What is the Value of Work?

How the so called work ethic is used against workers


I consider myself very fortunate. I love my job. As frustrating as the bureaucratic and political aspects of teach are I find what I do meaningful and fulfilling. I truly believe that there is no nobler profession than passing on knowledge to the next generation. Teaching is the one profession that makes all others possible. It is a rewarding profession beyond the fact that, as compared to other professionals with similar levels of education, I make considerably less money. On the other hand, I get to be a history geek for a living! How cool is that?

Of course, there are benefits that compensate for the low monetary remuneration. I get holidays, Christmas and spring vacations as well as summers off. Though I often work more than the standard eight hours, and put in time on weekends as well as my vacations, this time is largely discretionary and self-directed. This allows me to pursue other interest such as learning how to play the guitar, writing this blog, etc. I also have access to somewhat reasonable health insurance, and a pension that may actually exist when I retire.

The working conditions aren’t bad, either. Yes, the AC in my classroom is not particularly reliable, but it’s not like I’m digging ditches in the hot Florida sun all day.

Of course, I have dug ditches in the hot Florida sun. I have done many different jobs as I worked toward my current position. Over the years, I, like many Americans, have learned the real value of work. The bottom line is that much work is not very rewarding. I’ve cleaned many toilets in my time. Never once did I ever step back from that shiny commode and think, ‘wow! What a fulfilling experience. I’m so glad that I have polished this porcelain for posterity!’

That’s why I bristle when I hear hypocrites among the political and pundit class talking down to the poor, the low wage and other victims of our corporatocracy, and deign to preach about the intrinsic value of work. I become especially agitated when, in the very same speech, they advocate policies that reduce the real extrinsic value of the labor done by working people. People who make obnoxious amounts of money doing nothing more constructive than spewing political pabulum, calling teenagers sluts for daring to speak their minds, laying people off, or making over a million dollars as…an historian(?) for a securities company should have nothing to say about the value of real work. If they ever knew the value of work, they have long since forgotten.¹

Conservatives pander to the presumption that there is something intrinsically valuable about work in general. People should accept any job just by virtue of the merits of having employment. The problem with the poor is not the decrepit condition of the American job market, the low wages, benefits that are out of reach for most wageworkers, unfair labor practices and unsafe/unhealthy work conditions. The problem with the poor is that they just don’t understand the value of work. They lack a work ethic. If they would just take any job offered at any pay and be happy with that they would magically learn the value of work and be cured of the psychological disease that is the unwillingness to prosper. Therefore, the best thing to do, according to Gingrich at least, is take poor children out of class and impress them into labor, thus devaluing the hard work of custodians.

There’s an underlying theme, here. Those who are poor are so because they do not accept legitimate American values of work ethic and thrift. They are, therefore, morally responsible for their own poverty. Taking money from hard working Americans, especially wealthy Americans,² to subsidize these moral reprobates constitutes a theft from those who are exemplars of this value. Businesspeople and investors, as those who create jobs are, by this presumption, the very paragons of virtue itself.

Businesspeople and investors, especially the most successful among this group, understand the truth. The construct of the intrinsic value of work is, mostly, a lie. They know this and act on this. Perpetuating the myth of work as an ethic, however, vouches them certain advantages when playing on the job market.

Work is an exchange of resources in return for labor. It is nothing more than that. That particular work may have intrinsic meaning to particular people is is not a universal quality of work itself. After all, though I find my work intrinsically valuable, I am unwilling to work for free or for wages inadequate for lifting me out of poverty.

The corporate elite know this. As far as they are concerned, labor is nothing more than a cost of business, lines on a budget. They think nothing about the intrinsic value of work or the ethic of their employees when they lay off thousands of hard working employees to increase their stock value. There are no moral qualms to downsizing, right sizing and off-shoring. The corporate elite do not admire the resolute work ethic of those who, in off-shore factories, toil long hours under adverse conditions. They admire only the cost benefits of exploitable labor.

That the corporate elite can stigmatize the poor as having no “values” and, therefore, valueless, is a significant advantage to the employer class. People must be convinced to work not for remuneration, but for the sake of working in and of itself. We see this in the great psychological consequences of long-term unemployment. To emphasize the moral value of work, rather than the remunerative value of work, is to the disadvantage of the worker.

One who understands the exchange value of work might be inclined to demand higher wages, more benefits and better working conditions. They might feel legitimized in pursuing collective action in unions and syndicates to increase the extrinsic value of their labor. They might rail against the reality that any working person should be impoverished. In the last twenty years between thirty and forty percent of poor people had jobs or a history of working. Those who understand the value or work as an exchange will resent the fact that wages stagnate while productivity and profits increase.

When it comes to the value of work, American workers are the most valuable in the world. We work longer, harder and receive less in return than any other workers in the industrialized world. Isn’t it time that we demand fair remuneration for our true value?


¹I don’t know the work histories of the Republican candidates. Their biographies usually detail their professional experiences, not whether or not they worked their way through college delivering pizzas or cleaning bathrooms at Publix. I’m sure I could dig this information up, but frankly, I have better things to do. All I can say is if they have had these real work experiences, they certainly haven’t learned anything from them.

²That those who are wealthy are so because they work harder than those who are not wealthy is an issue for another post.

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