Here’s a hackneyed, half-remembered story from the former America: Teddy Kennedy was 30 years old and running for his first term in the Senate, with no qualifications other than a rich father and an older brother who happened to be president of the United States. In a debate, his opponent sneered: “This man has never worked a day in his life!” Next morning, Kennedy was shaking hands at a factory gate as the men came off their shift. As Kennedy told the story later, a worker leaned toward him and confided: “You ain’t missed a goddamn thing.”
It was cunning blarney on Teddy’s part, a nice dodge, a flash of his grandfather Honey Fitz, the former mayor. Teddy proposed an idea of work as meaningless toil— except that, as the Irish knew, the work wasn’t meaningless. It might be first-generation or second-generation immigrant work, the apprentice drudgery of people starting up the ladder: the hod-carrying, the ditch-digging, the kitchen labor. It was grindingly hard work that had the most profound meaning. Survival was the meaning. The Protestant work ethic had made an earlier landfall in America and sanctified work and turned it into vocation, linking human labor to God’s will. Later immigrants didn’t need the Puritan theology. They knew that the ladder itself was the thing—you had to get a foot on the first rung. The hardscrabble, rural, Scotch-Irish way of putting it was “Root, hog, or die!”
Teddy’s factory worker was almost certainly supporting a household—wife and children— paying the rent and the grocery bills and the doctor bills, struggling to get everyone up onto the next rung. There was a rough nobility in the struggle. There was, beneath the surface, a grim pride in saying, “You ain’t missed a goddamned thing,” because it meant, “It’s tough but I’m tough enough to do it. I’m supporting a family and meeting my responsibilities as a man.” If you looked at the Kennedys as the gleaming ideal of American evolution (as people used to do), you’d see that old Joe Kennedy worked hard, as his immigrant father had before him, in order to lift his children up into higher realms of American society and money and power—and public service.
Joe Kennedy was sometimes subtly contemptuous of his own work, which was not hod-carrying but Wall Street and Hollywood buccaneering: maybe a little sharp and a little crooked, before he took government jobs as FDR’s chairman of the SEC and ambassador to Great Britain, but it was the means of tribal ascent. That was the important thing: the ascent. How could the old man have known about the catastrophes that lay in wait to kill Joe Jr. and Kick—his second daughter, Kathleen—or the assassins who would take Jack and Bobby? If he had known the price, would he have worked so hard and wanted so much? Maybe the Kennedys are too melodramatic an example to be useful.
What, after all, does hard work have to do with happiness? If hard-work-brings-success was the old model, what do we say about the Great Resignation going on now, when people seem to be rethinking the subject of work and what it is all about—when Help Wanted signs dot every other window, when so many workers decline to go back to their pre-pandemic jobs? The entire country seems short-staffed. Waiting lines grow longer; there aren’t enough clerks or nurses or plumbers or whatever. On the phone, you wait on hold for half an hour in hope of a human voice. Along the New York State Thruway as the snow season closes in, electronic billboard messages beg for men to sign up to “help your neighbors” by driving the snowplows. What will we do when the blizzards come and the drivers don’t show up?
Andy Kessler of the Wall Street Journal asks, “Where did everyone go? This in an economy with 11.2 million job openings. It’s mostly men 25 to 54 who haven’t come back to work. Now a McKinsey study suggests that 40% of workers are thinking of quitting their jobs. Does anyone want to work anymore?” How come? Kessler has a guess: “Too many got a taste of not working and liked it. A lot.”
Does the Great Resignation propose a new model—an idea of work, and even of America itself, that dissents from the classic idea of work? Are we on the threshold of a post-work America, some hybrid of Polynesian indolence and Hayek’s serfdom? Or is what we see, rather, merely one of the many readjustments that the pandemic has brought upon us?
These are interlocking phenomena: 1) People finding new ways of working (doing it from home, via Zoom calls, for example—a huge change with a thousand ripple effects); and 2) People dropping out and not working at all.
Elderly Americans remember “Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out,” a mantra of refusal that noised around in the 1960s. Not working for The Man and the System would be the first step toward enlightenment. For some, the approach opened doors to creativity, but many who persisted and turned it into a lifestyle wound up in the ditch. The Great Resignation of the 2020s is, in any case, similarly based on the assumption that, unlike Teddy Kennedy’s worker at the factory gate, the dropout of today won’t have too much trouble surviving if he quits. He will have ways of getting along, with Biden-era benefits and bailouts and cushions. (The cushions may be on the daybed in his parents’ basement. It’s tougher to drop out if you have a family of your own to support.)
As for the metaphysics of it: the twenty-first century has normalized a principle of chronic dislocation and surprise, an expectation of the abnormal, of the phenomenal, the outrageous, or the miraculous. There was 9/11. There was January 6. There is climate change, with its routine catastrophes of flood and fire—as if we had an equivalent of 1755’s Lisbon earthquake (that great philosophical trauma) every few months. There are mass shootings seemingly every other day, and smartphones, with their immense political and moral and metaphysical implications. There was Donald Trump, who arrived in American politics like the Cat in the Hat in the Dr. Seuss story, hellbent on turning the house upside down. The young century has such a habit of thinking outside the box that by now, there doesn’t seem to be any box left. So, it cannot be a surprise that the idea of work might be in for a debunking.
Work is a habit. The pandemic disrupted nearly all routines. People of necessity developed new ones and, doing so, questioned or repudiated the old. Millions now working electronically, from their homes (which can be anywhere, and you won’t know the difference) means that work in the old pattern no longer is either necessary or inevitable. In some fields it has become a strangely disembodied thing. Tucker Carlson and Brit Hume of Fox News can warm themselves in Florida during the winter months, having merely to don jacket and tie toward evening and comb their hair and step into a little studio that they share beside the beach. It has a waiting camera and a backdrop that will simulate the U.S. Capitol or wherever, and their millions of viewers will assume that they are speaking from New York or Washington, as in the old days, in the thick of things, at the heart of the news. In an age when everything gets to be an optical illusion, you may say that we are not dealing with illusions anymore but (if you see the difference) with a new reality of ubiquitous illusions: the floating world of remotes. In summertime, Carlson works from his home in rural Maine and Hume from western Pennsylvania. He and Carlson still work hard, but in different places, in different ways, with the aid of twenty-first century trompe l’oeil.
Such cases are not unusual. The culture and psychology of work—some work, anyway—is altered. Often, the jobs that people decline to perform any longer are ones that do not allow them such freedom, such improvisation.
Add the factor of ideology and grievance. When workers are burdened by politics in the workplace (the coercions of “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion”), they become alienated. If work, an important and often defining component of a person’s life, is oppressed by bureaucrats who commandeer the workplace and dictate what the workers are to say and even what to think, and tell workers they are to be judged by the color of their skin (white is bad), then they have made the workplace, if not unsafe, then at least unpleasant (for white employees, anyway); they have made it dishonest, even somewhat totalitarian. Why wouldn’t people avoid such a workplace if they could, especially if they could stay home and still do the work?
Work used to fill up one’s long days—five or six out of seven, part of the ecology of things. The day might be fairly empty if you did not work. Now we have magical screens, with all their distractions—social media and an overflowing abundance of high-quality, long-form, multi-episode and bingeable dramas. Anything you desire. The downside is that the screens, with infinite inventories of information and distraction, seem to have the effect of weakening the reflexes of human initiative. As machines take over the work of filling the mind and keeping it amused, people are inclined to sit back to let the machines do the work. The machines are active; human beings become passive. What’s the point of human exertion? People are weak substitutes for machines that are precise and unemotional and much more capable and even brilliant than one’s own poor self. Passive minds begin to feel stupid.
Perhaps it’s simpler: a few years of Covid-wariness have made many people more domestic and interior. They have accustomed themselves to doing without the social life they once enjoyed at work; they have developed new routines closer to home. The era of Covid has made staying home, socializing by Zoom, keeping odd hours, goofing off—made all that normal.
Is it more meaningful to work—or not to work? It depends, of course, on what you do when working, or what you do when not working. What’s the alternative to work? Video games? Netflix? Tik Tok? Facebook? Twitter? Learn a language? Study art history? Master celestial navigation? Work in a homeless shelter? Teach English to immigrant children? Invent a way to extract sunbeams from cucumbers?
I think wistfully sometimes of Teddy Kennedy’s older brother on his inauguration day, when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” I have an idea that if there were a form of national service that summoned people from all ideological sides of the country, from all races, all economic conditions, to do good work (building things or fixing things), many of those people who now decline to work might sign up. It’s a sentimental thought; but then, America is a sentimental country. Its hatreds and divisions are merely the dark side of the sentimentality.
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