(NYTIMES) – A dozen years ago, my friend Patricia Nordeen was an ambitious academic, teaching at the University of Chicago and speaking at conferences across the country. “Being a political theorist was my entire adult identity,” she told me recently. Her work determined where she lived and who her friends were. She loved it. Her life, from classes to research to hours spent in campus cafes, felt like one long, fascinating conversation about human nature and government.
But then she started getting very sick. She had daily migraines. It became impossible to continue her career. She went on disability and moved in with relatives. For three years she had frequent bouts of paralysis. She was eventually diagnosed with a subtype of Ehlers-Danlos syndromes, a group of hereditary disorders that weaken collagen, a component of many sorts of tissue.
“I’ve had to evaluate my core values,” she said, and find a new identity and community without the work she loved. Chronic pain made it hard to write, sometimes even to read. She started drawing, painting and making collages, posting the art on Instagram.
She made friends there and began collaborations with them, like a 100-day series of sketchbook pages – abstract watercolours, collages, flower studies – she exchanged with another artist. A project like this “gives me a sense of validation, like I’m part of society”, she said. Art does not give Patricia the total satisfaction academia did. It doesn’t order her whole life. But I see in it an important effort, one every one of us will have to make sooner or later: an effort to prove, to herself and others, that we exist to do more than just work.
We need that truth now, when millions are returning to in-person work after nearly two years of mass unemployment and working from home. The conventional approach to work – from the sanctity of the 40-hour week to the ideal of upward mobility – led us to widespread dissatisfaction and burnout even before the pandemic.
Now, the moral structure of work is up for grabs. And with labour-friendly economic conditions, workers have little to lose by making creative demands on employers. We now have space to reimagine how work fits into a good life.
It’s much more than how we earn a living. It’s how we earn dignity: the right to count in society and enjoy its benefits. It’s how we prove our moral character. And it’s where we seek meaning and purpose, which many of us interpret in spiritual terms.
But work often doesn’t live up to these ideals. Your job, or lack of one, doesn’t define your human worth.
When American politicians talk about the dignity of work, like when they argue that welfare recipients must be employed, they usually mean you count only if you work for pay.
The pandemic revealed just how false this notion is. Millions lost their jobs overnight. They didn’t lose their dignity. Congress acknowledged this fact, offering unprecedented jobless benefits: for some, a living wage without having to work.
Patricia Nordeen would like to teach again one day, but given her health at the moment, full-time work seems out of the question. Because each of us is both dignified and fragile, our new vision should prioritise compassion for workers, in the light of work’s power to deform their bodies, minds and souls.
As Eyal Press argues in his new book, people who work in prisons, slaughter houses and oil fields often suffer moral injury, including post-traumatic stress disorder. This reality challenges the notion that all work builds character.
Wage labour can harm us in subtle and insidious ways, too. We feel pressure to become the people our bosses, colleagues, clients and customers want us to be. When that pressure conflicts with our human needs and well-being, we can fall into burnout and despair.
To limit work’s negative moral effects on people, we should set harder limits on working hours. Political philosopher Kathi Weeks calls for a six-hour work day with no pay reduction. And we who demand labour from others ought to expect a bit less of people whose jobs grind them down.
In recent years, the public has become more aware of conditions in warehouses and the gig economy. Yet we have relied on delivery drivers ever more during the pandemic.
The vision of less work must also encompass more leisure. For a time, the pandemic took away countless activities, from dinner parties and concerts to in-person civic meetings and religious worship. Once they can be enjoyed safely, we ought to reclaim them as what life is primarily about. But look at what we actually do all day: For too many of us, if we aren’t breaking our bodies, then we’re drowning in trivial e-mail. This is not the purpose of a human life.
And for those of us fortunate enough to have jobs that consistently provide us with meaning, Patricia’s story is a reminder that we may not always have that kind of work. Anything from a sudden health issue to the natural effects of ageing to changing economic conditions can leave us unemployed.
Dignity, compassion, leisure: These are pillars of a more humane ethos, one that acknowledges that work is essential to a functioning society but often hinders individual workers’ flourishing. In practice, this new vision should inspire us to implement universal basic income and a higher minimum wage, shorter shifts for many workers and a shorter workweek for all at full pay. Together, these pillars and policies would keep work in its place, as merely a support for people to spend their time nurturing their greatest talents – or simply being at ease with those they love.
The point is to subordinate work to life. “A life is what each of us needs to get,” wrote Dr Weeks, and you can’t get one without freedom from work’s domination. “That said,” she continues, “one cannot get something as big as a life on one’s own.” That means we need one more pillar: solidarity, a recognition that your good and mine are linked. Each of us, when we interact with people doing their jobs, has the power to make their lives miserable.
If I’m overworked, I’m likely to overburden you. But the reverse is also true: Your compassion can evoke mine.
Early in the pandemic, we exhibited the virtues we need to realise this vision. Public health compelled us to set limits on many people’s work and provide for those who lost their jobs. We showed – imperfectly – that we could make human well-being more important than productivity. We had solidarity with one another and with the doctors and nurses who battled the disease on the front lines. We limited our trips to the grocery store. We tried to “flatten the curve”. When the pandemic subsides but work’s threat to our thriving does not, we can practise those virtues again.
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