“Work is Dignity” reads graffiti in a Caracas slum. Half a world away, Ali Chouaibi, a frustrated 22-year old Tunisian, fleshed out the notion: "We think that work is dignity,” he told the Jakarta Post after the Arab Spring swept from power his country’s tyrannical leader but failed to revive its moribund economy. “We are people without dignity.”
But a job isn’t just dignifying. Oftentimes it’s self-defining, which is why we eagerly ask new acquaintances what they do for a living. A profession’s supposed centrality to the sense of who we are may strike some as aberrant and unhealthy—“a job ain't nuthin’ but work,” a character in the otherwise forgettable film Mo Money says—but many people spend more waking hours at work and in the company of their colleagues than they do at home with their families, so professional and personal identities inevitably merge. For better or worse, you are what you do (professionally).
The degree to which work self-defines can be gauged by the psychological displacement joblessness causes. One out-of-work friend of mine told me that, feeling socially ostracized by her circumstance, she longed to don business attire and rejoin the herd of morning commuters crowding buses and trains. For her, being part of the “rat race” was a validation of self-worth, and rejoining it would restore her identity. This may sound strange, but for others, especially young males, unemployment is so devastating that it can breed criminality, while a society with widespread joblessness risks upheaval.
But if work is dignity, why, then, is there so little dignity in work? Many dislike their jobs; some downright loathe them. What explains the paradox? Marx had an idea. He posited that modern industrial production under capitalism yields “alienation,” as workers lose control of their lives by losing control of how they work. No longer able to barter their skills and services directly to customers, the modern laborer becomes an industrial automaton robbed of humanity. He’s an object of production, a faceless and nameless cog.
Marx was surely onto something. The connection between one’s labor and the widget that, in a very small and roundabout way, is the fruit of that labor, is tenuous. Think of the assembly-line worker or cubicle-dwelling data cruncher. What’s uplifting about such dehumanizing work? Besides, how is pride of workplace conceivable when outsourcing guts job security, or when wages for the rank and file are flat while those of top management are booming? “There's no dignity in poverty anymore,” the ambitious financier played by Charlie Sheen tells his working class father in Wall Street. True. But there’s not much dignity in work, either.
Marx’s alienation is only part of the equation, however. The root of the problem is much deeper and is intrinsic than modern industrial production and its attendant alienation. The true culprit: human beings. We’ve seen the enemy and it’s us.
Any organization, from the sole proprietorship to the multinational corporation, is comprised of people, and one doesn’t have to watch Jersey Shore to recognize that we’re a flawed species. From the micromanaging boss with an undiagnosed and crippling case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder to the shameless self-promoter who keeps getting promoted to the wily weasel who soaks up the office perks, any workplace is a hornet’s nest of neurosis and venality. Along the lines of Winston Churchill’s observation that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter, it might be said that the most compelling case against the Protestant work ethic is actually working alongside our fellow Homo sapiens.
But if work for so many is such a miserable endeavor, why do studies show that lottery winners ultimately aren’t any happier after striking the jackpot and quitting their jobs than beforehand? Some even go back to work. The misanthropic among us who resent the forced fraternization that comes with gainful employment find returning to the scene of the crime hard to understand. Yet perhaps the work-is-dignity ethos is so deeply embedded that it prompts even those that don’t need employment to seek it out.
For the down and out, like my jobless friend or Ali Chouaibi, work is about social inclusion. It’s about self-worth. It’s about having a future. But for those of us lucky enough to have jobs, the sentiments of Peter Gibbons, the jaded protagonist from that wonderful cinematic indictment of the modern work environment, Office Space, hits the mark. When asked by his boss why he has been “missing” from work lately, Gibbons responds: “I wouldn't say I've been ‘missing’ it, Bob.”