The Future of Work: Having Our Pie and Eating It Too - Pacific Standard

The Future of Work: Having Our Pie and Eating It Too

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker listens as Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks at La Casa de  Esperanza during a campaign stop on November 9, 2015, in Waukesha, Wisconsin. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker listens as Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks at La Casa de Esperanza during a campaign stop on November 9, 2015, in Waukesha, Wisconsin. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“Labor wants more!” Samuel Gompers famously thundered over a hundred years ago. “More today and more tomorrow; and then ... more and more.” The American Federation of Labor's first president didn’t just mean bigger paychecks for America’s workers, though he certainly thought bigger was better. “More” also meant “more of the good things that go to make up life”: today, that includes a comfortable home, a pretty garden, a night out, a trip, a stereo, an afternoon at the ballgame. All these things, Gompers said, were “a requirement for life,” “essential to the exercise and enjoyment of liberty.”

Rosanne Currarino is an associate professor of history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

Gompers’ “good things that go to make up life” requires good wages, stable employment, shorter hours and benefits like health insurance, parental leave, and child care subsidies. But his goal of a good life for American workers looks beyond work and the workplace. It looks to time away from work; it looks to consumption; it looks to recreation; it looks to happiness. Maybe it’s time we follow Gompers. Maybe it’s time we look to happiness when we think about what the future should hold for workers.

Happiness is not a word usually associated with work, workers, or the labor movement. Misery is. And there’s good reason for that. Work is hard. The dictionary on my computer tells me that work means “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result” and the example it gives of the word in action is pretty dismal: “He was tired after a day's work in the fields.” In the Judeo-Christian tradition, work is the punishment humans must endure for having nibbled at the apple in the Garden of Eden. For the 40 million or so Americans who earn less than what the federal government designates as the poverty line for a family of four (a measly $24,250 in 2015) work means effort, exhaustion, and perhaps punishment. It does not mean economic security, sufficient food, adequate housing, child care, or health care. Work certainly does not mean, lead to, insure, or even suggest happiness.

Alas, in American culture, the misery of work has been seen as a virtue—and the suffering of the working poor, their “reward” for not working hard enough. In the 1890s, opponents of Gompers and the labor movement fumed that workers didn’t want to work hard enough. They just wanted to indulge in unnecessary luxuries. “They even eat pie,” one especially outraged individual squawked, “which is no food for working people and does them no good.” Ronald Reagan’s denouncement of the (fictitious) porterhouse-steak eating, Cadillac-driving “Welfare Queen” was a 20th-century update of the pie complaint. Scott Walker’s offense against public sector unions follows this same trajectory, only without the epicurean dash. Pension benefits—the very foundation of a good life in advanced age—are, for Walker, an extravagant expense. His suggested “entitlement reforms” are, he says, all about “making it easier to get a job.” Whether that job makes a good life possible? Not Walker’s concern.

Maybe pie, not misery, should be a virtue. Maybe leisure time and recreation and just plain fun and happiness should be what we talk about when we talk about work in the future. Critics of Gompers then and now have castigated his emphasis on “more” as nothing but “pure and simple imbecility” that distracted workers from more important goals in the workplace. But Gompers insisted that a worker’s desire for “a pretty picture on the wall, or perhaps a piano or organ in his parlor” or a pie after dinner did not ignore questions about wages, job stability, hours, workplace conditions, benefits. Without all of those things, there can be no pie, let alone virtuous pie. And for the majority of American workers right now, pie is simply not on the table, literally and figuratively.

But what if we put pie on the table? What if we stressed the importance of life outside work? I’m not certain that is possible in the United States. The firm grip of an especially grim version of the Protestant work ethic lends a moralistic tinge to any discussion of leisure. When “works and days were offered us,” explained Ralph Waldo Emerson in the mid-19th century, “we took works.” It was, Emerson implies, an either/or choice: works or days, but not both. As a result, work has become linked inextricably with virtue and leisure with vice, making it easy to explain one person’s economic difficulty as the result of his or her own failings—or conversely to explain success as both deserved and earned. Systemic obstacles to employment, good wages, and job stability stay obscured under the rhetoric of virtue and vice. Just look at explanations—explicit or implicit—of African-American and Latino poverty as reflective of “no desire to work” or “laziness.” The lesson remains clear: you should take works, not days.

But if it were possible to put pie on the table, if it were possible to argue for Gompers’ “more,” then perhaps the parameters of the labor movement might change—because the meaning of work would change. Instead of choosing between works or days, perhaps we could have both works and days. Instead of the punishment for original sin, perhaps work might become the means to a pleasurable pursuit of leisure and liberty.

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For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.

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