Wednesday, December 3, 2008

I can has job, American dream?

Man, this financial crisis just sucks, it really does. Unemployment is the kind of problem that I think really creates fissures in our social contract; it's not just a problem that I don't know how to deal with, but a problem that I don't know how to think about-- it splits open what many of us believe about the basic agreements that underpin civil society.

Let me say that I'm definitely one to push back against the idea that we are what we do for work, and I don't like work-consciousness. I certainly don't think a right to work becomes an affirmative duty to work. If someone wants to live a life of asceticism and little material consumption, they are absolutely entitled, although I think if people take advantage of aspects of the social safety net there are reasonable expectations that the state can impose on them, in regards to work. Certainly, I see no moral imperative to work, and if someone can craft a life without work that satisfies them, and they act in neither a predatory or parasitic way towards society, then more power to them.

But when people want to work, and can't get it, it's more than just an economic or political problem. It's a derailment of the vehicle of American aspiration. It's important for those who have been fortunate enought to never face a period of long unemployment to understand how degrading, emasculating and dehumanizing it can be. For many of us, work is fundamentally bound up in our self-image and self-worth. Losing work can be unsettling to elementary ideas of self. Like I said, I don't like that work is so ingrained in our conscious, but there it is, and most of us can't change it. And, of course, there's the bigger fact that work is a necessary vehicle for most of us to have security and actualization, to have someplace to live, to conduct ourselves in a certain level of physical comfort, to pursue the kind of social lives that most of us consider the actual point of life. People howl with derision when I talk about a right to work, and I'm not actually talking about some sort of right assured by law, I guess. But my feeling that it should be a part of the compact of living in a society and fulfilling certain societal expectations that those who are willing to work be able to, though they may have little say in the quality or compensation of that work. But you know what "should be"s are worth.

Incidentally, this has an impact on romance as well. I think many people, and particularly many men, feel that they can't participate in a loving partnership without meeting a certain minimum threshold of financial security. Some of that is about feeling confident, some of it is about the simple facts of what is expected during a period of courtship. This isn't to excuse materialism on the part of potential girlfriends or boyfriends; I don't think most would want to date someone shallow enough to refuse to date someone because they're poor. But dating costs money, and again I think men in particular often feel a need to demonstrate the ability to provide, even though that may be an artifact of earlier times and a bit sexist. This is particularly true in situations where the person is at an age where they are considering settling down. So unemployment effectively curtailts pursuing romantic relationships for people even if they aren't lacking for willing partners.


ryan said...

I can definitely speak to the unemployment-hurts-romance line. I had to call things off with a young lady very recently because of my financial situation. It isn't that dating costs too much money--neither of us a really big spenders--but our combined educational debt is such that we simply cannot afford for me not to have a job. If I were more financially stable at the moment, marriage could be in the cards, but as it is... Looking for work has completely sucked for the past few months, and there doesn't seem to be a single thing I can do to change that.

As a Christian though, I can't entirely agree with your objection to work being so deeply rooted in our consciousness. I think it's wrong to let one's identity be completely wrapped up in one's work, but at the same time, I do believe that human beings were created to work. There was work in Eden, and there's no reason to think there won't be work in the next age. The problem is not so much work as it is toil, something akin to Marx's concept of alienation: Work is no longer fulfilling in the way that it should be, and there is no longer any guarantee either that one will be able to work or that the work that one does will be sufficient to survive. The inability to work is bad for people, not just because it violates some sort of social contract, but because idleness does cut against our nature as bearers of the image of God.

Bob said...


Will Wilkerson has his commentary on the economy on his blog. I guess it comes from NPR this morning.

I'm pretty sure you will all have happy thoughts after giving it a listen. Will is a fucking tool. Any way, give it a listen.

He gets some push back that makes sense to me.

meelar said...

If you haven't seen it, Season 2 of the Wire deals with this issue really well.

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