The Supposed ‘American Dignity Of Labor’

One family dinner a few decades ago, my brother and I made one of our usual smart aleck remarks about how it would be nice if our monthly allowance (or ‘pocket money’ as we called it in those days) were increased by our parents. My mother shot back with a quick, “Yes, and it would be nice if you boys did a honest day’s work to earn some of that pocket money!” When we responded, “But what kind of job would we do?” my mother supplied us with a list that included sweeping floors, taking out the trash, washing the family car and the like. In response, we continued along our utterly clueless path by making disparaging noises about how that kind of work was not what we wanted to do. My mother’s demeanor changed as she shot us the dirtiest of looks. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of work, and we should have been happy that we were being given a chance to earn our allowances. She suggested we were spoiled and needed to rent a clue. (Or words to that effect.) And then, she continued in an even sterner of voice, “Do you know what children in America do? They work during the summers when they are off school! They do part-time jobs, and they don’t care what kind of work it is; they don’t turn up their noses at work! It’s not like around here [in India] where everyone seems to have a high and mighty attitude about what kind of work they consider appropriate for themselves. In America, there is dignity in labor!”

My mother was hectoring us because she knew of the snobbishness of the Indian middle-class, its elitism, its unredeemable arrogance about menial professions and ‘humble, low-class’ work. She was right, of course; we were children of the middle-class and we had absorbed all of its lessons quite well. Domestic help, the sweepers and janitors, the folks who pumped gas at stations, the shopkeepers, they were all beneath us precisely because of the work they did. And here was my mother, reminding us that in that magical land called America, where things were so much better than they were here, in this chaotic land of never-ending dysfunction, one key differentiating point was that its people respected work, no matter what it was, and who did it. That’s why it was so prosperous and powerful. So she thought, and so we believed. Many American myths traveled quickly; and they endured well.

There were many disillusionments waiting for me in America. Among them was a rapid dispelling of the very notion of an American dignity of labor. Here there was shaming aplenty of those who were ‘flippin’ burgers and servin’ fries,’  pumping gas at stations, cleaning toilets, taking out the garbage, washing dishes–or just plain doing ‘minimum wage work.’ It didn’t take me long to cotton on to this fact; my first job was washing dishes in the cafeteria, and by the end of the semester, ironically, a complete reversal had taken place. I didn’t mind telling other international students–including those from India–that that was how I was making ends meet; they knew what had to be done. But I was always mortified when I told my American friends about it. I had begun to doubt they would see any ‘dignity’ in my ‘labor.’

Work Ain’t Working For Us (And Hasn’t Been)

‘Work’ is a four-letter word, variously used to describe an activity for which a bewildering array of pejorative adjectives have been deployed over the years. Slogans abound, on bumper sticker and office cubicle alike: we’re working for the weekend; thank God it’s Friday; a bad day fishing is better than a good day working; and so on. We all hate Monday mornings; hump days signal relief lies ahead; Sunday evening gives us the blues. When we do enjoy that which brings home the bacon, we rush to reassure others that ‘it’s so much fun, it doesn’t feel like work.’ And yet, peculiarly, our moral values and sensibility are fully imbued by precisely those qualities that make us better workers: thrift, industriousness, patience being but a few. We are praiseworthy if we have a ‘good work ethic.’ We are told that ‘early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.’ The worst abuse that can be directed against a the consumption of a psychotropic substance is that it makes you ‘unproductive’ and induces ‘amotivational syndrome.’ Apparently, we are to be instructed that we are good if we consign ourselves to the bad. Something seems amiss. Sure, work is described as ‘virtuous’ in order to make the above stipulations of our moral ordering work, but the irony and perversity remains: we are good if we find the boring and pointless and tedious fulfilling and engaging and worthy of devoting one-third or more of our lives to.

This clash of the ideology of work with our lived experience of actual working situations is seemingly as old as the hills, as are the litanies of protests–practical and theoretical–directed against it. (For the latter, we may consider as historical examples provided by the dual, converse critiques to be found in Karl Marx‘s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and Max Weber‘s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; for the former, we need only consider the long and troubled history of labor relations.) But we continue to work, harder and harder, afraid that if we stop poverty, and what’s worse, moral approbation, will come crashing down on our heads.

Ideologies are powerful, and so we are resigned to this state of affairs: we need all that we are working toward, we cannot give up the comforts work provides us, the fate of our civilization, our world, depends on out work. Nose and shoulder back to the grindstone and wheel, please. Periodic irruptions remind us that this resignation is sometimes an uneasy one; the intolerable can only be tolerated for so long. We murmur uneasily at the deluded troublemakers, casting quick glances at them, before returning to work; their rabble-rousing threatens to disrupt our work. You know, the thing we despise and cannot wait to be done with.

Man is a curious creature, capable of tolerating many contradictions and ironies, material and formal. Here is another one; a daily presence in our lives. We’ve learned to live with it; we teach our children how to.

Not Working While Working

Roland Paulsen has an interesting essay over at The Atlantic on not working while working. Shirking, slacking, ‘pretending to add value,’ not having enough to do, boring work, ‘meaningless’ work – whatever it is, whatever the reason – there’s a whole lot of not working while working going on. And yet, we continue to ‘work’ more and more, with increasingly reduced time for families and leisure. The cruelest of all ironies: we have to remove ourselves from  scenes of leisure and familial ties, take ourselves elsewhere, and then, not work.

I often don’t work while working, mainly because I’m distracted by social media and email and just plain old Internet-centered procastination–as I have complained here. But there was a time once, when I wanted to work while working and couldn’t, because someone else wanted to do my work.

In 1998, in an effort to earn a little money that would allow me to work on my dissertation without having to spend a lot of time teaching for peanuts in CUNY’s adjunct-exploiting system, I decided to take six months off and work in New York City’s financial sector–doing UNIX system administration. Jobs were a dime-a-dozen, the Internet gold rush was on, and I found a gig at an online brokerage within three days of applying. (I stupidly asked for too little, of course.)

In any case, once I signed up, I found myself assigned as backup to an older system administrator. He would show me the ropes and I would assist him on all tasks. I quickly realized my colleague had been made extremely nervous by my hiring. He was convinced–thanks to his years in the aerospace industry–that his head was on the proverbial chopping block and that once he had finished ‘training’ me, he would be fired. (Asking around behind the scenes, I was told that no such plan was in the works, but all reassurance to this effect failed to comfort my co-worker.)

So, all too quickly, I realized that any work assigned us as a pair would be done by him alone. All too often, my co-worker would tell me to ‘relax’, saying he could take care of it himself. Once done with it, he would report to our supervisor, informing him in great detail just how efficiently he had accomplished his objectives. (He also insisted on keeping the emergency beeper with him at all times; I was only too happy to let him hold on to it.) I would sometimes accompany him as he went about these chores but soon enough I gave up even that pretense and retired to my desk to browse, drink coffee, and chat with my neighbors. I knew there was little danger of my being fired; my employers wanted a pair of system administrators on duty at all times, and there was little chance they would let me go in the job market that existed then, which featured a shortage of folks with my ‘skills.’ As before, this fact did not make a dent in my co-worker’s anxieties. Truth be told, there was something pitiful about it all.

And so it went. I would show up on time at work, convey a reasonable impression of being occupied, take long lunch and coffee breaks, attend meetings, and all of the rest. A few months later, when according to my calculations I had earned enough to take care of my living expenses for a few months of teaching-free dissertation writing, I handed in my resignation.

In six months, I had barely worked the equivalent of two weeks.

On Being Mistaken for a ‘Worker’

Variants of the following situation have, I think, occurred in many people’s lives here in the US. (I have been on both the giving and receiving end, so to speak.)

You walk into a store (or perhaps a restaurant), perusing its offerings. You do not find what you need; you are confused; you need assistance. You see someone standing around, unoccupied; they are not wearing a uniform or anything like that. For whatever reason, you assume this person is a store employee, and ask for direction or assistance. You are mistaken. This person is not an employee.  Matters now get interesting.

Your respondent tells you, sometimes curtly, sometimes politely, ‘I don’t work here.’ You react as if poked with a cattle iron and electric prod combined, even as your hand flies up to cover your mouth in dismay: ‘I’m sorry!’ And you rush away, mortified, determined to never commit that particular faux pas again. The person you have dared assume was a store employee might also move away quickly from the locale of his embarrassment, wondering what accursed luck had led to this confusion, wondering what they had done wrong. Did they look slovenly or unwashed? Do they look servile?

(In my description of these kinds of encounters, I do not think I have exaggerated excessively. Some twenty or so years ago, I went with a girlfriend to an Indian restaurant for dinner; she was wearing a sari. As we waited for our table, a young man walked up to my girlfriend and asked her for a table; she politely, and with a grin on her face, replied she didn’t work there. You would have thought the lad had been shot, the way he almost doubled up with pain, flushed red, apologized and quickly walked away.)

This species of especially embarrassing social encounter has led to multiple safeguards to prevent its recurrence: in more established commercial enterprises, employees wear name tags or uniforms, and conversely, their customers have learned to be more cautious, prefixing their questions with a very (very!) tentative, ‘Excuse me, do you work here?’

No one it seems, likes being mistaken for a worker. And no one likes to be in the business of mistaking a non-worker for a worker. We worry that we might offend someone by mistaking them for a lowly employee of the business we are patronizing, and the targets of our putative scorn are offended that someone has dared confuse them with those who are there to serve them. The primary sin here is class confusion: our class has been mixed up with someone else’s.

We live in a society that ostensibly aspires to, and sometimes achieves in some limited domains, an egalitarianism of sorts; we supposedly ascribe ‘dignity’ to labor, to wage work; we supposedly recognize that today’s lowly are tomorrow’s esteemed. For isn’t the road to the top available to anyone and everyone? But, I think, these little run-ins show us we’ve got a long way to go till we are ready to accept being confused with a ‘worker.’