I once got a postcard from a friend traveling--and reveling--in sunny France. "You really have to admire a people," she wrote, "who have such disdain for hard work." Affectionate slur aside, I think of her bon mot whenever evidence surfaces, which it does with frightening regularity, of our culture's relentless emphasis on relentless work. You have your own examples, no? Here are mine: discovering that the Boston-New York Delta shuttle seats are now fitted with stock tickers; watching the fax-- at a rented vacation cottage--daily scroll out hundreds of pages for my lawyer brother-in-law; and reading a certain New York Times article.
It ran on a slow news day this February. "U.S. Productivity Rose at 5% Rate in 2nd Half of '99," intoned the headline. The Times grayly con-ceded productivity was an "arcane statistic." But, the article added, it "nevertheless explains--more than any other statistic--how the economy can grow as strongly as it has the last four years without generating more inflation. Workers, in effect, are producing much more without having to be paid more, and that takes pressure off corporate America to raise prices."
Are we all saps? Do we work this much because we want to? Because we must? Because we work too hard to think about why we work too hard?
Such are the questions broached in Joanne Ciulla's The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work. Ciulla cites a lot more than personal anecdotes and news-paper articles, though. Unlike the vast leach field of management books out there, so cloying and homiletic, and the dry desert of sociological treatises on employment, so jargon-filled and statistic-sated, The Working Life stands out. It's fairly free of cant. It's a mix of mainstream and obscure scholarship. And it's more likely to quote Aristotle than it is Lee Iacocca, more likely to cite Daniel Defoe than it is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Ciulla, in short, takes the long view. Her approach is sedimentary, sifting through centuries of viewpoints and Reader's Digesting them for her audience. The result feels more like a reference book than a polemic.
Maybe that's why Ciulla is a darling of Bill Moyers, he of the measured delivery. Indeed, Moyers's blurb leads the pack on the book jacket: "None of my guests on World of Ideas stimulated more response from viewers than Joanne Ciulla. Her ideas reverberate; she makes you think." Who is this Joanne Ciulla who makes you think? An academic who, as the jacket also notes, has "worked as a waitress, as a cook, and at a number of odd jobs." She's the Coston family chair in leadership and ethics at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, which she helped create, at the University of Richmond. And how to classify her? She's of the talking-head genus and the PBS/NPR species.
Like Juliet Schor (The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer) and Arlie Russell Hochschild (The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work), Ciulla specializes in work. Intriguing that women seem to dominate this field now, as opposed to the 1950s, when William H. Whyte (The Organization Man) and David Riesman (The Lonely Crowd) trod similar turf. Then, it seemed, war veterans were reeling from what greeted them in the workplace back home. Now, the emotion is less angst and more tumbling confusion. Maybe this is because for women, historically, paid employment has never been a given. We're newer to the world of work. Does this newness translate into a novel angle, a fresh level of scrutiny?
It's hard to say--though, certainly, The Working Life's chapter headings lean toward the reflective, beginning with "Why Work?" and ending with "The Search for Something More." Ciulla's pursuit of whys is never far from her whats and hows. "As a philosopher, I look at questions that fall between the cracks of the social sciences and the humanities," she writes. To that end, the author crosshatches her narrative by chronology and theme. And that theme, put simply, is that we've moved from work-as-affliction to work-as-calling for a wide arc of reasons.
Ciulla takes the chronological approach, and she reaches way back (note the book's cover, a wonderful 1559 Breughel painting). I particularly enjoyed how she made me rethink, of all things, Aesop's "Grasshopper and the Ant," published around 620 BC. You remember the story: The grasshopper is so taken with singing, he doesn't work and thus is forced to ask the ant, who's been industrious all along, for food once winter sets in. Ant 1, Grasshopper 0, right? Actually, no. "This is a cautionary fable," writes Ciulla. "It does not say that a life of work is better than a life of singing, but rather that if you want to sing, you should be willing to pay the price." Indeed, in other fables, Aesop tut-tuts the ant because jealousy seems to be the spur to his labor. Ciulla writes, "Aesop worried that industriousness, when motivated by envy, can lead to theft or avarice or miserliness."
In this ant culture of ours, that's fascinating news. Aesop seems to sympathize with the crooning grasshopper; I bet he'd support the National Endowment for the Arts. Post-Aesop, according to Ciulla, it took another thousand years before work, in and of itself, would accrue a decent reputation. That puts us in the 500s, after the fall of Rome, when all could see just what excess leisure hath wrought. "Work" had no real worth; it was synonymous with the unpaid drudgery of the slave.
It was St. Benedict, the founder of the monastic order, who turned things around. In 528, he wrote The Rule of St. Benedict, which may well be the "oldest and most continuously used management guide in Western history," as Ciulla says. Essentially, what The Rule declared is familiar to anyone who has studied the Shakers: Work and prayer are commingled. Performing a task with excellence, no matter how menial, is an homage to God.
Frankly, I've always found this a lovely idea but bad theology. After all, Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden and condemned to--not rewarded with--a life of ceaseless toil and painful childbirth (they don't call it labor for nothing). Furthermore, in biblical Hebrew, the word for "work" and "slavery" is the same. But, as Ciulla reports, the Protestant Reformation (the folks who brought you the Protestant work ethic) pushed us as far from this negative slant as it could. Ciulla puts it thus: "Both Martin Luther and John Calvin wrote extensive commentaries on the Book of Genesis in which they interpreted work as God's commandment to us, not his curse on us." Talk about spin!
By the twelfth century, Ciulla also explains, work supplied our very identity, for that is when last names really took hold. Before, you were mostly known by just a first name or perhaps chris-tened for your village or patron saint. But by 1100 or so, as cathedrals began to spar with the clouds, right about when the first guilds were founded, we started seeing men identified by their vocation: William Thatcher, John Carpenter, Samuel Smith, Henry Weaver.
I have a cavil. Scholarship aside, Ciulla has something of an agenda here when it comes to the modern world of work. Sure, it's easy (and fun!) to perpetually blame management for the fix we're in; just watch how much she quotes Dilbert creator Scott Adams. But the rank and file must be held culpable, too. It wasn't until page 233, by my count, that Ciulla finally offered even a perfunctory diss of the work-ing man: "There have always been people who are lazy and think employers owe them a living," she writes. "Others deceive themselves with inflated ideas about the value of their talents and contributions." Ah, but here's the punch line: "These lies are often fed by managers who are too lazy or self-interested to give them honest assessments of their work performance." Yes, workers may be lazy, but it's those lazy managers' fault!
Ciulla is at her best strewing fine, satisfying little details. Here are a few of my favorites: The root of "travail," in French, comes from "tripalium," which, she tells us, "consisted of three posts to which one tied a horse's legs so that it could be shod. The word 'tripalium' then came to mean a kind of torture and evolved to mean work." As for modern travail, this example caught my eye: "In 1986, when Christmas fell on a Thursday, 46 percent of employers gave workers Friday off. In 1997, when Christmas fell on a Thursday, only 36 percent did."
Bah humbug! Why is this statistic so very unsurprising? And how many French travailleurs got those free-Friday Joyeux Noels? Every darn one, I'd wager. Ciulla never quite nails why this would be so, why we've come to such a state in the States, why we're endlessly putting "the 'I can' in American," to quote B.C. Forbes, Malcolm's dad, Steve's granddad, and founder of the magazine.
And to be fair, how could she? It's too tangled a task. I never had a eureka moment paging through The Working Life. But the book is so broadly based and, well, just so very interesting, that this was no disappointment. And, yes, Ciulla has better success tracing the "betrayal" of her subtitle than she does the "promise." Because, finally, one has to search one's own soul for why we work at all (beyond the obvious reasons of subsistence), why we work too much, why we care about our jobs in so many conflicted but still powerful ways. "Without work, all life goes rotten," said Albert Camus, who was not only an existentialist; he was French. u
Katharine Whittemore has written for The New York Times Book Review and Lingua Franca, among other publications.