On the Nature of Work

Everyday we hear economists talk about jobs. We hear politicians talk about jobs. We hear journalists talk about jobs. Not a day goes by without mention of the unemployment rate: is it rising, or falling? What is the real unemployment rate? These are, I suppose, important questions, but they do not encourage us to think intelligently about the nature of work itself. For its Spring issue, Lapham’s Quarterly, attempting to repair the gap the talking heads refuse to fill, devoted a whole issue to work, drawing not only on contemporenous reports, but also historical and literary.

                There are some wonderful essays and selections in this issue. I would direct you especially to “Treasure Hunt” by Alain de Botton, in which he explodes the idea that our careers should make us happy or fulfilled. Most Americans, the statistics tell us, hate their jobs. Some accept the fact that they will always hate their jobs; others are on a perpetual hunt for a job they will like. But the economy does not care about our happiness; why then should we expect our careers to care?

                It’s not unreasonable, of course, to expect that our jobs will bring us some fulfillment—Botton’s point simply is that we must not expect them to bring it every day and at regular intervals. The fact is that economic progress and human happiness do not always coincide, and often are in marked conflict with each other: for evidence, we need only consider the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century or the technological revolution of the 20th. Everyone knows some long suffering cube worker, whose countenance has taken on the hue of his computer screen. And yet, these jobs, dehumanizing as they often are, must—and will—be filled. What, then, is to be done?

                As Botton suggests, we must change the way we think about careers. Or, perhaps to compensate for their failure to fulfill us, we might look to those two great salves, art and religion, to resume the role that our jobs were supposed, in this secular age, to have taken over.