Life's Labor, Lost

There's dignity in work. But what do we do without it?

Allegory of Industry and Idleness by Louis Laguerre, 1693 (public domain)

"Toil is man’s allotment; toil of brain, or toil of hands, or a grief that’s more than either, the grief and sin of idleness." —Herman Melville, 1849


Do you have a job that you love?

If you do, count yourself lucky. These days, we might not have that luxury, as some people are thankful to have any job that helps them pay the bills during the pandemic.

Last week, you'll recall that we talked about grief and how we're all sharing a personal yet public feeling and grappling with ways to support each other. With so many people out of work lately, it's likely they're mourning a job loss and struggling to make sense of things.

Today, we'll look a some of the numbers related to employment, the nature of jobs in a changing environment, the dignity of work and purpose, and how we might look out for each other — as well as some information about the image above. In Friday's subscriber-only newsletter, we'll go deeper into purpose and link it to how we live our lives. You'll also get links to articles, long-reads, a book and podcast, and more. Be sure to subscribe to get it.

Here in the United States, we just celebrated Labor Day — the unofficial end of summer, one last chance to put your toes in the sand, enjoy a lazy cookout, or just lay about before heading back to work or school.

For some people, there is no return to work. With unemployment currently at 8.4 percent (source: Bureau of Labor Statistics), the country is still hurting. Still, it's better than where we were in April, at 14.7 percent unemployment (BLS).


“I never remember feeling tired by work, though idleness exhausts me completely.” — Arthur Conan Doyle, 1890


These tens of millions of people who are out of work have been, as manufacturers would put it, idled. Yes, this is a lamentable thing, but it gives us opportunities as well. From sourdough starters and projects around the house, to personal fitness and relationships we neglected, we can place our attention on things that we didn't have time for. Or perhaps that we fled from.

Sven Birkerts, editor of AGNI, diffuses the negativity related to idleness:

"Idleness has been branded the obverse of industry, a slap in the face to all healthy ambition. So-and-so is a layabout, a ne’er-do-well, an idler. But for all that, we have not made the word unbeautiful; there is a light at the core, to be remarked, gleaned from the righteous attributions of the anxiously busy…It is the soul’s first habitat, the original self ambushed—cross-sectioned—in its state of nature, before it has been stirred to make a plan, to direct itself toward something. We open our eyes in the morning and for an instant—more if we indulge ourselves—we are completely idle, ourselves. And then we launch toward purpose." ("The Mother of Possibility," Lapham's Quarterly, 2011)

More on purpose in a moment.

This idea of idleness as an opportunity is encouraging and the most recent unemployment numbers are a step in the right direction, but the reality is the economy is still hurting.

More than that, people are hurting.

Have you noticed how we talk about the economy as if it's just made up of products and data? Trade deals, percentages, jobs, rising and falling with the tides of industry. But what about the human beings that make up these figures?

Those 500 jobs that had to be furloughed? Those are 500 families that now have to worry about their future. The 14.7 percent unemployed? Those are tens of millions of Americans that may not be able to make rent.

Lewis Lapham called it out in "The Servant Problem":

"Purse-lipped and solemn, the commentators for the Financial Times and MSNBC mention the harm done to the country’s credit rating, deplore the trade and budget deficits, discuss the cutting back of pensions and public services. From the tone of the conversation, I can imagine myself at a lawn party somewhere in Fairfield County, Connecticut, listening to the lady in the flowered hat talk about the difficulty of finding decent help.

"The framing of the country’s unemployment trouble as an unfortunate metastasis of the servant problem should come as no surprise. The country is in the hands of an affluent oligarchy content with Voltaire’s reading of its rights."

Lapham wrote that in 2011, but he may just as well have written it yesterday. The numbers in our economy show a move away from the servant class to the knowledge workers that's been creeping up on us for 40 years: over that time, the percentage of GDP that manufacturing accounted for fell from 21 percent to 11 percent as of last October — the lowest since 1947. (Infoweek)

The industry that makes up Wall Street—finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE)—alone accounted for a fifth of the total economy, making it the largest industry by contribution to GDP. That's a rise from 14 percent to 20 percent. (Deloitte)

We have become a society that relies less on hands and more on brains.


"I believe in the dignity of labor, whether with head or hand; that the world owes every man an opportunity to make a living." — John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1941


It's impossible to separate the physical from the mental in our success as a species; indeed, one has relied on the other. Yuhal Noah Harari traced the development of our early neural networks in Sapiens, noting how our tools eventually caught up with our intellect.

Despite our advance into the Information Age, we still require the outputs of physical labor. Our phones, our houses, our transportation, despite encroaching automation, still require human hands to touch them. We might be tethered to an assembly line or a keyboard, but our job is to serve a purpose, whether it's our own or someone else's.

This is a fundamental drive of human existence: to live for a purpose.


"An unemployed existence is a worse negation of life than death itself, because to live means to have something definite to do—a mission to fulfill—and in the measure in which we avoid setting our life to something, we make it empty. Human life, by its very nature, has to be dedicated to something." — José Ortega y Gasset, 1932


Simone Weil recognized the importance of purpose in work: that it links us to being part of something greater than ourselves. Knowing that we're contributing to society in some tangible or meaningful way can help us deal with the hardships that may accompany our work. Fundamentally, if someone has a job, it imbues them with purpose and gives them that dignity that Rockefeller talked about.

Given the shift in numbers from manufacturing to FIRE jobs as stated above, combined with the pandemic, we're at a treacherous point in the development of work. The anthropologist David Graber, who died last week, had a premonition of this when he wrote one of his landmark works in 2013: "On the Phenomenon of Bulls**t Jobs": 

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century's end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There's every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn't happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

Why did Keynes' promised utopia—still being eagerly awaited in the '60s—never materialise? The standard line today is that he didn't figure in the massive increase in consumerism. Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we've collectively chosen the latter. This presents a nice morality tale, but even a moment's reflection shows it can't really be true. Yes, we have witnessed the creation of an endless variety of new jobs and industries since the '20s, but very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones, or fancy sneakers.

So what are these new jobs, precisely? A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture (and I note, one pretty much exactly echoed in the UK). Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, ‘professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers’ tripled, growing ‘from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.’ In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away…

But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world's population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning of not even so much of the ‘service’ sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

These are what I propose to call ‘bulls**t jobs’.

It's as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen.

And with the pandemic, nature is hitting the great reset button (particularly in the U.S.), where there are swathes of jobs that have been eliminated, possibly never to return. It's as if the virus is calling B.S. on what society has become, and is creating that oft-uttered "new normal" that has less to do with work habits than it does a bombed-out retail world.

On a recent visit to a mall to make a return, I walked by shuttered storefronts and restaurants, thinking of how many of the managers, servers and attendants were out of work as a result. When I arrived at the intended location, I found the store had closed without fanfare.

Those jobs were gone in part because of the already fragile retail industry, but also because of significant shifts in foot traffic, thanks to remote work. But it's not just those jobs: it's everything related to them — mechanics and gas station owners that see fewer cars as a result; daycare facilities that don't need to staff up, due to at-home parents; dry cleaners that see a drop in volume because we're all in Zoom-friendly outfits that we wash at home.

There's a vast underbelly of the economy that's linked to the jobs that Graber identified. It's a hidden trillion-dollar office economy, and it makes me wonder whether those related jobs will ever return. What if they don't? What is our responsibility as a society?

Almost exactly 117 years ago, Theodore Roosevelt had ideas about society as he gave his "A Square Deal" speech to farmers at the New York State Agricultural Association, in Syracuse, New York (September 7, 1903). His words mirror the clarion call of a March essay on these pages ("Individualism Has No Place in a Pandemic"), striking at the heart of our duty to our fellow humans and respect for life, particularly in times of great challenge:

The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally upon the welfare of all of us , and therefore in public life that man is the best representative of each of us who seeks to do good to each by doing good to all; in other words, whose endeavor it is not to represent any special class and promote merely that class's selfish interests, but to represent all true and honest men of all sections and all classes and to work for their interests by working for our common country. We can keep our government on a sane and healthy basis, we can make and keep our social system what it should be, only on condition of judging each man, not as a member of a class, but on his worth as a man. It is an infamous thing in our American life, and fundamentally treacherous to our institutions, to apply to any man any test save that of his personal worth, or to draw between two sets of men any distinction save the distinction of conduct, the distinction that marks off those who do well and wisely from those who do ill and foolishly. There are good citizens and bad citizens in every class as in every locality, and the attitude of decent people toward great public and social questions should be determined, not by the accidental questions of employment or locality, but by those deep-set principles which represent the innermost souls of men.

In the history of mankind many republics have risen, have flourished for a less or greater time, and then have fallen because their citizens lost the power of governing themselves and thereby of governing their state; and in no way has this loss of power been so often and so clearly shown as in the tendency to turn the government into a government primarily for the benefit of one class instead of a government for the benefit of the people as a whole. Again and again in the republics of ancient Greece, in those of medieval Italy and medieval Flanders, this tendency was shown, and wherever the tendency became a habit it invariably and inevitably proved fatal to the state. In the final result, it mattered not one whit whether the movement was in favor of one class or of another…

It is not enough to be well-meaning and kindly, but weak; neither is it enough to be strong, unless morality and decency go hand in hand with strength. We must possess the qualities which make us do our duty in our homes and among our neighbors, and in addition we must possess the qualities which are indispensable to the make-up of every great and masterful nation — the qualities of courage and hardihood, of individual initiative and yet of power to combine for a common end, and above all, the resolute determination to permit no man and no set of men to sunder us one from the other by lines of caste or creed or section. We must act upon the motto of all for each and each for all. There must be ever present in our minds the fundamental truth that in a republic such as ours the only safety is to stand neither for nor against any man because he is rich or because he is poor, because he is engaged in one occupation or another, because he works with his brains or because he works with his hands. We must treat each man on his worth and merits as a man. We must see that each is given a square deal, because he is entitled to no more and should receive no less.

We are still in precarious times. There's a pandemic afoot, a national election looming, and many people hurting. The path forward is unpaved and uncertain.

With leadership in the spirit of Roosevelt's, we'll find our courage and conviction and harness them to our brains, our hands, and our hearts.

Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.

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P.S. This week’s companion piece for paying subscribers is Can I Give You Some Feedback?


About This Week's Image

Louis Laguerre was a French painter who worked mainly in England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Unlike others who were portrait artists, his work was decorative in nature—that is, murals that adorn ceilings and walls—not unlike Michelangelo's work in the Sistine Chapel.

Laguerre's art can be found in such stately homes as Blenheim Palace, Chatsworth House, Petworth House and Marlborough House — homes of some of the highest ranking families in English nobility. Allegory of Industry and Idleness can be found in the Great Hall of Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire. It's the personification of what we know from the story of the ant and the grasshopper: some of us will work hard, while others put it off. And we know how that ends.

While you may not be able to afford to buy an original Laguerre or commission someone to design and adorn your country house with murals, art is still a sound investment. With some paintings selling for millions of dollars, what if you could own shares in them before they’re sold again? Masterworks is the platform that lets anybody invest in works by artists like Banksy, Monet, and more. And readers of Timeless & Timely skip the 25,000-person waiting list.


One More Thing

If you’re working remotely and you feel a sense of disconnect, a need to compare notes with other people, a place to address leadership skills that are unique to this environment, you’ll want to check out Remotely, a new professional development network. It’s designed and run by people I’ve known and trusted for a decade and a half, and I’m on the Leadership Council.

I’m offering an exclusive 50% discount—you won’t find a better deal anywhere else—for paid subscribers of Timeless & Timely. If you want in, I’ll be sharing the details in Friday’s newsletter.


Well, that was a slog. If you made it this far, let me know. And give it a share.