended to be a means of support, and once the idea that it isn’t takes hold, what’s the point of it?

In this light, the best way to create a “culture of work” is to create a culture in which work pays off. If one wants people to learn the “value of work,” then the rewards from work need to be valuable. And that means creating an economy where labor is needed, so that work is needed, and therefore pays. Put that in place, and dignity or none, more people will go to work.

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