What’s Happening to Work?

The paradox of Labor Day 2022 is that Americans seem less and less inclined to labor.

The paradox of Labor Day 2022 is that Americans seem less and less inclined to labor.

Changes to in-person work put in place during Covid continue in various forms, with some workplaces not having returned to full-time, on-site staffing. Resistance to going back to the workplace seems to be in inverse proportion to the opponent’s age and job type: the younger or more professional the worker, the less willing he seems to return to the workplace.  

Talk to young people and you’ll hear that the reality is more complex than it seems at first. Yes, many young people decided that the caesura in how we approach the workplace caused by Covid policies rightly afforded the opportunity to ask: Should we return to “business as usual?” Kay Hymowitz observed—correctly to my mind—that “work got greedy.” 

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One of the great achievements of the American labor movement celebrated on Labor Day—the adoption of the forty-hour workweek—has in recent decades been increasingly encroached upon—especially at the expense of the family—by “greedy work.” From service industries that try to escape a normative workweek in favor of demanding those 40 hours anywhere on a 365/7/24 schedule (think the erosion of Sundays or the big companies threatening to fire workers unwilling to work Thanksgiving night) to professions that defined “professionalism” as regularly tallying 60 or more hours per week, “work/life balance” became a weak opponent in the wrestling match with “greedy work.”  

That young people did not want to return to that “rat race” in one sense speaks well for them: life’s only value is not productivity. But I qualify my approval “in one sense” because the pushback against greedy work has not come primarily from families as it does from individuals or, at best, couples, for whom that time has been ploughed into individualistic pursuits. 

A non-judgmental age will furrow eyebrows at my criticism, but recovery of work/life balance should not occur so that people can binge watch a screen in their two-person, four-bathroom McMansion with their pet. The decline in marriage and the advancing age of those entering marriage makes one ask whether the time clawed back in the name of “work/life balance” has gone into family, much less the creation of life in whose name balance is sought.

Other young people who have not gone back to the workplace say that while employers insist they cannot find workers, many throw multiple obstacles—like demanding over-qualification—in the path of hiring. Others engage in bait-and-switch, offering an initially living wage that disappears when the worker learns it is temporary or contingent on “bonuses” or “commissions” to reach it.  

That said, political commentator Mike Rowe coined a phrase worth Catholic social thinkers’ attention. He notes a contemporary phenomenon that he calls workers “quietly quitting” their jobs. They are working less, and even want to formalize that reduction, while nominally remaining employed.

Rowe observes a certain confusion among workers. Loose pandemic workplace policies resulted in many people wanting to set their own work schedules, paces, routines, dress codes, etc. But Rowe points out that there is a qualitative difference between a self-employed businessman/entrepreneur, who has always had those options, and the worker working for somebody else who traditionally didn’t. 

That qualitative difference lies in two things: risk and responsibility. The entrepreneur is free to close his shop and go sailing for six months: it’s his business and his risk. The employee does not own the business. The employee, whose labor is essential to the success of the business, wants the freedom of self-autonomy but without the risk.

This issue arose a century and a half ago and Catholic social thought still has something vital to say to it. More than 150 years ago, Marx coined the term “alienation” to brand the relationship between a wage worker and his product: according to Marx, the worker was “alienated” from his work, both as process and thing.  

Karol Wojtyła, prior to his papal election, sought in communist-ruled Poland to try to redefine “alienation.” He granted that Marx was not wholly wrong: there was something to his charge. But Wojtyła insisted that alienation lay not in a worker’s relationship to his product but in his interpersonal relationships with others, including his employer. The employer who treats an employee as just another economic factor, “the cost of labor,” and not as a person, warps the workplace.

Alienation has something to say about the phenomenon of “quietly quitting” work. There is no going back to a pre-industrial economy where wage employment is nonexistent. The question is how that kind of employment can be consistent with relations between persons. Employers warp that relationship by dehumanizing the employee, reducing the worker to a “cost factor.”

But employees can also warp that relationship by denying the rights of employers, (e.g., to a just day’s work for a just day’s wage). Really putting in 25 or so hours of work for 40 hours of pay is injustice to an employer for three reasons. First, the enterprise is the employer’s and Catholic social thought affirms the right to ownership, including of “the means of production.” Second, the employee’s underworking imposes risks on the enterprise’s future, risks he does not directly face but his employer does. Third, employer-employee relations are normally contractually regulated, yet the underworking employee who demands “workplace accommodation” is not keeping his side of the commitment.

Behind all these phenomena arguably lie the confused thinking that characterizes so much of our times: the quasi-“socialism” that regards successful business as somehow bad; the depreciated value of one’s word, from marriage vows to loan commitments to job contracts; the artificiality of the notion of “risk” in an economy that, whether in the name of “economic stability” or “social justice” assumes some things just can’t fail but should be buttressed by some social safety net, be it individual or corporate welfare; the erosion of subsidiarity by a government that seems to know no limits to its economic interventionism; and the egocentric individualism that dissolves social bonds and the sense of social solidarity.

Against this intellectual miasma, Oren Cass offers a solution: “respect for work.”  It takes two forms: respect for all kinds of work (we have traditionally “respected” white-collar work more than blue) and respect for working. During Covid, we paid lip service to the former—the grocery stocker and trucker became “heroes”—though that respect seems to have waned.  

But we also need to recover the latter: respect for working. All things considered and without criticizing those who cannot work, we need to reinforce the social and ethical message that working is better than not working. Working is not just an economic activity. 

As St. John Paul II pointed out in his encyclical Laborem exercens, work is constitutive of the person in the sense that it allows him to exercise his creativity. Through work, he exercises dominion over the created world and thus shares in God’s creative work. That’s why Catholic social thought traditionally encouraged full employment. It is also why our current social phenomenon of “quietly quitting” the workplace—in fact if not in theory—should be socially concerning.

[Image Credit: Unsplash]

  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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