The Culture War on Work

Photo by Oziel Gómez on Unsplash

Among the latest fashions in bourgeois self-criticism is the lament that Americans start conversations with “so, what do you do?” In some tellings, the question’s offense lies in its implication that what you do defines who you are. In others, it represents a thinly veiled attempt to determine how much someone earns or where he ranks in society. But while one’s vocation conveys a lot of personal information and thus invites judgment, the nature of the judgment — the way the information is evaluated — depends on culture.

Look at the stories told by the popular culture. In the 1970s and 1980s, the best-comedy Emmy went routinely to shows with blue-collar characters. . . . From 1992 to 2017, it went almost every year to a show about white-collar adults working in Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, New York, or Washington, few of whom were raising children.

Waiters, truck drivers, retail clerks, plumbers, secretaries, and others all spend their days helping the people around them and filling roles crucial to the community. They do hard, unglamorous work for limited pay to support themselves and their families. Why shouldn’t they be eager to share this information with their conversation partners? Surely their replies would compare favorably with those of the derivatives trader, white-collar defense lawyer, premium-alcohol social media manager, or professor of comparative literature. If blue-collar replies instead are cause for embarrassment, or an invitation to the listener to feel superior, then something is amiss.

We are perfectly capable of awarding respect and status on the basis of sacrifice and social contribution for soldiers and police officers, teachers and nurses. What we lack is recognition that just about any job fits these criteria, that work is inherently deserving of respect. Through our public policy and our culture, we have spent decades devaluing the basic act of doing a job that supports a family and contributes to a community. The idea that people “work to live” has been replaced by one that everybody should “live to work,” leaving behind the vast majority for whom a job is not an end unto itself but rather a means to fulfilling obligations and building a good life.

Look at the stories told by the popular culture. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series went routinely to shows with blue-collar characters, such as All in the Family, Taxi, Cheers, and The Wonder Years. An especially famous Wonder Years episode, “My Father’s Office,” told the story of Kevin learning about his father’s career path from loading-dock worker to distribution manager and that he had dreamed of being a ship’s captain. “You can’t do every silly thing you want in life,” Mr. Arnold told his son. “You have to make your choices. You have to try to be happy with them. I think we’ve done pretty well, don’t you?”

From 1992 to 2017, the Emmy went almost every year to a show about white-collar adults working in Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, New York, or Washington, few of whom were raising children. The one exception is The Office, about paper salesmen in Scranton, but its primary vein of humor was the evidently miserable lives and meaningless jobs of its provincial subjects (none of whom seemed to have a family, either). In 2017, the seven nominations went to shows about an ad executive and his family in Los Angeles, professionals and their families in Los Angeles, an actor in New York, a young woman restarting her life as a nanny in New York, political operatives in New York and Washington, nerds in Silicon Valley, and rappers in Atlanta. Has a lineup starring characters male and female; gay and straight; black, white, and Hispanic, ever looked so little “like America”?

Has a lineup starring characters male and female; gay and straight; black, white, and Hispanic, ever looked so little “like America”?

This does not just reflect market demand for what people want to see. In the drama category, for instance, alongside the usual fare about crime, politics, dystopian science fiction, fantasy, and the British aristocracy, a show called This Is Us appeared in 2017. It followed a blue-collar family in Pennsylvania; the dad worked construction and struggled with alcoholism. That story was told through flashbacks to the 1970s and 1980s; in the modern-day segments, the now-grown-up kids are a singer, an actor, and a businessman, all working in New York City or Los Angeles. Likewise, The Goldbergs, starting its sixth season in 2018, is about a suburban Pennsylvania family where the father is a furniture salesman, the mom is a homemaker, and the kids learn to value their father’s commitment to working every day in a job he doesn’t like to provide for them. It too is set in the 1980s. Hollywood seems to think these things happened only thirty years ago.

Similar messages have bombard Americans on all sides from the cultural heights. The belief that everyone needed college came accompanied by one that other tracks were for losers, and also the popularization of the term “dead-end job.” In his iconic 2005 commencement address, Steve Jobs analogized between jobs and lovers: “You’ve got to find what you love. . . . And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.” A venture capitalist can now earn plaudits for his “sincerity and sophistication” when observing unashamedly that “I think it’s a bad use of a human to spend 20 years of their life driving a truck back and forth across the United States. That’s not what we aspired to do as humans — it’s a bad use of a human brain.”

Simultaneously, as these new criteria for “good” work have been added, the old criteria that most jobs could meet have been stripped away. Taking pride in providing for a family becomes much harder when the government’s package of safety-net benefits offers to do so almost as well. For men, especially, the idea that they provide a critical function by working to support their families can be hard to square with lived experience in a community of broken families where single-mother-headed households are the norm.

Work’s rewards are social as well as economic, so the consequences of ideas and experiences like these are very real and painful — a “respect cut” to accompany the decades-long stall in paycheck growth. Intuitively, work seems far from the domain of cultural concerns. It occurs in the marketplace, purportedly in rational response to economic incentives. But culture includes the norms and expectations against which a society’s members understand themselves to be measured, and so it defines the nonmonetary rewards and penalties — in terms of status and respect, pride and shame — that people earn through their behavior.

The social wages of work derive from cultural recognition of the obligation to provide for a self-sufficient family and make positive contributions to the larger community. If that obligation — and the enormous value of its fulfillment — is widely recognized, then work can bring with it affirmation and the pride of success. Those rewards should not hinge on the type of work, its glamour, or its salary. If anything, people who do harder jobs for lower wages deserve the greatest admiration.

Idleness, meanwhile, should bring a sense of failure and some measure of shame — that is, one reason to work might be to avoid the social cost of not working. That is not a pleasant message to send. But if individuals, their families, and their communities benefit from their engagement in work, lessening the social distinction between idleness and productive activities is not an enhancement of freedom but rather a form of deprivation. Work may have large benefits, but it’s also often hard, and we need to maximize the reward for pursuing it. People have no problem appreciating this dynamic in their own lives and applying it in the expectations they establish for their own children. The challenge is to make those beliefs public.

At our hypothetical party, a possibility always exists that the person asked “what do you do?” in fact does nothing at all. The moment might be quite awkward for him — maybe for the questioner too. All the more reason to go ahead and ask.

Oren Cass is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. This essay was adapted from his new book, The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America.

Oren is the executive director of American Compass.

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