Tocqueville’s Democracy in America has a chapter entitled “Why Among the Americans All Honest Occupations Are Considered Honorable.” In it he noted that because America lacked an aristocratic tradition of leisure, labor had not been stigmatized as something inherently degrading to man:
In America no one is degraded because he works, for everyone about him works also; nor is anyone humiliated by the notion of receiving pay, for the President of the United States also works for pay. He is paid for commanding, other men for obeying orders. In the United States professions are more or less laborious, more or less profitable; but they are never either high or low: every honest calling is honorable.
Not only was work not inherently degrading, anything one did, whether it be serving as president or pushing a broom, was equally as valid as anything anyone else did. They may have been economically distinct, but they were ontologically identical. If you put in the proverbial honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, if you provided for yourself and your family, then you and your work were worthy of the honor and respect of your fellows. What’s more, in America to not work was what indicated personal degradation of spirit. Per Tocqueville:
The notion of labor is therefore presented to the mind, on every side, as the necessary, natural, and honest condition of human existence. Not only is labor not dishonorable among such a people, but it is held in honor; the prejudice is not against it, but in its favor. In the United States a wealthy man thinks that he owes it to public opinion to devote his leisure to some kind of industrial or commercial pursuit or to public business. He would think himself in bad repute if he employed his life solely in living. It is for the purpose of escaping this obligation to work that so many rich Americans come to Europe, where they find some scattered remains of aristocratic society, among whom idleness is still held in honor.
This idea of the honorableness of work held sway in America for a long time, but that time is past. In America today, the very concept of work qua work is increasingly held in contempt, as in the aristocratic age.
This surely began before I was born, perhaps in the 60s era of “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Yet I have personally witnessed a major sea change in the perception of labor in my own lifetime over the course of several signal events.
The Volcker Recession
America has long been the industrial powerhouse of the world, reaching its apogee in the 50s and 60s. By the 70s era of gas lines and stagflation, it was clear something was wrong, though not exactly what. Yet on the whole America conducted business as usual. Arrogant management continued to be more or less indifferent to product quality and inefficiency. Labor continued to engage in frequent strikes as if there were still massive gains to appropriate.
In the late 70s things started to change. Jimmy Carter began a major deregulation of key industries. Reagan came into office in the 1980s promising supply side tax cuts. He was also hostile to unions. Early in his administration, he fired every air traffic controller who had gone out on an illegal strike.
But it was Fed chairman Paul Volcker who had the most profound impact, jacking the prime rate (the most widely reported figure of the time) north of 20% in order to break the back of inflation, sending the country into a steep recession. Here’s a chart of the fed funds rate that gives a picture of the extremity of these rate hikes:
This sent the country into a steep recession that caused massive industrial layoffs. It also did destroy inflation up until the present day, and cleared away the debris of the 70s to create a long and powerful expansion that lasted pretty much up to the dotcom recession of 2000.
The Idea of the McJob
When I was a high school student my first real job was bagging groceries at Winn-Dixie. This wasn’t an unusual experience. I remember as a kid that many adults would tell me with no apparent embarrassment that their first job had been at McDonald’s. Holding a job like this was just part of the cycle of life, much like going into the service used to be.
Two events changed this in the 1980s. The first was the recession, which shattered the illusion of American industrial dominance forever. The whole idea of a good job for life on the assembly line was now seen to be dangerously naive. This is the era when “you absolutely must go to college to succeed in life” meme took hold. It was already clear that the long term trajectory of manufacturing and a middle class job with a high school diploma (or less) was heading to the scrap heap.
The second was the closing of the bootstrap frontier. By this I mean the severe curtailing of the ability of people to work their way up from the bottom in business. How many old school Wall Street types started in the proverbial mail room? A lot of them. My father’s wife started work at age 17 as a teller at a small savings and loan in Louisville. Twenty five years later she was running all of mortgage lending for Fifth Third Bank’s Kentucky operations – all without a college degree. Even today you hear CEOs – usually in their 50s or older – talk about how they started with their company by driving a truck or something.
Those days are largely gone now. While in some industries like retail you can still work your way up, it’s less common, and you’re almost certainly not going to make it without getting a college degree along the way. Nobody on Wall Street is starting in the mail room today. Techies who drop out of school to start companies are starting in effect at the C-level of their organization, or in an otherwise high status position, not a traditional entry level job.
With formerly entry level jobs increasingly ones with no to a limited career path and low pay and benefits, and the only way to career success seen as being through college, a new concept of work started to emerge. In 1986 it was given a name, the “McJob.”
The phrase “McJob” was designed to label a real and important effect, and presciently so as we see today. Namely the bifurcation of the economy. Nevertheless, it went beyond a critique of economic conditions to something more fundamental; it said these were jobs not worth doing and unworthy of human dignity to hold. It eroded the idea of work itself as honorable.
Today I’m amazed how many teenagers and college students don’t work at all, especially not at old school grocery bagging or burger flipping jobs. It seems that you’re better off getting in more extra-curricular activities or doing volunteer work to burnish your resume than actually working, which says something profound.
Strauss and Howe’s Generations
In 1992 Neil Howe and William Strauss published the book Generations. This book took a Vico-like cyclical view of history in which four generational archetypes repeated over time in an endless cycle. This cycle was presented as de facto deterministic unless some severe outside shock interrupted it.
Howe and Strauss coined the term “Millennial Generation” to identify a current instantiation of one of their archetypes. In their cyclical theory, the Millennials were a reincarnation of the Greatest Generation that lived through the Depression and won World War II, leaving modern American prosperity in their wake. The Millennials, they said, would achieve similarly great things. Because of their cyclical theory, this result was presented as an almost historic inevitability, even though the Millenials were still small children.
This concept captured the public imagination in way that led to a change in the way that generation, much of it as yet unborn, was to be raised. Howe and Strauss had already observationally described the “helicopter parenting” of Millennials vs. the latch key kids of Generation X (they would say think “Baby on Board” signs vs. “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Damien Omen II” in which children were literally Antichrists or demonic). This was already underway.
What changed is that Millennials began to be told from nearly birth that they were destined to be nothing less than the salvation of America, that they are more moral, more community spirited than any previous generation, and like the Greatest Generation they would slay the dragons threatening our country, leading us forward into a better brighter future. When Barack Obama said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” he was flattering a particularly Millennial conceit. It’s no surprised they loved him.
The effects this produced in the Millennials have been much written about. But one key one was the sacralization of their own personal desires. After all, if you’re really destined to change the world for the better, society needs to adapt to you, not you to society.
That’s why workplaces in America have bent over backwards to accommodate Millennial preferences. We also see a generation that wants not just to have a job, but a job with meaning. People who would rather do something that creates some sort of public good (like teach in an inner city school) or pursue a particular personal passion than to engage in the soulless search for money.
There’s much that’s good and noble in this. On the other hand, it has redefined work into just another lifestyle accoutrement. Work is no longer primal, central. Rather, it is part of the portfolio of your life. The role of work has become, ultimately, self-actualization and the satisfaction of Millennials’ sacralized personal desires. In that regard, the line between work and play and life have blurred. In part that’s because the notion of work as something you just have to do, something that is part and parcel of being a fully formed adult, no longer exists. Work properly so called must be an extension of your being. Yes, if forced financially, Millennials will work any job they need to. And they are more than willing to engage in productive labor. But their idea of a job is to somehow promote personal growth or self-actualization. You can do work that doesn’t, but it’s second rate – a McJob. Again, this shows the bifurcation not just of income, but in views of work. Some work is worth doing, other work is not.
Though I’m not a Millennial, I should be sure to include myself as well, since I’m writing this blog instead of running multi-million dollar technology projects like I used to. So guilty as charged.
The Dot Com Boom
The last hurrah of the Volcker boom was the dotcom bubble. This was a Gen X and Boomer phenomenon, but it paved the way for the Millennial expectation of work as a fun and fulfilling place, not just a workplace.
Prior to the dotcom boom, I wore a suit to work every day and sat through terrible traffic driving to a client in the suburbs. I can assure you that I would have much rather have been downtown in casual clothes. This desire to be in the center of town didn’t originate with Millennials. But that was simply the way the world worked. We obviously wanted fulfilling and high paying jobs, but we realized that work was after all work. That’s why they paid us – to do things we didn’t want to do, like sit in traffic for hours every week. What’s that they used to say? – that’s why we call it work.
The dotcom bubble changed that. The desperation for talent was so high that anyone who could spell .com could get a job as a programmer. The Silicon Valley tech culture and catering to employees became the norm. It was insane in some ways. My employer used to have a beer cart come by on some afternoons, and that wasn’t unusual. While some of it got dialed back after the collapse, this permanently changed the culture of work.
Perry’s Deli in downtown Chicago used to put up “celebrity boards” of photos Perry took of his customers. In the 1997 board, about 75% of the people were in suits. By the 2000 celebrity board, it was more like 75% casual. It flipped almost overnight like dominoes falling.
This established the idea that employers must cater to the whims of fickle employees or they will cross the street to somewhere better. This concept has persisted as an ideal (e.g, in the “creative class”) even though the bargaining power of labor has collapsed since then. It’s no longer seen that workers should have to endure unpleasantness as part of their jobs or conform to employer expectations around dress, location, or hours. They may do it, but again such compromises are seen as defects, and generally in the employer. An enlightened employer, we think, should instead cater to the desires of employees.
Proletarianization of the Middle Class
The truth is, the economy never really recovered from the dotcom crash. The 2000s recovery was anemic, and we are de facto still in the Great Recession. The macro trend of bifurcation has so proceeded that the income and wealth gaps are now major public issues. This has in effect created two labor markets. One is the narrow high end market which still lives in like it’s the dotcom bubble. The other is everybody else, increasingly squeezed and increasingly low wage, a phenomenon Joel Kotkin has labeled the proletarianization of the middle class.
Those at the bottom are increasingly seen as exploited, and in a sense they are, though mostly by the system rather than by individual employers who are only responding to the new marketplace realities, albeit one in part created by those selfsame firms. But what’s more, in effect any job that doesn’t exhibit the self-actualization ethic of the top tier positions is now viewed as a McJob, regardless of pay. The values of the dotcom bubble and the Millennials have become normative. Work that does not live up to those ideals is seen as unworthy and impugning rather than affirming the dignity of the worker. In short, work itself as traditionally understood is now held in a form of contempt.
We see this in various ways. For example, many of those who advocate for more low skill immigration say that immigrants perform “jobs Americans won’t do.” But Americans did those jobs not long ago. What’s changed about those jobs? The jobs actually haven’t changed, just our attitude towards them. What’s more, if that new attitude is valid, is it moral to expect brown skinned foreigners to do work we think is beneath our dignity? I am a big champion of immigration, but not based on this type of logic.
Or consider the reactions of some on the left to the Congressional Budget Office finding that Obamacare will cause the equivalent of two and a half million people to voluntarily stop working. Europhiles have long bemoaned that America’s don’t take the whole month of August off, but the suggestion of the New York Times that this is “a liberating result of the law” seems a bit extreme. It may well be that there are some with such an extreme hardship that this does make sense, but the whole idea that people need to be liberated from unpleasant choices or tradeoffs related to work implies that work itself is not of that much value. To them it’s better to support people indefinitely on benefits of one sort or another than for people to be forced to work at Wal-Mart or something. The New York Times ideal is an aristocratic one; the aim is not to have to work at all, at least not at anything that isn’t inherently attractive to do.
I think there is indeed a serious problem out there with the quality of jobs and the two tier economy. In fact, I myself recently wrote that some people realistically will need to be supported on benefits indefinitely, and that terminating benefits to force them into $9 an hour is building a plantation economy, something too many on the right have no problem with. So I’m in the mix here. But in attacking legitimate problems, I’m concerned that we’ve undermined a core philosophical underpinning of American success, namely the view of the dignity of work and the ontological equality of labor.
We absolutely must focus on upgrading the quality of jobs. But apart from proposals to increase the minimum wage, there’s been precious little in the way of ideas to boost the fortunes of the middle and working classes. And even there the problem in seeing the inherent value of the worker remains. I don’t see those who advocate a higher minimum wage ever saying a kind word about working for McDonald’s or Wal-Mart, no matter how much those firms pay.
I believe the decline in our view of work is a consequence of economic change more than a philosophical movement per se. Yet the problem is not inherently an economic one. Even if we reverted to the status quo ante in our economy, it’s unlikely we’d change in our basic attitudes.
In my view one of the keys to actually working to change the quality of jobs is to see the worker’s performance of them as again having inherent dignity and worth, that workers are dignified in their labor no matter what job they happen to hold. The people who go to work at Wal-Mart or a warehouse every day reliably, who do their best even at a less than exciting jobs, ought to be seen earning a type of honor. This comes not from the work being done, but the person performing it and the idea of work itself. The difficult choice to take a less than self-actualizing job and doing it well ought to be seen as a better path than benefits or drugs or other alternatives. Of course receiving assistance shouldn’t be stigmatized (I’ve had government benefits myself). Many of those on drugs had circumstances that made it difficult to escape, etc. But ought we not see avoiding that and finding work, even difficult or dull work, as the normative path people should aspire to, not something from which we need to be “liberated”? I think we should.
One organization that figured this out is the military. Why do they make soldiers and such show such exacting performance and attention to detail on ridiculous tasks like making a bed, polishing boots, or swabbing decks? Part of it is instilling discipline no doubt. But part of it is teaching that the nobility of the task comes from that of the warrior, not the nobility of the warrior from that of the task. That’s why generally speaking military roles are held in high esteem both by those performing them and by the public at large, even if our military is often deployed for dubious ends.
Heck, even the communists got it, in their elevating the nobility of the farmer and the laborer, in propaganda if not in practice. This is no doubt part of its great appeal, something we might learn from.
The dignity and honor of work itself needs to once again be held in esteem by Americans. We should rediscover our inner Tocqueville. We must again see all honest occupations as inherently honorable, even McJobs. Work must once again be seen as “the necessary, natural, and honest condition of human existence.” Perhaps then we will actually set about the difficult task of making the work worthy of the regard in which we hold the people in their doing of it, not just moan about it.
This concept of the decline of work first struck me many years ago when I saw a TV commercial that I believe was urging people to go to college. I can’t find it on You Tube and the details are a bit fuzzy, but I believe it starred Larry Bird working as a clerk in a hardware store paint department, presumably a megastore like Home Depot. While mixing paint he would wad up paper and throw it perfectly in the trash can every time. The moral was that if you don’t develop your talents, you could end up mixing paint, and what a terrible fate that would be. But what’s inherently wrong with being a clerk in a hardware store? There was a day not long ago when nobody would have thought twice about it. It was then that I realized something had fundamentally changed in how we looked at work. Update: A commenter informs me that this was actually a commercial for Prodigy internet service from 1999.