The Dignity of Work

“All creatures exist for a purpose.  Even an ant knows what that purpose is.  Only human beings have come to a point where they no longer know why they exist.”   These wise words were spoken decades ago by John Fire Lame Deer, a Lakota holy man and philosopher, but they are even more true today.  Only a few generations past our ancestors surely knew they had a purpose –  to work hard in order to  survive and support their children, family, friends and community.  Given the relative ease of life today in the developed world, many of us have forgotten this ancient truth.   There are roughly ten million fewer people working in the United States now than two years ago, despite the fact that there are also about ten million unfilled jobs.  This reluctance to return to work is contributing to inflation and supply chain disruptions in the broader economy.  It is also hurting the overstretched people who are still working, small business owners and local communities.  But unemployment is most damaging to those who voluntarily choose not to work.

Work is not only necessary for a flourishing life, it is also critically important for our mental and physical health.  Hard work can give us a sense of purpose, discipline, and self-worth.  It can also broaden our minds by connecting us with the world through coworkers, colleagues and customers.  Modern research has repeatedly documented the negative impacts associated with unemployment including depression, anxiety, loss of self-esteem, an increase in chronic disease and even early death.  These finding would come as no surprise to some of the great thinkers from the past:

  • The work first, the rewards afterwards. (Confucius)
  • Better to live one day with vigor and effort than one hundred years idle and lazy. (Buddha)
  • Does not any industrious person find idleness a punishment. (Seneca)
  • When people are employed they are best contented. (Benjamin Franklin)
  • Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing. (Teddy Roosevelt)
  • Work done willingly and cheerfully is never felt as a burden. (Mahatma Gandhi)

A regular full time job, honestly fulfilled should be rewarded with a fair living wage; but work can provide much more than that.  Many recent studies have shown that having wealth without work is not good for us.  Wealthy people who inherit their money through no effort tend to be significantly less happy than those who earned their wealth through their own hard work.  Likewise, the working poor tend to be happier and healthier than those who could work but are instead supported by welfare programs alone.

Some may complain that the available jobs are unpleasant or unworthy of them and their talents.  But we cannot all be professional artists, musicians, sports figures or social justice advocates.  If you studied a subject in college that interested you, but that is not in demand in the labor market, you may have to work outside of your chosen field.  Someone must do the essential work that keeps our economy and infrastructure running or most of us would end up starving in the cold and darkness.  Similarly everyone who can work should pay their fair share of taxes to support government programs and services that provide for the common good of society and protection of the natural world.

Sadly not all of us can be the boss.  By definition only half of the people can be above average.  We want leaders who make wise decisions for the good of the organization, its members and the broader society.   It can take a long time to develop the skills necessary to successfully complete a complex task or manage a large team.  We should all expect to invest years in junior positions to develop the necessary skills to become a good leader.   A skilled, tradesperson, driver, factory worker, farmer, stay-at-home parent or healthcare professional; working conscientiously and paying their taxes can also provide more economic, social and environmental benefit than someone with an advanced degree focused solely on their own narrow financial interests or doing a job that produces little of actual value to society.  An earnest worker in retail or the hospitality industry is also crucial for our economy and can bring a little bit of happiness to those around them by providing competent and cheerful service.

In short almost any honest job that is performed well can provide a sense of self-worth, accomplishment and contribution.  We should also honor and be thankful for the hard work of others done on our behalf.     A positive attitude can work wonders.  As Winston Churchill noted is  “It is no use doing what you like; you have got to like what you do.” No job is perfect, but it is infinitely better for ourselves and society to work hard at something.  But also remember to keep your work and personal life in proper balance.  As Ptah-Hotep of ancient Egypt wisely observed 4400 year ago: “He that toils all day has no happy moments, but he who amuses himself all day long cannot provide for his family.”

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