We have this crazy friend who retired after many years in a stressful job, played a little golf, then took a part-time job, then took a second part-time job. She’s working all the time and having fun doing it.
Work is a complicated business that dominates lives and looks different as a person’s vantage point changes. It’s drudgery, and it is enrichment. It is economic, personal, social, political and ever changing, though whatever it looks like now can seem eternal and preordained.
Can you imagine fast-food workers making $15 an hour? Or having the kinds of benefits middle-class people have, or used to have?
Well, maybe around Labor Day it’s easier to imagine that the nature of work isn’t static, and that it can be more humane without wrecking the economy, because so many times in the past it has gotten better and made us a better society in the process.
Having children labor at difficult, dangerous jobs for little more than food was acceptable once, but it seems outrageous today. A 40-hour workweek was outside imagination for most people a few generations ago, then it became the norm (even if sometimes only theoretically).
Every humanizing change required a fight in which people faced ridicule, risked their livelihoods and even their lives.
Most people can look back now and understand the struggle of coal miners, garment workers and loggers. The folks who recently have been marching for better treatment of low-wage workers have a legitimate claim, too. But It may be harder to identify with people whose lives aren’t in immediate danger, who want better pay and better benefits, partly because we rank jobs on a punishment-and-reward scale in which the best people earn the best jobs.
Aren’t there good reasons why work is structured the way it is, so that less-skilled work means much less money? It gives people an incentive to work their way up, right? It gives students an incentive to work hard in school because no one wants to wind up working at McDonald’s. Do your homework, kid.
That’s a longstanding way of looking at work. Didn’t people justify slavery through the ages by thinking of the enslaved as lesser and therefore deserving of their circumstances every bit as much as their masters were deserving because of their virtues? It was not about the choices of a society and therefore not something that should be, could be or need be changed.
And peasants. Were the lords exploiting the peasants? Lord, no, they were protecting them, guiding them. We know better today, and I suspect some future society will have a view different from those widely held today, because there is another way of looking at labor, not in terms of relative personal virtue, but as a social necessity structured to respect the dignity of everyone who works. There would still be plenty of room for the rewards of industriousness and other personal qualities to factor in.
I don’t think progress is strictly linear, but I do think we have a more humane society than we did even a generation ago despite many exceptions and a tendency in hard times to slide backward.
And I don’t think we have to wait for a distant future. A number of other countries have much higher minimum wages than the United States, and they haven’t collapsed. Australia’s minimum wage is about $17.
Americans are among the hardest-working people in the world, and our corporate profits reflect that. It would be good if wages did, too, and it’s not just about the money, though people in the lowest-earnings ranks need more for housing, health care and even food. It is at base about what it means to be a citizen of the United States and a fellow human being.
Work can be pleasure, as it is now for our not entirely retired friend, but it doesn’t need to be punishment even for people who do the jobs few would choose.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org