The XX Factor

The Dignity of Leisure in an Age of Unemployment

On Thursday Joe Biden gave a speech that involved some unobjectionable bromides about the inherent dignity of drawing a paycheck, the salutary effects of honest toil. The following day the jobs report came out, and we learned that more people had stopped looking for work and the self-respect Biden says comes with it. The average duration of unemployment is 39 weeks, which is slightly shorter than it was this time last year but still very high relative to other recessions.  

It makes you wonder about the dignity of labor, which is something we heard more about back when Congress decided that the biggest threat facing America was poor mothers subsisting long-term on welfare. Dignity-pushers spin visions of uniformed Americans shoving stacks of paid bills in the mailbox, sticking plates of meat in front of their 2.4 children, buying a house in an exurb somewhere. It’s easy, in the abstract, to hold this nebulous pride distinct from any particular kind of labor. But in practice, taking pride in your work spills very easily into defining yourself by your work. And that seems like a problem for a country in which the average unemployed person spends nine miserable months on Landing a job demands a certain flexibility, and there are American ideas about work and identity that make flexibility difficult. 

Laid off lawyers want to say they’re doing lawyerly things, and unemployed investment bankers bankerly things. One saw, during the days when Occupy Wall Street was often in the news, many miserable PhD students unable to find the kind of work they had come to expect was coming their way. Here’s a very reasonable article informing MFA graduates that they are not required by law to serve as low-paid adjuncts after they get their degrees. This is necessary because it very often does not occur to people with graduate degrees in creative writing that they might seek work outside of higher education, and the assumption that they must stay in the system leaves them earning minimum wage. (I realize that MFA grads are not common objects of sympathy, but I take the point not to apply not merely to them.) One wants, at a party, to be able to say that one is teaching at such and such university. There’s assumed to be dignity in it, if not much of a living. You’re a writer, after all, and real writers don’t write ad copy or edit corporate newsletters.

The point isn’t to blame anyone holding out for a kind of work they think befits them; only to recognize what pressures, coupled with a disastrous economy, trap people into a certain kind of life. Perhaps a more adaptive culture would prize the best hustle rather than whatever job title accords with one’s identity. Being the non-employed Rafalca-riding wife of a bazillionaire seems like a good deal, whatever it says about who you are. Being on welfare electively also seems like a good deal. We all know that there is more dignity in leisure than in labor; how you get to your weekend might matter less.