Whenever employment is brought up in a conversation, inevitably a conservative actor will talk about how providing resources to the unemployed is a terrible idea. We could be talking about anything from the work requirements in safety-net programs to the fear that a universal basic income (UBI) will encourage laziness. Conservatives will claim that “helping the poor” not only makes them unproductive members of society but also that it stifles a core human drive to work. These Concern Trolls believe that the desire to work is an ingrained aspect of human behavior, which can paradoxically be squashed with the slightest amount of government intervention.
When we examine this argument more closely, however, we realize that this appeal to human nature is reductive at best, and at worst, it’s a cynical ploy to control those that are stuck within exploitative or dead-end positions. People might not be criticizing our current system of work — not because it provides them profound meaning — but because doing so invites intense social stigma that jeopardizes their ability to subsist within our capitalist system.
But Actually, The Argument Is…
Whenever we throw around labels like “conservative” and “work,” there will always be people who disagree because these are charged words that define people’s entire identities. Opponents might disagree because charged statements tend to trigger charged, emotional responses. They also might disagree because they hold different, contradicting arguments for why work is necessary.
In this context, we are referring to the argument that people need to have employment to be fulfilled and happy. This argument can best be summarized by former Mitt Romney domestic-policy director Oren Cass, who was paraphrased in the Wallstreet Journal stating the following:
“Unemployment, more than any of life’s other rough patches, leads to unhappiness and family breakdown.”
This justification is a common one among anyone who upholds the current economic orthodoxy of work. When, for example, former Democratic President Bill Clinton signed the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA), which was a law that imposed work requirements or “workfare” on top of the existing safety net system, he used the specter of this very argument. In a speech he provided about the PRWORA, Clinton remarked:
“From now on, our Nation’s answer to this great social challenge will no longer be a never-ending cycle of welfare, it will be the dignity, the power, and the ethics of work.”
Proponents of this worldview (and there are many) do have some evidence for the claim that work is necessary. For one, humans do like “doing things” beyond merely subsisting on food. If ancient cave paintings are any indication, humans have been pushing themselves to experiment and create for thousands of years. There is evidence that it’s partly psychological. As writer Caroline Beaton remarked in Psychology Today:
“In hunter-gatherer times, work was literally a matter of life and death. Now, the stakes are lower and work is more complex. Modern work is divided into minutia: infinite industries and companies, hundreds of departments, unlimited specialized roles. Many workers, and even companies, lose the forest through the trees. We forget why what we’re doing matters. But employees innately crave seeing the bigger picture: the fruits of their labor.”
Surely, if humans need to “do things,” the conservative argument goes, then working is a vital component to human psychology.
Another common argument cited about the unemployed is that they are generally unhappy. Unemployed individuals are far more likely to be depressed. Unemployed Americans are also far more likely to be consumers of alcohol and narcotics. For example, a meta-study of 28 studies published between 1990 and 2015 found that “unemployment increases psychological distress, which increases drug use.” From a superficial reading of this trend, it would appear that the absence of work is making these people unhappy.
If these humans merely got a job, then wouldn’t they be less depressed?
These readings, however, ignore the reality that work is a rite of passage that holds a special place in our society. People are told that they must work from a very early age. The refusal to do so means that they suffer both material and social penalties (i.e., starvation, ostracization).
To not work is to buck a severe societal taboo.
Does Unemployment Mean Failure?
We are all indoctrinated quite early to think of ourselves in relation to work. A common question we ask children is “What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?”. The answers we prime children to give are almost always career-oriented (e.g., firefighter, astronaut, YouTube star). Seriously, check out this video where a hundred children are asked this question. Only a small fraction of them said anything beyond a career.
Rarely do we ask what values we want our children to strive for. It’s an omission that can have some adverse effects on their development. When we ask children to define their self-worth in relation to what they can do, it can create unnecessary anxiety. Some evidence suggests that a search for a calling in of itself can lead to an unhealthy amount of indecisiveness. In the words of organizational psychologist Adam Grant:
“When we define ourselves by our jobs, our worth depends on what we achieve.”
This line of questioning, sadly, never stops. In the United States, one of our primary icebreakers is asking people “What Do You Do?”. Again, this line of questioning is almost always implicitly asking people about their chosen career path, as opposed to what values they strive to achieve.
That’s damaging, and it’s not merely probing questions about employment that create this feeling of inadequacy. We see this expressed on a cultural level in the way we demonize the poor for insecure or total lack of employment. It’s not uncommon for more well-off people to assert that unemployed people are undeserving of help. In his article Why I Don’t Give Money To Homeless People, contributor Charlie Pabst stated coldly:
“You and I have jobs. We work and probably work very hard. We put in the time and we get paid for it. That is called fair exchange.”
A similar sentiment can be found among politicians, CEOs, and even presidents.
In the US, we have a society where people are trained from adolescence to the day they die to believe that employment is the most essential thing in the world. When a person doesn’t achieve that ideal, they are forced to internalize a lot of stress. A simple Internet search reveals thousands of testimonials from people who feel like failures for not fulfilling that ideal (check out some here, here, and here). This psychological stress can correlate with increased drug usage, alcoholic consumption, and even TV viewing habits. The meta-study referenced earlier stated that an increase in psychological stress among the unemployed was the primary reason why they self-medicated.
Sometimes this shame can lead people that need financial help to reject it outright. In one well-known example, a homeless man in Canada returned a sum of $2,400 he found on the street to the local authorities. The story went viral, and a GoFundMe page was made to reward the man for his selflessness. The page raised over $5,000, and the man initially turned down the funds and instead requested that the money be funneled to a local nonprofit. The thing the man really wanted, police later confirmed, was a job.
There is an undeniable stigma around asking for help, especially when related to safety net programs. In one terrible example, US Representative Jason Lewis infamously called recipients of government assistance “parasites.” This stigma means that sometimes people don’t take the help that society has already allocated for them. The federal food stamp program, which is known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), never reaches full eligibility. In places such as Nevada’s 2nd congressional district, it’s not uncommon for only about 2/3rd’s of the eligible population to be reached, and shame is a huge reason why. In the words of Vicki Nash when discussing her experiences with unemployment:
“I don’t claim welfare of any kind, because apart from anything else I am far too proud, another one of my failings.”
Of course, unemployed people are depressed and self-medicating. They are actively being told that they have failed to uphold basic societal standards. They are then shamed into not accepting the financial help that would mitigate their hardships. A person in that position is unlikely to have the emotional or physical resources necessary to be happy.
If unemployment-related stress were solely an issue of internalized shame, however, then it could easily be rectified through awareness. It would only take a couple of people living their “truth” to eventually dissipate that shame.
The problem is that employment is linked to a lot of people’s ability to subsist as human beings — i.e., you need a job to eat. This leverage prevents employers from receiving negative criticism about the systemic failures surrounding the nature of work. Employers don’t have to listen about how their jobs suck, and they often choose not to. Those who challenge the structural problems with work are routinely dismissed as problematic and “unprofessional.”
Unprofessional people have trouble eating.
Would You Hire A “Difficult” Employee?
The reality is that a lot of jobs suck. Study after study illustrates that Americans are unhappy with their jobs (though some recent data counters this trend). A 2018 survey by the Conference Board reported that roughly only half of Americans are satisfied with their jobs. For something that’s supposed to be an ingrained part of the human condition, it sure does make a lot of people unhappy.
There is a lot of evidence out there to suggest that, in comparison with other developed countries, American workers put in more hours annually than other work-obsessed countries such as Japan and Germany. Yet, they receive fewer benefits overall. Americans have experienced stagnated wages in recent years and face disproportionately higher medical, housing, and educational costs.
They are working harder and getting less in return.
Some jobs are just plain exploitative. Amazon, in particular, has come under fire for its terrible treatment of warehouse workers. It was reported in the UK that workers were scheduled so strictly that some employees were peeing in bottles to avoid being punished for taking breaks. Similar findings have been reported in the US. With ever-increasing quotas, the warehouses have been likened to sweatshops by employees.
Amazon’s conditions are by no means unique. For example, when undercover reporter Emily Guendelsberger worked at a McDonald’s for a story, she found the conditions there to be extremely hazardous. As one worker in the story remarked:
“My managers kept pushing me to work faster, and while trying to meet their demands, I slipped on a wet floor, catching my arm on a hot grill. The managers told me to put mustard on it.”
When it comes to the American workplace, there’s quite frankly a lot to complain about. When you ask Americans about job satisfaction directly, however, they tend to upsell their current positions while paradoxically reporting greater stress and less security. A Pew Research report on American Employment found that a high percentage of Americans believed their prospects were personally improving. They also thought that their current jobs were more stressful than in previous generations and would become more demanding in the future. A staggering 65% also claimed that good jobs were hard to find in their current communities.
There is a considerable amount of dissonance here. Everything cannot be simultaneously fine and super stressful; secure and ready to fall apart at the slightest change.
This is a framing issue in how Americans view work.
Some of it has to do with the internal shame we discussed earlier. The way employers permit criticism in the workplace also has a massive impact on how Americans talk about the nature of work both publicly and amongst themselves.
Employers generally do not like it when employees bring up structural problems at the office, and such dissent is often depicted as agitation or ungratefulness. Amazon workers who are striking for Prime Day have been described by the company as agitators spreading misinformation to increase union dues.
Likewise, when Emily Guendelsberger reached out to McDonald’s to get their perspective on their hazardous working conditions, the company discarded the complaints and blamed activists. In a statement, McDonald’s claimed:
“It is important to note that these complaints are part of a larger strategy orchestrated by activists targeting our brand and designed to generate media coverage.”
Retaliation from these companies does not always come in the form of propaganda either. While technically illegal, there have been countless cases of employees who have been fired for labor organizing: as McDonald’s workers were in 2014; and as five Walmart stores were in 2015; and as teachers for the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools (a charter school network) were in 2016; and as a group of Tesla employees was in 2017; and as a group of engineers for the software company Lanetix was in 2018; and as Amazon workers were in 2019.
The list goes on.
Again, this is illegal. It’s effortless, however, for companies to obscure such decisions as cost-saving measures, especially for employees working under at-will employment.
Some rare American companies may allow political dissent, but this policy is entirely voluntary. The ability for an employee to complain in the workplace (free from retaliation) depends both on what’s stipulated in their contract as well as the laws of the state they are in, but ultimately protections in the US tend to be lacking for private-sector workers. Georgia, for example, is an “at-will” state, which means in the absence of a written contract, an employer may fire their employee at any time. The first amendment generally provides Americans who work for private companies no protection from being fired for what they have said in the workplace or outside of it (and that includes social media).
There have been countless examples of employees being fired for their controversial beliefs outside of the workplace. People have been fired for making racist tweets, tweeting critically about the President, wearing racist hats, attending a rally outside of work, and even writing a controversial blog post (gulps loudly).
The employer class’ general imposition towards framing criticism as ungratefulness effectively cuts off a lot of dissent from their workers.
Would you openly tell your employer that your job makes you unhappy?
Could you even be honest with yourself to give such an answer?
Implicit Biases Surrounding Work
When we talk about this subject it’s important to remember other areas that run into the same sort of problem. For example, the thankfully growing-stigmatization around explicit acts of racism has made publically identifying as a racist less popular.
This societal shift, however, has meant that you cannot ask people directly if they are racist, and then call it a day. For decades psychologists have consequently tested people’s implicit racial biases through tests such as the Implicit Association Test (IAT). In the words of Vox correspondent German Lopez:
“The IAT tries to solve a very tricky problem we’ve seen in social science over the past few years: Measures of explicit racism (for example, directly asking whether a person thinks white people are superior to black people) have appeared to show a decline. But how much of that actually shows that racism is diminishing? Is it possible that people are lying when they answer those questions, fearing that telling the truth would make them look racist? And even if people don’t report explicit biases, is it possible they have implicit — meaning subconscious — ones?”
Tests like the IAT reveal little on an individual level, but in the aggregate, some believe that they can cast a light on systemic issues. The Scientific American has reported on the fact that communities with higher reported levels of implicit bias have a more substantial racial disparity in police shootings as well as an equally alarming racial disparity with infant health problems.
This is all a very roundabout way of saying that we cannot simply ask people if they enjoy their work. There are cultural factors that prevent people from answering these questions honestly. Employees face both internal shame for not conforming to ingrained norms, as well as an outward fear of being deemed “unprofessional” and losing their means to subsist. Anyone who doesn’t factor this reality into their analysis on the state of work is either being naive or duplicitous.
As we analyze the state of work, the stigma of not working, and how that impacts our psychology, needs to be a part of the conversation. We need to recognize the social and psychological costs that come with being critical with the current working order.
Otherwise, we are just circulating empty talking points that mean nothing.