The act of labor as one of the happy functions of human life has been in effect abandoned, and is practiced solely for its rewards. "The Southern Agrarians, 1930
Remember that you work to live; you don't live to work. Curtiss Thornton, some time in the 1960s
One of my earliest memories is standing beside the deathbed of my great grandfather. I was 4. He had been a coal miner, and it was the coal dust in his lungs that was killing him. He'd gotten his family out of the coal fields and onto a farm long before then.
His son, my mother's father, was a model for the modern entrepreneur. He worked on the railroad, acquiring skills that he eventually used to found a company that outlived him. Toward the end of his life he did more paperwork than manual labor, but he worked almost literally until the day he died. My father's father was a sharecropper. The house his family lived in then is an upscale restaurant now. It's called The Farmhouse. My grandfather eventually got his own farm, 40 acres and a house four rooms and a path that was home for nine people. There was a hand pump on the back porch for drawing water. Granddaddy worked off the farm, too. He guarded prisoners of war during World War II. He drove a mule team. He drove a truck. But I remember him as a carpenter. He was working as a carpenter when he fell off a building and broke his leg broke it so badly that the bone poked through his boot. That was when he stopped working.
My father left high school to join the Navy, then went through a series of jobs at a series of companies. He was a mechanic, a welder, a factory worker, a bus driver a long line of occupations that led to his last job. He was a maintenance worker and then a supervisor of maintenance workers for 29 years. One winter when I was about 6 years old the snow got so deep the road that ran by our house was impassable. Dad walked to work through the snowdrifts.
Just as my father was beginning to think of retirement, the company that employed him cut a deal that divided the warehouse complex he worked at into three parts each still owned by his employer, each managed by a different company. His choices were to retire early or go to work for the new managers in a lower position for a lower wage.
He got off better than some. Even while the economy was booming last year, U.S. corporations laid off 103,000 workers. I was the first member of my family to graduate from college. I did a lot of odd and sweaty work when I was young, but I've spent most my post-college career in jobs that keep me mostly indoors, rarely lifting anything heavier than a good-sized dictionary.
I don't think my family's work history is all that different from most a gradual progression from labor on and in the earth to employment in climate-controlled buildings. Physically, work has become much less dangerous and much less demanding, but if there's any truth in poll results, modern work is taxing in very different ways.
Andrew Kimbrell is president of the International Center for Technology Assessment. According to an article he wrote in the Utne Reader a while back, 88 percent of workers say they have to work longer than they used to. More than two-thirds say they have to work faster than they used to. For many people, the pressure is simply too much. "More than 80 percent of Americans say their lives are more stressful now than they were five years ago; pressures at work are cited as the primary reason," Kimbrell wrote. "More and more of us need to be medicated just to get through the workday. More than 45 million American adults are taking prescription psychotropic medications. The largest increase is not in the use of the much-publicized antidepressant Prozac, but rather in a variety of drugs used to treat anxiety and stress disorders."
But that's not the worst of it. As Kimbrell points out, "Studies consistently show that as many as 80 percent of workers in our society feel their jobs, however fast and furious, are 'meaningless.'"
So the medicated masses work longer and faster at stressful yet meaningless jobs, searching for but rarely finding some sort of balance between work and the rest of life. Too often work is not so much a part of a full and healthy life as it is an impediment to it. There's a lot of talk about balance these days, but I don't see that it's much more than talk.
I just left an office where a reporter was working at a keyboard with one hand. Her other hand was holding her sleeping daughter.
This afternoon, I read a story about a professor who's written a book about Americans' vacation habits. While she was working on the book, she and her family spent some time in a beach house. She took her laptop along and worked on the book.
I used to know a warehouse worker at the other end of the dedication spectrum. He often volunteered for pallet duty sorting usable pallets and repairable pallets from pallets that were ready to become kindling. The job could be strenuous; it was always boring. This guy said he liked it because, "When I'm doing this I can think about fishing."
Nearly 70 years ago, the Southern Agrarians declared, "The first principle of good labor is that it must be effective, but the second principle is that it must be enjoyed. Labor is one of the largest items in the human career; it is a modest demand to ask that it may partake of happiness."
If anything has changed over the past seven decades, labor has become an even larger item in the human career and that modest demand is granted even less often.
Tim Thornton is a higher-education reporter for the Greensboro News & Record.
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