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Why Do Americans Work?

Written by Joe Pettit

Baltimore Sun Op-Ed, originally published Sept. 3, 2007

On Labor Day, most of us celebrate our work by not working.  While this adds a little irony to our annual holiday, it also provides an opportunity to reflect on this question: Why do we work?

Perhaps most people will say the answer is obvious: We work for the money.  Yes, money is important, but we misunderstand our work and ourselves if we think that money is the primary motive for our labor.

Before the United States became an “affluent,” or “post-scarcity,” society, most people worked to meet the basic needs of life: food, clothing and housing.  But even when the money they earned did not buy more than basic necessities, it also made it possible for workers to support themselves and a family.  It is still the case that work enables people to create lives as citizens, spouses, parents, co-workers and neighbors.  We overlook the significance and the dignity of these accomplishments when we think work is only about the money – or assume that the chief benefit of making money is that it allows us to accumulate goods.  We often forget that money is a means, not an end in itself.

Today it is easier for most Americans to meet their basic needs, but many of us are working harder and longer than ever before.  Some say that this reveals even more clearly that work is about the importance of money, and that it demonstrates a tendency toward greed in the heart of the American worker.  But I am not convinced.

The American worker is driven not by avarice but by a need for something new.  We are rarely content either with who we are or what we have.  Sometimes this can produce an identity crisis.  Not sure of who we are, we let others define us.  We try to keep up with the Joneses and we are hooked by the latest fads and fashions.  However, this very impatience with the old leaves us perfectly positioned to explore the new.

By living and working for what can be, rather than what has been, we have converted sand into microchips, four university computers in the World Wide Web, next-month deliveries into next-day deliveries, auction houses for the rich into eBay for everybody, and rotary phones into cell phones.  In these and countless other instances, Americans have mined economic gold and opportunity from the human resources of energy and imagination.  Our paychecks enable us to participate in all that is new, but through our work we create it.  That creative energy is a wellspring of satisfaction for most workers.

Women, in particular, understand the ability of work to create new futures.  In a study of a major multinational corporation with award-winning “family friendly” benefits, Arlie Russell Hochschild tried to find out why the female employees were not taking advantage of benefits such as job-sharing, flex-time and reduced hours.  She found that the answer was not resistance from management, or even a family’s need for extra income, but rather that women liked working.  Woman found so many opportunities for self-development and creative fulfillment in work that they were reluctant to give some of it up.  The real problem women faced turned out to be the men in their lives, who were unwilling to share more in the child care and housework.  This left women coming home from a fulfilling work environment to a less-than-pleasurable “second shift.”

One problem with an economy based on novelty is the reality of disruption.  Rather than making products better, we often replace them with a new technology.  Those jobs and companies that depend on the old will disappear, and much hardship can follow.  In an economy characterized by what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction,” the outcomes cannot always be predictable or agreeable.  However, the more we realize that the real value of workers lies not in the amount of money they produce but in their drive to work for new opportunities, the more we will realize how much economic and social opportunity is wasted when we allow people to languish in poverty or unemployment.

If we are not careful, the human need for new things will create more waste than wonder and strain our environment well past the breaking point.  But global population growth will create this strain by itself in the not-too-distant future if nothing changes.  The irony of consumerism is that while it risks overconsumption and environmental degradation, it also motivates the markets to discover new ideas.  One of the best hopes we have for finding ways to sustain 10 billion people on our planet is the creative impulses of American workers.

Rather than taking the pessimists’ position and viewing the economy as something that will destroy our planet, we should focus on its ability to save the planet.  That possibility alone provides answer enough to the question of why we work.