In November 1996, truck drivers in France waged a strike that, in a fashion typical of that country's
industrial relations, quickly produced a gridlocked society. Barely resisting, the French government
settled with the truckers, granting their major demand for retirement at age 55. As Adam Gopnik
reported in the New Yorker, most people in France believed that because of the intensity
of their work, truckers deserved their reward. And as people thought about it longer, the feeling
began to spread that everyone was entitled to early retirement. "The movement to lower the
universal retirement age to fifty-five," Gopnik pointed out, "is the closest thing to a mass
economic uprising the country has seen." For France, that's saying something.
With the election of a Socialist government, a 35-hour workweek has now become a national policy
goal for France. Indeed, shorter working time seems about the only common strategy the European l
eft has for reducing unemployment. The movement to reduce the normal workweek resonates with a
particular moral conception of work. Standard economics has long conceived of work as a "disutility"
something that people do as a means to put bread on the table, not as an end. The main tradition
of industrial unionism in the West has taken the economists at their word. If work is arduous and
unpleasant, the solution is less to enrich it than to reduce it. Yet work has also had its defenders as
well as its critics; even Karl Marx saw the human potential of work, not just the depressing reality.
WORK IN PROGRESS
The debate over the moral meaning of work begins with an argument about whether work is basically
degrading or ennobling. Is work, as Herbert Marcuse argued in Eros and Civilization, such
a restraint on people's capacities for freedom that, in a future utopia, it would become the exception
and leisure the rule? Or has work, as Daniel Bell wrote in The End of Ideology, "always
stood at the center of moral consciousness" in the Westeither as a corrective to idleness in
Christian doctrine, or as a necessity for genuine humanity in the ideas of Thorstein Veblen, John Dewey, or Hannah Arendt?
Prompted by such developments as the globalization of capitalism, corporate downsizing, welfare
reform, considerations of gender equality, and the appeal of voluntarism, the United States is
experiencing a revival of debate over the moral meaning of work. Unlike many debates, this one
is not between left and right; one can find enthusiasts for, and critics of, work on both sides of
the political spectrum. It makes more sense to understand the debate as one between moderates
who appreciate work for encouraging people's moral capacities but also seek to enrich it and
balance it with other commitments, and those who find work oppressive and stultifying. Liberals
and conservatives who maintain the latter disagree only over whether the demise of work should
be celebrated in the name of freedom or its extension encouraged in the name of discipline.
On the left, Jeremy Rifkin believes
less work "is the first prerequisite for freedom."
Depicting the horrors imposed by modern technology on workers, Rifkin, in his widely read book
The End of Work, invokes all the possibilities open to people in a work-free world. Instead of
being harassed by too many demands and too few hours, people will begin to enjoy leisure. Fantastic
amounts of energy will be released for community endeavors to restore America's dwindling
"social capital." No longer dominated by the market in human labor, capitalist societies will
lose their taste for market logic in general. As Rifkin puts it, the choice is a dramatic one: either continue
on the present path where larger numbers of people compete for fewer jobs, and the result will be more
unemployment, inequality, crime, drugs, and prostitution; or change to a society where less work yields
radically shortened working timeand more people will live with security and self-fulfillment.
Rifkin's view of a world without work is shaped by radical transformations in both the technology and social
relations of work. Robotics, computer-assisted design, and artificial intelligence enable machines to carry
out the more repetitive tasks once performed by human beings. At the same time, globalization and
pressures to shrink labor costs reduce the number of available jobs, especially in the wealthier countries
of the West. Given these trends, the humane alternative is reductions in work hours. By asking for much
higher rates for overtime pay, for example, labor could force companies to adhere to a genuine 40-hour week.
And by demanding more jobs on a less than 40-hour-a-week basis, the labor movement could appeal to parents
of young children and the unemployed. The former need less than full-time work when their children are small;
the latter would gain because a redistribution of working hours would provide more hiring opportunities.
Not surprisingly, capitalist societies have been slow to take up Rifkin's challenge. The struggle to
reduce working time is as old as the industrial revolution.
The 40-hour week became standard only in the 1930s. Historian Benjamin Kline Hunnicut, in
Kellogg's Six-Hour Day, reminds us that in December 1930, W.W. Kellogg reduced working
hours at his Battle Creek cereal factory to four six-hour shifts instead of five eight-hour ones. Because
each worker now worked fewer hours, more workers, including many laid off due to the Great
Depression, were hired back. By the time World War II came to an end, pressures to return to
"normal" were felt on all sides and the company reinstituted the 40-hour week. But some
workers, especially women, fought to protect the six-hour day and did so until the 1980s. Influenced
by the ideas of anti-work theorists such as Andre Gorz and Ivan Illich, and concerned, like economist
Juliet Schor, that harried lives are poor lives to lead, Hunnicut looks back to the Kellogg experience to
demonstrate that radical traditions of reducing hours are as relevant as ever to conditions of life at century's end.
Critics like Rifkin, Hunnicut, and the theorists on whom they rely get some things right. For the sake
of children, community, and the unemployed, it makes sense for people to work fewer hours. But these
critics get most other things wrong. Jobs, contrary to Rifkin, are not disappearing; one can hate
capitalism for many things, but not for a failure to find new sources of growth and new kinds of jobs.
Nor have technological advances displaced the need for human cognition, human adaptability, and
even human personality in the workplace. Some technology has indeed led to de-skilling. But other
workplaces, increasingly technologically driven, are ever more in need of people to monitor and guide the technology.
More important is a lack of moral imagination among the critics of work. In his account of Kellogg's six-hour day,
Hunnicut offers the story of Joy Blanchard, for whom the extra time given to her through a
reduced workweek made possible more time with family and community. But Blanchard
also fought a losing battle. Many of her neighbors and friends used their free time to "watch
television, shop, or gossip." "They might just as well go back to work,"
Blanchard told Hunnicut, which is, in fact, what many of them did. Hunnicut laments the fact
that "outside cultural forces"he means the media"made deep inroads into
local discourse." But it may well be just as true that, with less time to work, people felt
less of a sense of moral meaning. They may have wanted to go back to full-time work because
it was in full-time work that they found more of themselves.
In the past, conservatives were among those who found work dehumanizing. The first great critics
of industrial capitalism were romantic conservatives like Thomas Carlyle. Especially in England,
newly enriched businessmen often found themselves sympathetic to aristocratic values and
responded by trying to humanize and beautify the workplace. Unlike such ideas, contemporary
forms of conservatism in both Great Britain and the United States are overwhelmingly libertarian
in inclination. Yet the conservative critique of work has not completely disappeared.
John M. Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, North Carolina, provides
one example in The Heroic Enterprise. In a 1970 article in the New York Times
Magazine, Milton Friedman wrote that the only responsibility of business is "to
use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits." Hood agrees
with Friedman but thinks his formulation is easily misunderstood. It is not whether corporations
should be socially responsible, Hood argues, but whether they
are. Smart companies interested in maximizing their profits will, he maintains,
invest in their communities, train their workers, protect the environment, encourage safe
products, and revitalize cities.
What is most interesting about Hood's capitalist manifesto is its defensiveness. For in
arguing that social problems exist that corporations can help rectify, Hood implicitly acknowledges
that corporations may have caused those problems in the first place. Hence as Hood turns to the
question of work, he sounds remarkably like Jeremy Rifkin. When companies lay off workers, they
are giving them more time to be themselvesHood, too, likes early retirementor to start up new ventures.
Companies, it seems, are to be praised for allowing people to escape the dependency and drudgery that
companies themselves impose. Herbert Marcuse was a sexual and cultural libertarian; John M. Hood is
an economic libertarian. On the issue of work, there may not be that much difference between them.
DISCIPLINE FOR THE LOWER ORDERS
A different stripe of modern conservative sees virtue in the rigors of work. For many conservatives,
welfare causes dependency while working allows economic independence. Yet one also discerns in
the conservative stance a more punitive sensibility that holds that poor people should worknot to be
free, but to learn the importance of obedience. The problem with welfare, according to conservative
publicist Myron Magnet in his 1993 book The Dream and the Nightmare, is that it brings to the
underclass the Marcusean philosophy of the New Left. The reason to impose work requirements on
welfare recipients is not so much that work will be fulfilling as that it will be arduous: By forcing them to
recognize deadlines, production schedules, and the expectations of the hierarchy above them, working
will produce in the poor the respect for discipline that welfare dependency denies them. This conservative
conception of poverty, work, discipline, and social control dates at least to Mandeville's Fable of the Bees,
the writings of Thomas Malthus, and, lately, Charles Murray.
When one finds a common point of view on both the right and left, it is either time to celebrate a
new consensus or to wonder whether both sides are off-base. On the moral meaning of work,
I am inclined to the latter alternative. Surely there is more to work than drudgery. A spate of
recent books reveals the emergence of a new respect for work among social scientists and social
critics. Not all of them gush with enthusiasm, for there remains something deeply problematic
about working for others, let alone contributing to the production of goods that can be both harmful
and insipid. But work is too much a part of the human condition to be easily wished away.
Daniel Bell's most important book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, originally
published in 1976, has recently been released with a new afterword. The occasion serves as a
reminder of the degree to which Bell viewed himself as an opponent
of most things Marcusean. Capitalism, Bell wrote, finds itself increasingly divided between the
discipline required by its productive side and the hedonism encouraged by its consumptive side.
Although written as a work of dispassionate social science, there was little doubting Bell's distaste
for the utopianism of the New Left, a utopianism oddly shared by the capitalist's offer of a world
of consumer goods that would bring a post-scarcity economy into existence. Against such a vision,
the Protestant Ethic, for all its dour distemper, did not seem such a bad thing.
Reflecting now on what he wrote then, Bell argues for an even sharper version of his thesis.
The Protestant ethic, especially as formulated by Max Weber, emphasized the moral ideal of
hard work as a calling, "a moral obligation that projects religious behavior onto the
everyday world." But Bell also notes that the Protestant ethic may have disappeared far
earlier than we ever previously imagined. Citing Simon Schama's work on the Dutch Republic,
Bell shows how even at the height of the first capitalist revolution, opulence was never far from the
consciousness of the bourgeoisie. Bell points to the attraction of intellectuals to postmodernism as
evidence for how adversarial to productivist values the oppositional culture of bourgeois society has
become. Our society, Bell concludes despairingly, is one in which "the Protestant ethic
(now a mythos) has been overwhelmed by acquisitiveness, and Modernism has ended in the
morass of postmodernism. . . ." In such a society, not only is it hard to find moral meaning
in work, it is hard to find moral meaning in anything.
Yet most people work. And for most, work provides a major definition of self. For them to join
intellectuals in denouncing work would be to render a considerable portion of their daily lives
meaningless. Sociologists, including Max Weber, have long maintained that human beings
are moral creatures in the sense that they do not merely act but also give accounts of their
actions. In his book Poor Richard's Principle, the Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow
relies on 200 interviews with working peopleand a survey of 2,000 other working Americansto
explore whether Americans find moral meaning in their work. The short answer is that they do.
People do not work only to make money, Wuthnow argues, but also "to give a legitimate
account of themselves." In their workplaces, people do not see chains of command and
alienated labor but other people whose lives become important to them. In feeling good about their
work, they feel good about themselves. "They do not see themselves as greedy and
ruthless," Wuthnow writes, "or even as overly aggressive and ambitious. They see
themselves as caring, responsible individuals, pursuing the good life simply by working hard,
doing their best, and enjoying the choices set before them."
One could, of course, dismiss people's belief in the moral importance of work as a form of "false
consciousness" in which they do not fully grasp how oppressive work is for them. But as Robert
Lane suggests in his encyclopedic 1991 book, The Market Experience, there is little support
for the idea that work is necessarily degrading. Even work that appears to academics unchallenging
"is, in fact, often difficult and challenging to workers." For better or for worse, work is one
of the places in which people learn, not only about the job, but also about the wider world outside the
job. Of course, those forms of work that are more under the worker's own control increase people's sense
of moral responsibility. The problem, as Lane observes, is that market societies do not reliably provide
enough jobs that nourish our higher aspirations. The fact that there remain so many jobs that have little
self-direction or that fail to contribute to people's moral development is not an argument to reduce our
dependence on work, but to encourage precisely those kinds of work that contribute to "cognitive
complexity," personal competence, and liberal democratic values. Robotics and artificial intelligence,
just making their appearance when Lane wrote his book, rather than signaling the end of work, might
have the consequence of eliminating just those kinds of jobs that Lane found to be unstimulating for
moral and cognitive development.
If work gives meaning to middle-class lives, the absence of work takes something away from those living
in a world where, as William Julius Wilson puts it, work has disappeared. Wilson does not discuss at
any length the character of the jobs that have left inner-city communities, but he does note that work
"constitutes a framework for daily behavior and patterns of interaction because it imposes
disciplines and regularities." Hence, in Wilson's account, a person without work is not a full person;
such an individual lacks "a coherent organization of the presentthat is, a system of concrete goals
Wilson belongs neither to the left nor to the right's tradition of romanticizing a world beyond necessity.
For him, the disappearance of work is not an opportunity but a tragedy. Yet Wilson parts company with those
conservatives who insist on work to teach lessons of unfreedom. Conservatives see in such an agenda the
necessary correctives to what they take to be immoral conduct, whereas for Wilson the "disciplines
and regularities" of work provide an opportunity for deprived people to become autonomous agents in
charge of their own lives.
In his effort to find out why so many jobs have disappeared from inner-city neighborhoods, Wilson and his
associates interviewed employers representing 179 Chicago-area firms seeking workers for entry-level,
low-wage jobs. One of the reasons the firms said they were reluctant to hire people from the ghetto was
the lack of language and mathematical skill required even for the most basic of jobs. There may well have
been racist elements in their reasoning, although Wilson reports no differences on this point between black
and white employers. At the same time, these employers were taking note of an unexpected consequence
of the digitalization of the American economy: Jobs are not so much rendered mindless but rather require the
application of cognitive capacity. Some jobs in America may have been de-skilled, but most of them remain
too skilled for badly educated inner-city black males without sufficient work experience.
MAKING WORK PAY
Wilson's findings underscore the importance of Edmund S. Phelps's book Rewarding Work. Phelps,
an economist at Columbia University, argues against the idea that low-wage workers are unproductive and
unreliable because of their culture or their lack of bourgeois morals. Instead, he suggests, the gap between
low-wage work and middle-class work creates disincentives for the least-paid workers to obtain the education
and job skills that would enhance the economy's overall productivity. Paying the lowest-wage workers more,
and thereby reducing the gap between what they make and an adequate working-class or middle-class lifestyle,
would demonstrate to them the rewards of demonstrating loyalty on the job or taking on the costs of training or
education. "America has no clear and explicit social policy toward the rewards of work," Phelps
points out. If anything, welfarewhich we may soon no longer haveacted as a disincentive to self-help. Phelps
calls for a massive program of subsidies to encourage business to pay their low-wage workers more. Underlying
Phelps's proposal is the idea that when people are paid based on their potential to contribute rather than by
the least cost to those paying, people will raise their performance to the level at which expectations have been set.
The character-building, cognition-developing nature of work, true of the inner-city poor, is also true of
working-class and middle-class women, for whom entry into the workforce is often viewed not as
oppression but as liberation. Now that contemporary American women have had considerable experience
in the workplace, have they been repelled by the authoritarianism, impersonality, and exploitation they
found there? Hardly, according to Arlie Hochschild's new book on work and family. If anything, work has
proved to be too much of a good thing. It simply cannot be the case, Hochschild argues, that people work
such long hours because of economic necessity. Interviewing 130 respondents, Hochschild discovered
that people work long hours because they like to work. Although we have a tendency to revere the family
and to think of the workplace as alien, many Americans, it would seem, are reversing those priorities. They
treat the workplace as the arena in which they make friends, learn about themselves, and meet challenges,
while at least for some Americans, the family has become the location for conflict, emotional complications,
and unsolvable problems.
Hochschild reminds her readers that we are unlikely ever to return to the days when most women stayed at
home. But unlike many of the early feminists who celebrated women's entry into the workforce as a harbinger of
personal liberation, she also finds "troubling" what she calls "a workaholic culture that strands
both men and women outside the home." What we need, she suggests, is a new balance, one that secures
sufficient work time and opportunity for most people to expand their social and moral horizons, but not one that
does so at the cost of narrowing our obligations to those around us, especially children in need of gobs of parental attention.
A suggestive way to find that balance is offered by Shirley Burggraf in her recent book, The Feminine
Economy and Economic Man. An economist at Florida A&M University, Burggraf argues that the entry
of women into high-paying jobs indirectly establishes the price of child rearing; if a woman can earn $150,000
a year as a physician, for example, that is the minimum that society would have to pay to attract her back to
the home. In their enthusiasm to see women in the workplace, liberals and feminists, in her view, pay insufficient
attention to society's desperate need for parents to invest in their children. At the same time, conservatives,
who generally like the notion that human beings are rational calculators of their self-interest, are hypocritical if
they claim to appreciate the family but are unwilling to consider how much it would cost to induce women to
be stay-at-home mothers. In a capitalist society, we value work to the degree that we establish a value for work.
By paying parents for the time they invest in their children, we would finally acknowledge that the work of
raising the next generation is one of the most important forms of labor in our society.
Read together, books by social scientists as diverse in perspective, discipline, and methodology
as Bell, Wuthnow, Wilson, Hochschild, Phelps, and Burggraf all point to a common conclusion:
Whatever a person's social class, outlook on the world, or motivations, work can be an essential
component of personal development. If this is true, then perhaps the time has come for the left to
give up one of its oldest romantic dreams and accept that work is here to stay.
If one accepts that work is here to stay, then the real issue becomes the terms on which work is offered
and accepted. The American economy, after all, has entered a new era in which industry is obsessed
with cutting costs, especially the costs of labor, to be more competitive in international markets.
With capitalists intensifying the pace of work, this hardly seems like an appropriate time to insist that
work has positive benefits for those who undertake it.
Yet intensified competition not only requires lower labor costs. Paradoxically, it also requires smarter and
more motivated workers, at least for some occupations. Wellford Wilms, who teaches education and
information studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, cites "a new culture of cooperation"
emerging in companies like General Motors and Hewlett-Packard in his book. Wilms believes that flexible
production systems bring with them new kinds of social relations. Unlike mass production, for which
conflictual models of labor-management relations were perhaps appropriate, companies these days are
negotiating "a new set of assumptions by which managers, union leaders, and workers can be
guided into the future." The requirement of cooperation, Wilms emphasizes, "is rooted neither
in romanticism nor in morality." Like John M. Hood, Wilms wants us to understand that
self-interest and survival, not altruism, lay behind this idea of greater labor-management cooperation.
Although Wilms's book is written in the kind of breathless prose characteristic of would-be management
gurus, he is, I think, right to suggest that "without new and interdependent bonds between worker
and manager, we will all suffer." Any such bonds, despite Wilms's denial of moral motives, will
introduce questions lying at the heart of morality, especially what obligations workers and managers
have toward one another and toward the companies for which they work.
WORK AS A SOCIAL COMPACT
Had Wilms more of a historical perspective, he might have mentioned the previous effort in
America to create "a culture of cooperation" in the workplace: welfare capitalism.
Sanford Jacoby, who also teaches at U.C.L.A., analyzes welfare capitalism in magisterial
fashion in his book Modern Manors. Especially in the two or three decades before the
New Deal, Jacoby shows, some companies, particularly those close to the rural heartland of the
country, developed paternalistic labor relations policiesextended benefits, job security, or
sympathetic grievance proceduresdesigned to win the long-term loyalty of their workers. By tracing
the development of welfare capitalism as it evolved in such firms as Eastman Kodak, Sears Robuck,
and Thompson Products (later TRW), Jacoby documents that the main idea of welfare capitalism
"was that corporations would shield workers from the strains of industrialism." Welfare
capitalism was seen by its enthusiasts as an attempt "to develop an industrial community, a
Gemeinschaft, that would be an alternative to Taylorized bureaucracy and to market contractualism."
If welfare capitalists found themselves using moral language, so did their workers. Jacoby cites the
work of historians David Brody and Lizbeth Cohen, both of whom have pointed out the attraction to
workers of welfare capitalism before the New Deal. In Cohen's treatment, workers were quite skeptical
of welfare capitalism as it was actually practiced, but that was because they often wanted a genuine
form of "moral capitalism," a workplace environment that treated them as the loyal individuals
they believed themselves to be. Given the severity of the depression, workers obviously supported the
efforts of their unions to rely on government to secure jobs and better wages. But they also came to
miss the passing of a form of capitalism based on the moral ideal that they were partners in the production
Welfare capitalism was obviously instituted to head off the formation of independent labor unions.
Its underlying assumptions, as Jacoby emphasizes in the title of his book, were feudalistic in nature.
Paternalistic employers rarely hired African Americans, or even recent immigrants. Yet welfare
capitalism is too interesting a historical phenomenon to be dismissed as just one more capitalist ploy.
For one thing, capitalists often became entrapped by the very moral language they promoted. As the
companies studied by Jacoby adapted to new environments, "the emphasis shifted from control
to consent." As a result, these firms were well positioned to take advantage of the emergence of
a more highly educated workforce and even more competitive economic conditions in the 1960s and
1970s. Such firms could even adapt to the very growth of the welfare state that they were initially formed
to resist, and to create private welfare states of corporate benefits. With more intense global competition
and downsizing, this pattern has been reversed at many, though far from all, corporations.
Jacoby concludes his book by suggesting that the success of firms like Microsoft and Wal-Mart
gives lie to the argument that paternalistic companies were effectively destroyed by the labor-friendly
reforms of the New Deal. In an era of fierce global competition, paternalism will surely be too expensive
to make much of a comeback. But Jacoby's analysis underscores the importance of the efforts
discussed in this essay to bring work back into the perspective of social science and social criticism.
One of the reasons why the women to whom Arlie Hochschild talked felt comfortable in the workplace was
because the companies for which they worked, like the paternalistic firms of old, often provided day care.
Few of the inner-city black poor studied by William Julius Wilson will find job training if companies do not
make positive efforts to provide it. Middle managers like those interviewed by Robert Wuthnow who see
themselves as contributing morally and not just economically to their companies will be more likely to flourish
in the new corporate culture than those who see themselves as free agents waiting to hop to the next company
in search of higher pay. If Wilms and Jacoby are even half right, there will be good economic reasons, and not
just sentimental ones, for focusing on the implicit moral dimension of work.
Moreover, because welfare capitalism is, at least in its American form, anti-union, one can properly be
skeptical that even a faint reemergence of its culture will necessarily be a good thing for workers. Modern firms,
critics like the late David Gordon insist, are as mean as ever. Very few companies, Gordon maintains,
have weaned themselves off what he calls "the Stick Strategy for managing production." By
squeezing the wages of workers while enabling managerial bureaucracies to maintain themselves, American
companies will take advantage of the passing of the New Deal era of labor reforms to return to the "low
road" of exploitation rather than the "high road" of treating workers as productive human beings.
Yet in one way, both Gordon and Wilms can be right at the same time, for some companies surely will
move to cut labor costs while others will move to reinforce worker loyalty. And both tendencies sometimes
occur in the same enterprise. In many high-tech firms, a moral hierarchy is emerging: Workers who use
their minds are being treated by employers as fiscal and moral partners in the enterprise, while those
who use their hands are treated as disposable human commodities. Such a moral hierarchy is grievously
unfair. Yet it usefully serves to establish what society requires before it can be considered egalitarian.
We need not just similar conditions of pay among similar workers, nor just relative bargaining power between
companies and unions, but conditions under which every working person is treated with dignity and respect.
No oneneither the pessimists like Rifkin and Gordon nor the optimists like Hood and Wilmscan
predict how much work there will be in the future; how capable work will be of stretching the
capacities of those who perform it; whether any work will become available to the inner-city poor;
how work will be balanced against the needs of children and the elderly; what role unions will
perform in organizing work; how capitalists will respond to workers' de mands; or whether some
kind of workplace social compact will be restored. These are, of course, political questionsyet
also moral ones. And shared moral concerns can influence politics.
Any skepticism workers might have about moral language stems from the fact that it is difficult to
strike against someone with whom you have close moral ties. Capitalists share some of those
suspicions, for you don't easily cut the benefits of your moral partners, or fire them without notice.
Many of those who speak for labor and those who speak for capital will both resist a focus on the
moral dimension of work. That is why it makes sense to listen to the voices of those social scientists
who remind us that work can provide the fulfillment of some, even if not all, of our needs.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)