We need to talk about how we talk about work - Generocity Philly

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Dec. 17, 2018 3:00 pm

We need to talk about how we talk about work

The Urban League of Philadelphia's Ethan Tan on why the "dignity of work" is an ideology — and an immoral one, he argues.

The American flag flies near the Free Library of Philadelphia.

(Photo by Clever Girl Photography)

This is a guest post by Ethan Tan, a job developer at the Urban League of Philadelphia.
The way we talk about work is broken.

Senator Marco Rubio recently published an essay laying out policy proposals to restore the American ideal of “the dignity of work.” He concludes with a curious rhetorical flourish:

“The ‘dignity of work’ is not an ideology, nor is it a total theory of what is wrong with our country, however much we may crave one in a polarizing time. It is the lived reality of Americans: the day-in, day-out work to provide for their families and build a future for their children that is better than what they had to begin with.”

Vice President Joe Biden said something similar in 2012:

“For the rest of our life, my sister and my brothers, for the rest of our life, dad never failed to remind us that a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about your dignity. It’s about respect. It’s about your place in the community. It’s about being able to look your child in the eye and say, honey, it’s going to be OK, and mean it, and know it’s true.”

Rubio and Biden articulate a transcendent American belief in hard work being key to individual success, and individual value. Indeed, Americans are more likely than other parts of the world to have this view of individualism and work ethic. Make no mistake, the “dignity of work” is an ideology.

And it has no basis in fact.

Despite the low unemployment rate and rising median household incomes, the picture is hardly rosy. The evidence that social mobility has been declining for decades is stunning. The promise that the circumstances of one’s birth should not determine one’s station in life is now more true in China than in the United States. In America, widespread inequality is driven by race above and beyond class.

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Throw into the mix anxieties about a rapidly changing economy and the advance of artificial intelligence, and there is a potent concoction for discontent that more than one expert believes is accelerating democratic backsliding.

This is a predicament that both sides of the political aisle appear to recognize. However, because the rhetoric about the “dignity of work” assumes the problem is individual character, it follows the solution must also be individual character. Training programs, education initiatives and job readiness coaching that help people navigate a competitive job market are good, and necessary — but they are not sufficient. They keep in place the conditions that have made such programs inevitable to begin with.

For those who worship at the altar of the “dignity of work,” they have nothing charitable to say about those left behind. American capitalism crushes human value down to dollars and cents, and the “dignity of work” reinforces this. If you are poor, it’s because you’re not skilled enough, not gritty enough, not optimistic enough.

In short: you deserve it.

The U.N. published a damning report last summer that highlights the consequences of the “dignity of work”: About 40 million Americans live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty.

It’s not the poor who have failed themselves. It’s we who have failed the poor. Paeans to the “dignity of work” romanticize the struggle of the working class who work because they have to, not because they want to.

“The morality of work is the morality of slaves,” as British philosopher Bertrand Russell put it — “and the modern world has no need of slavery.” Mick Mulvaney, acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, worries about the “moral” consequences of failing to pay back student loans — but there was no such pearl-clutching when those responsible for the Great Recession were bailed out and walked away with exorbitant sums of money.

We need to talk about the dignity of human beings, skilled or unskilled, working or not working. Why should a person be condemned to poverty, a shorter, harsher life, if he is unable to get a job, never mind one that pays a living wage? If the condition for lifting people out of poverty is a job, what do we truly care about: economic productivity or human life?

As we barrel toward a future in which better artificial intelligence likely means fewer well-paying jobs for the many, we need to ask if we can bear the costs of massive displacement. And we can count the costs in the number of pills popped and lives taken.

There is no straightforward fix to all this. We can, nonetheless, start by talking about the dignity of human beings, rather than the dignity of work.

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