What is one of the first things that is said when you meet someone new? “So, what do you do?” Or maybe, “What do you do for a living?” Perhaps it is our desperation to find something besides the weather to discuss, or a desire not to seem too trite (“Do you watch ‘Downton Abbey?'”), or an awareness that we mustn’t pry too much by asking more personal things (“Are you married?”). But I can’t help but feel that without the bellwhether of career, we would be unable in our modern age to come to any conclusion about another human being’s likability or worth at all.
It was interesting to read a three-part series in The Oregonian about middle class jobs that have been lost during this last recession, and they aren’t coming back. Technology has made them obsolete. We are more clever and more productive than ever. That isn’t really so bad, except that in our current economic system, you must “earn a living,” and if you do not “earn” this, you will not eat. You may, in fact, sleep on the street.
“Earning a living” is a curious phrase, since we are here by the good grace of the universal Divine, however you may see or define that. We are here, we are alive, and yet, we are the only creatures on this earth who must somehow “earn” their spot upon it. Personally, I think this earns us the title of “Most Ridiculous Lifeform.” Nevertheless, if we do not do something to “earn” our bread, many people seem to think we have no right to any.
This state of affairs owes a lot to the mindset and beliefs of our Protestant ancestors, who felt that the way to God was through asceticism and hard work. Joy did not enter into it and was, frankly, often frowned upon. The early Protestants also felt very strongly that if God blessed you, then you were wealthy. If he didn’t, then you were not. Either you were of the elite, or you weren’t. Of course, everyone wanted to be of the elite, and what better way to prove it than by having lots of “stuff” that showed how wealthy you were? And here we are in America in 2013, stampeding into Walmart on Black Fridays and “earning our living.”
Naturally, there are “good ways” and “bad ways” to earn our living. Investment banking is fine, as is doctoring, teaching, and selling. Stripping is usually frowned upon. So is most art, unless it’s very high-brow, of course. Very few parents encourage their children to earn their living by painting nudes.
Of course, a lot of “good ways” to earn a living are simply not going to come back. Now we have a highly productive workforce and a highly idle one. The idle workforce isn’t really earning their living in the way we’ve been told we must expect, so what to do with them? Watch them starve? Put them on a reality show?
I was struck by this letter to the editor in The Oregonian (Jan. 29, 2013) with regard to the series on lost jobs, and I like the writer’s vision very much:
Technology has always raised productivity. Industrialization permitted the spread of the 40-hour week, paid vacations and other benefits. Currently, high-tech workplaces add exercise facilities and flexible hours as aids to health and creativity. We should be pleased at the prospect of having robotics end more and more workplace drudgery.
However, with the arrival of unprecedented increases in productivity, the benefits can no longer go mostly to the 1 percent. The workweek can be further reduced with no reduction in pay. More benefits that enhance creativity can be advanced, such as lifelong learning, sabbaticals and earlier earned retirement. Coming generations are about to create enough productivity to concentrate human energy on our most urgent needs—ending industrial climate disruption, diminishing population growth and reducing poverty and warfare. The only alternative would be social inequality rising to the level of our self-destruction.
The sort of future he is writing about is one in which our worth as humans is not measured by how well we “earn” our right to space on the planet. It assumes that we all have an inherent right to space on this planet, and an equal share in its abundance. It assumes that every single person on this earth is a co-owner and co-creator of our world and our future.
We are still a tribal species, and we suffer when we do not behave as a tribe. A successful tribe does not allow members to suffer because they “failed” to “earn” their way by being sick, or disabled, or old, or very young. The healthy and able provide for those who cannot provide in the same way, knowing that they will likely benefit from the same privilege themselves one day. The very young, the old, and the infirm still contribute to the tribe in many other ways, whether it’s to provide childcare, emotional support, or wisdom. In our current economy, of course, these qualities cannot buy “stuff,” so they have no economic value. You lose a lot when you measure things solely by their economic value.
When we separate ourselves from our neighbors and community, when we live isolated, when we choose to believe that there is no greater good other than our own short-term interest, we literally cannot cope. A society that attempts to live “every man for himself” without the social interaction, nurturing, and loving touch that we are born craving, must, in the end, become mentally ill. The “breakdown” of society that many decry is a breakdown of our community bonds. It is the absence of a true heart connection to one another. As Max Weber wrote in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, we have become “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.”
We are not the greatest civilization ever to exist on this earth, though we do imagine ourselves at the forefront of our evolution. There have been greater civilizations in our past, ones that retained the bonds of community, belonging, and caring for each other and the earth. That being said, I believe that there will come a “greatest civilization,” and that we will build it together. We will change what it means to live with one another and with our environment. We will imagine new ways of being, and doing. We will free ourselves from the bondage of timeclocks, workweeks, and being judged by our ability to slowly kill ourselves by doing things we hate. We will open the cage door and leave Mammon behind, finding new ways to trade with one another and exchange ideas. Humanity and our beloved earth will no longer be casualties of short-term profit for the few.
No, this isn’t a pipe dream. This is the new reality that has already begun. The awakening of humanity did not end in 2012. It is simply beginning.