In the U.S., today is Labor Day, the day we honor the American worker. It’s also the last day of my six-day vacation (three weekdays and a three-day weekend), and much of it will be spent organizing and preparing for the next several weeks in which I have at least four major deadlines. Since my vacation’s finale falls on a day celebrating those who work, and since I plan to spend much of it preparing for work, I’ve found myself thinking what work means.
Much has been written on the subject of work, such as Studs Terkel’s famous book, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. Most of us will have paid employment at some point in our lives; many others will perform unpaid labor, whether for our families or as volunteers. Some will have the privilege of choosing our jobs; others will end up in a position out of need or lethargy. Some employment is desirable in terms of compensation, working conditions, and prestige; other jobs are enormously undesirable for the lack of the same. Mike Rowe’s show, Dirty Jobs, examined all sorts of jobs where people did jobs—often the kind that would get them (and Mike) filthy, and often not the kind anybody ever thought existed because most of us live in our own little bubbles and forget how hard other people have worked to create that bubble.
For example, stop right now and look at the phone you’re holding or the computer keyboard in front of you. Consider this:
- Somebody imagined that device.
- Somebody figured out a design for the device.
- Somebody else figured out designs for the bits and pieces making up the device.
- Another somebody else figured out how to make the various products that go into the device.
- Still another somebody made the actual plastic and metal parts (or invented the machines that did).
- More somebodies figured out how to shape these parts, size them, and make them work together.
- And that doesn’t even get to the somebodies who figured out what electronic thingies had to be created and incorporated so that when you tap a key or a screen, you in your living room in Australia can be connected with me, a stranger sitting on a porch in Connecticut who is at this very moment using another of these very devices to record thoughts you wouldn’t otherwise know I have.
- And let’s not forget all the people who packed and marketed and shipped and sold these devices, all so you and I could have this moment together.
Pretty impressive list of workers, isn’t it?
The U.S. has a long and fairly checkered history where work is concerned—what the work is, who’s doing it, for what compensation (if any), and under what conditions. It being Labor Day, I imagine you can find scholarly articles that will discuss these points far better than I ever could. Instead, as I prepare to return to my daily grind, allow me a few moments to share some thoughts about why work is a good thing. (To be clear: when I say “work,” I am including unpaid jobs, such as parenting and volunteering.)
To work is to contribute. People who work at a particular job contribute to the general welfare, whether of the household, the company, or society in general. How do I know this? Simple: if they weren’t contributing, there would be no need for the job, and it would be eliminated. On the other hand, although Betamax repairmen and wet nurses are in short supply these days due to low demand, it appears that even people with these skills can find employment.
To work is to accomplish. Granted, the accomplishment may be fleeting (as anyone knows who has just finished washing the kitchen floor, only to have a herd of muddy-footed children race through the room), but that doesn’t diminish its value. In Running Scared (1986), two Chicago police officers are thinking about retirement. During a stakeout, when one of them questions whether they’ve accomplished anything as cops, the other compares their job to being garbagemen:
I gotta believe we’ve made a difference. I mean, every stiff we put away is someone out of circulation. Must have prevented millions of crimes. I mean, we’re like that garbage truck there. Every night it comes and empties the cans. Every day, the cans fill up again. But if he doesn’t show up one night, the city fills up with filth.
Even the accomplishments that seem to be permanent have a shelf life. Buildings seem to be permanent, but think how many are demolished. The fact that what you did may not be here tomorrow, or in fifty years, doesn’t diminish its importance.
To work is to know you’ve done something valuable. This is similar to accomplishing, but it’s slightly different. Accomplishing is about finishing something, or at least a portion of something. Doing something valuable may involve accomplishing something, but it may be quieter, a recognition that the day wasn’t wasted, that whatever you did had an intrinsic value separate and distinct from whether you could check it off a list and that somebody–you, your boss, your co-workers, or somebody else–respects what you did or attempted.
In Dave (1993), the title character owns a temp agency. (spoiler alert) When he becomes the stand-in for the president of the United States, he decides to enact a comprehensive employment act. He explains the need for such legislation this way:
If you’ve ever seen the look on somebody’s face the day they finally get a job, I’ve had some experience with this, they look like they could fly. And it’s not about the paycheck, it’s about respect, it’s about looking in the mirror and knowing that you’ve done something valuable with your day. And if one person could start to feel this way, and then another person, and then another person, soon all these other problems may not seem so impossible. You don’t really know how much you can do until you, stand up and decide to try.
I’d be willing to bet that all of us wonder at some point if our work has value. Sometimes, it may feel as if we’re just selling out, doing things we don’t believe in for the paycheck. And maybe we are. Maybe the value of our work is that it puts food on the table and keeps a roof overhead.
But maybe it has more value than that. Maybe its value is that it makes somebody else’s life a little easier. The guys who changed the oil in my car last week definitely make my life easier, because that means I don’t have to spend time and effort to learn how to do it myself. Unlike me, they have the knowledge and the tools to do the job quickly, efficiently, and correctly. I can spend three hours trying to figure it out (and another six cleaning up the oil in the driveway), or they can use their skills to do the job for me. Right there, their work has value.
Now, take it a step further. That same job—changing the oil—takes on a whole new meaning when the vehicles are ambulances and fire trucks instead of passenger cars and SUVs. Now, the oil changers are saving lives. They’re not holding the hose at the fire or careening into the ER parking lot, but they’re making it possible for someone else to do those things. If the engine blows on the way to the hospital or the fire call, people can die.
People who have certain skills can use those skills to benefit others who lack them. Sometimes, they do it as a favor; other times, it’s their employment. Either way, they’re contributing to an improved life for the rest of us.
To work is to make someone else’s day brighter. Here’s where the artists, the athletes, and the entertainment industry come in. A few weeks ago, I went to Fenway Park for the first time. I can’t even begin to estimate how many discrete jobs were involved in giving that crowd a fun evening. The players, obviously, but they’re the tip of the iceberg. All the visible people—food vendors, ticket takers, announcers—plus all the back office people, the tech people, the engineers, the custodial staff, the security staff, the groundskeepers, and countless others who make the experience so special.
Probably anyone who’s reading this has watched (or will watch) a movie, a television show, or a video this weekend. Maybe you’ve also read a book, an article, or a blog post (other than this one). Maybe you’ve listened to a podcast, streamed a song, looked at a painting or a piece of sculpture. Countless people worked to make those things available to you. Whether they made you smile, made you cry, made you think, or some combination—and whether they were the creators, the designers, or the supporters, the actors onscreen or the kid selling you a ticket—their work brightened your day in some way.
To work is to be part of the community. We need each other. Work is one way we share our skills for the benefit of others. It’s how others share their skills for our benefit. It’s also how we take care of the people who aren’t working, whether because they lack the ability or the opportunity. It’s how so many are able to assist those in dire straits, such as people affected by Hurricane Harvey; some offer skills, and others offer goods or funds. Even people like me who work alone function as part of the community: clients call with questions, they email documents, they meet to discuss projects. I use my skills to do work that they either can’t do for lack of time or specialized knowledge, or they choose not to do because they have other demands on their time. Together, we help their clients to achieve goals. One way or another, to work is to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
It’s late afternoon now. Labor Day is nearly over. Whether you’re an artist or an accountant, a mechanic or a musician, a surgeon or a secretary, a photographer or a plumber, an educator or a electrician, a retailer or a restauranteur, a travel agent or a trucker, or anybody else who works, we thank you.
Happy Labor Day to all!