Here's Something You Should Be Thankful For: Work

Michael Barone
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Posted: Nov 27, 2015 12:01 AM
Here's Something You Should Be Thankful For: Work

Sure, that sounds counterintuitive. Thanksgiving Thursday is the first day of a (for most of us) four-day weekend, a time devoted to gorging on comfort food and nonstop viewing of college and professional football games.

It's a time as well for contemplation, already primed by overfamiliar songs in shopping malls, of an even longer holiday season. I grew up in Detroit, where the auto assembly lines shut down entirely for last two weeks of the calendar year. Who needs work?

The answer, I believe, is everybody. Arthur Brooks, president of American Enterprise Institute where I'm a resident fellow, has examined the research on what makes people happy and gives them satisfaction, and he boils his answer down to two words: earned success.

That can take many forms. You can measure earned success by the money you earn or the usefulness of your work, and also by the work you do raising a family or joining with others in the multitude of voluntary associations which Alexis de Tocqueville identified 180 years ago as the major strength of America. Looking back over life, most people realize that they derived less satisfaction from the enjoyment of pleasure than from the performance of duty.

Anyone who knows some history understands the reasons people have wanted some liberation from work. For centuries, work, to paraphrase the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, tended to make life nasty, brutish and short. Hard physical labor broke men's bodies and led to early deaths.

Readers of Willa Cather's Nebraska novels or Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie" series will remember not only their lyrical descriptions of landscape but also their accounts of how the hard work the pioneers of the Great Plains had to do filled practically every waking moment.

So did the work of laborers in 19th century textile mills and steel factories -- and of the wives who stayed home cleaning, laundering, cooking and childrearing constantly. No wonder people looked forward to Saturday night music-making and Sunday sermons.

Vastly increased prosperity created by industrialization made possible the passage of laws establishing the eight-hour day with time-and-a-half overtime and banning child labor. Social Security, enacted in 1935, established old-age pensions for those retiring at 65 (conveniently, a bit older than male life expectancy then).

Later legislation enabled people to collect reduced Social Security at 62. Disability Insurance, established in the 1950s, provided minimal incomes for those judged unable to work.

Over time, these programs have tilted people away from work. More choose to retire at 62 than 65 or later. Disability rolls have nearly doubled in 15 years, with most applicants complaining of unverifiable back pain or mental depression.

In the 1930s economist John Maynard Keynes looked forward to a time when people would only work a few hours a week. Visionary labor union leaders prophesied that manual laborers, freed from the assembly line, would spend their days appreciating classical music and great literature.

Things turned out differently. High-education, high-income Americans are working longer hours today than 40 years ago, while low-education, low-income people work less. Some 9 percent of adults in low-growth West Virginia now get by on disability payments of about $13,000 yearly.

Some call for more policies enabling people to work less, such as mandatory paid paternal and family leave. They seem to take increased productivity and economic growth for granted, even though it has been sluggish lately. They ignore the fact that only vibrant economic growth can give people the opportunity to find work that maximizes their own special talents and draws on their own special interests -- a sure way to earn success and find satisfaction in life.

The fact is that most retirees and disability recipients are spending less time with Beethoven and Tolstoy than watching low-quality television. And as Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case have noted, the death rate of non-college-graduating men age 45 to 54 has actually been rising this century, often due to alcohol and drug abuse.

That's a sharp reversal of a long historic trend, and it resembles the sharp decrease in male life expectancy in the late Soviet Union. It suggests a widespread spiritual unease in people who have been liberated from work but have found no satisfying way to earn success.

So relax on the holidays, if you like -- but give thanks if you have found useful and satisfying work.