This week marked Labor Day in the United States, a holiday designed to celebrate the formative role of labor, and particularly labor unions, in the development of the American landscape. It is also a day more broadly to reflect on the value of work and associational life, and is taken by many Americans as a chance to enjoy some leisure at the conclusion of summer.
And that rest from our labors is needed perhaps now more than ever, as American attitudes toward work and the economy demonstrate a crisis of confidence and significance. The overall labor market itself is relatively strong, as the unemployment rate of 3.7 percent in August is at its lowest level since the financial crisis a decade ago. This figure obscures somewhat the number of discouraged workers and those who are, for reasons like disability, not counted as part of the unemployment statistic. But in general there are jobs for those who are able and willing to pursue paid work.
Qualitative dimensions add more shade to this seemingly rosy picture, however, as doubts about future economic prospects, stagnating wages, and job satisfaction abound. Most jobs include paid vacation, which is a benefit that is characteristic of developed modern economies. But most Americans do not take full advantage of this benefit. More than a quarter of available paid vacation days went unused in 2018, and only about 28 percent of workers plan to use all their vacation time. One of the main reasons Americans forgo vacation is concern about whether anyone else can cover the work that is necessary during a worker’s absence. Many of us have experienced the feeling that to take a week off we need to squeeze two weeks of work into one. More Americans are taking their work with them on vacation as well, as internet access and mobile devices keep us plugged in as we travel.
A good so-called “work-life balance” is also increasingly key to worker engagement and productivity. We all need a properly balanced and integrative view of our jobs and our work within our lives, and that coherence is, for many of us, ephemeral. For us to flourish individually as well as societally, we need a robust and honest understanding of work and how it relates to a life well lived.
There are at least two key elements to addressing our unhealthy attitudes and practices as they relate to labor. First, we need to understand that our job, meaning what many of us do for a paycheck, is at most only part of what we do as meaningful work. Second, our worldly work in all its manifestations needs to be properly oriented toward deeper spiritual significance.
When we hear the phrase “work-life balance,” we often think of keeping the work day, what we do for pay, within its proper limits relative to other responsibilities, such as family, friends, and faith. Certainly keeping appropriate boundaries is important in our increasingly complex and demanding lives. But by limiting “work” to what we do for a paycheck we set up a dynamic that invites such conflict in the first place.
Economists like the phenomenon of waged work because it is something that is relatively easy to measure. We can calculate how much someone gets paid per hour, how many hours they work, and come up with an idea of how much they have contributed to economic growth. This is much more difficult for things that do not have such an obvious price. It is apparent, for instance, that the work done inside the home by family members, whether a stay-at-home parent or chores before or after work and school, is productive labor. But is also work that is difficult to capture in standard economic measures. The care of children provided by a mother and father do not directly contribute to gross domestic product (GDP), while that done for pay by a childcare center or daycare is more easily measured and therefore more often seen as economically productive.
In the same way those who volunteer, by providing tutoring and mentoring at schools or visiting the sick and homebound, do important work for others. But this work is not usually something that is done for pay, and so it tends to be seen as something that is of lesser value or a contribution that is good but not strictly necessary.
Homeschooling is an intriguing example of this dynamic. Many people, for religious reasons, concerns about moral development, convenience, or a variety of these and other factors, choose to educate their children at home, whether fully or in part. This work ought to be seen as a productive contribution not only to the children and families involved but to society more broadly. But even where homeschooling is appreciated (and it is often viewed with some suspicion instead), it is sometimes reduced to questions of economic utility, as in measures of how much homeschoolers are saving the public purse.
These examples and many others underscore a flawed understanding of the way our work, broadly understood, relates to economic realities. A better definition of work is not reducible to what we do for pay. Our work, as Lester DeKoster memorably puts it, ought to be seen as the service that we are called to do for others, whether we are paid for it or not. This view of work leads to a truer and healthier framework for approaching the various demands of jobs, spouses, children, parents, friends, and neighbors.
Those of us who have jobs and careers that pay have critically important roles to fill in society, and these tasks ought to be recognized and celebrated. This is true whether the occupations are those of corporate executives or the “dirty jobs” that make civilization possible. Moving beyond a sacred-secular distinction to affirm paid jobs outside of a church context is absolutely necessary. But it is only a first step to a more robust and comprehensive understanding of calling and work.
The apostle Paul put it this way: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord” (Col 3:23). In this connection Paul outlines a wide variety of human relationships, especially those within the household. His subject here is not simply our remunerative jobs; yes, we should work at those as part of our service to God. But Paul says “whatever” we do is to be understood as service to God, whether it is changing diapers, doing yardwork, coaching a softball team, or dropping off a casserole to a neighbor. This is the second key step to a proper view of work and life: our work is whatever we do to serve others, and that work is not only service to others but ultimately service to God.
So let us celebrate and appreciate human work in all its dimensions and manifestations, that which is done within the home and outside it, for profit and not-for-profit, for a paycheck and pro bono, for others as well as for God.