Labour Day; a perfect time to wonder about work.
It’s only fair that I divulge my relationship to work. I grew up in a family where the PROTESTANT WORK ETHIC flashed in neon. To be called “lazy” by our industrious mother was utterly humiliating. I still wince thinking about it. My Catholic friends could be saved by grace. I envied them. As a Presbyterian, I could only be saved by hard work.
Ready for Church, sister Diane, our mother Eleanor, and myself
Yet this couldn’t all be pinned on God. A century ago, German sociologist Max Weber proclaimed that a Protestant’s affinity for hard work was the backbone of modern capitalism. My back aches with the remembrance of it. When Uncle Bill and Aunt Em decided to diversify with u-pick-it strawberries they employed my sister and I. We were eight and nine respectively. We earned 25 cents an hour and we’re thrilled by our independence. With that tantalizing taste of enterprise, we moved into direct marketing, selling our father’s fresh corn at the side of the road for 25 cents/dozen. There were clear limits on our ambition. As soon as we’d earned enough to pay for admission and rides at the Simcoe Fair we closed down shop.
Our least favourite job? Picking up rocks in the field—my sister and I alternated, one of us driving the tractor and wagon, and the other jumping on and off the wagon to pick up rocks. Aerobics and weight training! We were embarrassed to be seen doing this work, none of our friends picked rocks. I’ve had worse jobs, stacking hay bales in steaming barn lofts was far more strenuous, but my sister and I felt rock-picking was beneath us. I don’t think our father had a clue how we felt.
My mother, Eleanor, on the right, tying tobacco
And, like every other able-bodied kid in the neighbourhood, we worked in tobacco. Pulling plants in the greenhouse, hoeing seedlings in the fields, suckering and topping, and then harvest. Tobacco harvest started mid-summer and continued without interruption until first frost. We were girls, so our entry position was ‘stick shaker’, lugging 20-30 pound sticks laden with fresh tobacco from the tying table to the elevator. Every day, 1250 sticks were swallowed up into the kilns to be cured. I worked in tobacco, every year from the time I was 13 until the year I was married. This income from tobacco funded my under-grad. With this grounding in work = virtue, becoming a lawyer seemed Heaven-sent.
Panorama of the beef industry in 1900 by a Chicago-based photographer, Wikipedia
This discourse on work reminds me of the first time I visited Chicago. While there I read Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle, the story of Jurgis Rudkus, an immigrant from rural Lithuania who toils at early meat-packing plants in Chicago. Jurgis’s response to every challenge was “I will work harder.” It’s a mantra I recognized. By the end of this Dante’s Inferno like story, Jurgis comes to understand that always working harder isn’t going to work.
Now to Alberta, we’re just coming out of a pretty deep economic slump. Lots of hard-working, able-bodied people with skills have lost their jobs, including my sons. Yes, people who don’t have paying jobs can do other things to sustain self-worth: volunteer, study, travel, learn something new, go into business for yourself. My sons taught themselves how to brew beer; that was satisfying but they were as relieved as their parents when more conventional work opportunities surfaced. This is Alberta, the economy swings, typically there is a recovery. Or you can choose to relocate. But what about sons (and daughters) in places like Yemen or other places across the world where able-bodied people can’t find paying work at home and can’t relocate?
Being Canadian offers us opportunities. Many of the people I went to high school with became, or worked for, entrepreneurs.
Chuck and Linda Emre grow potatoes and asparagus on a commercial scale. Chuck has reintroduced some of his grandfather’s farming techniques–reducing dependency on chemicals, reverting to biotic farming methods, and low-till cultivation to reduce carbon releases caused by plowing. Meeting Chuck and Linda at their farm, or at the Food Terminal in Toronto where they truck in their produce to sell to wholesalers, it would be hard for you not to be impressed by their work ethic.
Here’s another enterprising couple, high school sweethearts at Delhi District Secondary School, Rick and Nellie Verbruggen. They have stepped out from tobacco to market fruits and vegetables.
Face-to-face with these entrepreneurs, they talk about work with gratitude. It’s obvious how hard work feeds their sense of worth. Yet most working people don’t run their own businesses. I’ve been an employee for several large energy companies and can vouch that, even within these organizations, work opportunities can feed that sense of worth. It can, however, be more difficult to put your finger on this pulse. And when a company is under pressure from critics—’dirty oil’ naysayers for example—suspicions lurk and workers become guarded.
At a wedding this April in Los Angeles, I had an appealingly unguarded conversation with a surgeon employed at a large local hospital. Over dinner, he was keen to share practical ideas on how to improve the healthcare system. He loved his work but was frustrated. When invited to decision-making tables where new protocols were evaluated, his voice was often drowned out by other priorities: cost-effectiveness, precedent and profit. He saw the irony in this. In the operating theatre, he had a clear voice within a hierarchical structure yet at the wider decision-making table, his voice was muted. To preserve his own sense of dignity, he focused on relationships with co-workers and patients.
We both lamented the lost opportunity. Yet this experience isn’t unusual. Business risk-taking is increasingly institutionalized, often via detailed policies, and the discretion of individual workers is constrained. To the outsider, the result can look like rigid, inflexible, intransigent attitudes by employees. To the insider, the tight reins can diminish an employee’s sense of self-worth.
Imagine the potential if the dignity of workers within large companies could be recovered on a system-wide basis.
Faith leaders have been connecting the dots between work and dignity for centuries. In the 19th century, Italian Pope Leo XIII launched reforms to abolish child labour, reduce the workweek and set minimum pay. More recently, Pope Francis delivered this message at a Mass in the Italian region of Molise in July 2014:
“Not giving a job is not simply a question of not having the means to life: no. We can eat every day, we can go to Caritas, we can go to an association, a club, we can go there and they will give us something to eat. But this is not the problem. The problem is not being able to bring bread to the table at home: this is a serious problem, this takes away our dignity. And the most serious problem is not hunger, even though the problem exists. The most serious problem is that of dignity. For this reason we must work and defend the dignity that work gives us.”
Beyond our own work, how do you make choices that sustain the dignity of others in their work? The late Ernesto Illy, chairman of Illy brand of coffee, paid above the going rate for coffee beans provided the supplier paid their workers a higher wage and ensured they had an education. Why did Illy do this? He wanted the very best coffee, and for him, that meant coffee picked by workers who were happy and whose dignity has been respected. Similar opportunities arise in the employment of disabled workers; giving women and men not only equal pay for work of equal value, but equal opportunity; under-employment of highly skilled workers (think about all those taxi drivers with PhDs); inadequate job security; living wages and forced labour.
I’m 57, and many of my contemporaries are starting to think about what their lives can look like with more leisure and less work. It’s a struggle for some, especially if their sense of identity is inextricably tied to what they do to earn a living. Not only that but recently I’ve become aware of an even bigger threat lurking that won’t just be a challenge for people my age. Everyone risks losing their job to a robot! Remember when IBM’s Watson beat the Jeopardy! champions in 2011? We were pretty excited about artificial intelligence, then. And, who doesn’t own a smart device—phones, watches, meters—not Big Brother but little brothers with little brains that don’t really need human instruction? Automation of tobacco harvesting and the factory floor, a lot of that backbreaking work we used to do, has been real for a while. AI is now reaching beyond mechanization of blue-collar workers; lawyers could be replaced by computerized algorithms!
For brutally honest insight into this challenge, I’d recommend this book by the father-son team of Richard and Daniel Susskind. Now that we live in a technology-based society, where citizens can access their own information on healthcare and law and engineering and accounting, what’s the role of professionals?
What’s the timeline on all this hyper-automation? Elon Musk, the Tesla CEO and SpaceX guru, predicts AI domination by 2030. This July, Musk appeared before a meeting of the National Governor’s Association, describing artificial intelligence as “the greatest risk we face as a civilization” and calling for swift, decisive government regulation of Big Tech.
Professor Maggie Boden, an AI researcher at the University of Sussex, U.K., is a little more upbeat. Boden doesn’t see robots replacing humans in functions requiring empathy or emotional intelligence. Yet she’s nervous about the enthusiasm for robots in the care of humans, for example, in Japan where “care-bots” attend to the elderly. It’s dehumanizing and “emotionally dangerous”. Nadine, a realistic humanoid social robot (on the left) was created at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, with strong human-likeness, natural-looking skin and hair, realistic hands. Nadine greets you, makes eye contact, and remembers all the conversations you had with her. She shows emotions in her gestures and in her face.
So, this Labour Day…
To all of those people who gave me the opportunity to work—in blue-collar, white-collar and even pink-collar jobs—I say thank you.
You nurtured my sense of dignity.
The labour I’ve done has formed me and this life of mine. I’m interested in your experience, what does work mean for you?
Donna Kennedy-Glans, Labour Day Weekend 2017