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Wendell Berry on Work

wendell-berry-workThis article is printed here courtesy of The Progressive, where it originally appeared as a letter to the editor in response to the article Less Work, More Life.”

The Progressive, in the September issue, both in Matthew Rothschild’s “Editor’s Note” and in the article by John de Graaf (“Less Work, More Life”), offers “less work” and a 30-hour workweek as needs that are as indisputable as the need to eat.

Though I would support the idea of a 30-hour workweek in some circumstances, I see nothing absolute or indisputable about it. It can be proposed as a universal need only after abandonment of any respect for vocation and the replacement of discourse by slogans.

It is true that the industrialization of virtually all forms of production and service has filled the world with “jobs” that are meaningless, demeaning, and boring—as well as inherently destructive. I don’t think there is a good argument for the existence of such work, and I wish for its elimination, but even its reduction calls for economic changes not yet defined, let alone advocated, by the “left” or the “right.” Neither side, so far as I know, has produced a reliable distinction between good work and bad work. To shorten the “official workweek” while consenting to the continuation of bad work is not much of a solution.

The old and honorable idea of “vocation” is simply that we each are called, by God, or by our gifts, or by our preference, to a kind of good work for which we are particularly fitted. Implicit in this idea is the evidently startling possibility that we might work willingly, and that there is no necessary contradiction between work and happiness or satisfaction.

Only in the absence of any viable idea of vocation or good work can one make the distinction implied in such phrases as “less work, more life” or “work-life balance,” as if one commutes daily from life here to work there.

But aren’t we living even when we are most miserably and harmfully at work?

And isn’t that exactly why we object (when we do object) to bad work?

And if you are called to music or farming or carpentry or healing, if you make your living by your calling, if you use your skills well and to a good purpose and therefore are happy or satisfied in your work, why should you necessarily do less of it?

More important, why should you think of your life as distinct from it?

And why should you not be affronted by some official decree that you should do less of it?

A useful discourse on the subject of work would raise a number of questions that Mr. de Graaf has neglected to ask:

What work are we talking about?

Did you choose your work, or are you doing it under compulsion as the way to earn money?

How much of your intelligence, your affection, your skill, and your pride is employed in your work?

Do you respect the product or the service that is the result of your work?

For whom do you work: a manager, a boss, or yourself?

What are the ecological and social costs of your work?

If such questions are not asked, then we have no way of seeing or proceeding beyond the assumptions of Mr. de Graaf and his work-life experts: that all work is bad work; that all workers are unhappily and even helplessly dependent on employers; that work and life are irreconcilable; and that the only solution to bad work is to shorten the workweek and thus divide the badness among more people.

I don’t think anybody can honorably object to the proposition, in theory, that it is better “to reduce hours rather than lay off workers.” But this raises the likelihood of reduced income and therefore of less “life.” As a remedy for this, Mr. de Graaf can offer only “unemployment benefits,” one of the industrial economy’s more fragile “safety nets.”

And what are people going to do with the “more life” that is understood to be the result of “less work”? Mr. de Graaf says that they “will exercise more, sleep more, garden more, spend more time with friends and family, and drive less.” This happy vision descends from the proposition, popular not so long ago, that in the spare time gained by the purchase of “labor-saving devices,” people would patronize libraries, museums, and symphony orchestras.

But what if the liberated workers drive more?

What if they recreate themselves with off-road vehicles, fast motorboats, fast food, computer games, television, electronic “communication,” and the various genres of pornography?

Well, that’ll be “life,” supposedly, and anything beats work.

Mr. de Graaf makes the further doubtful assumption that work is a static quantity, dependably available, and divisible into dependably sufficient portions. This supposes that one of the purposes of the industrial economy is to provide employment to workers. On the contrary, one of the purposes of this economy has always been to transform independent farmers, shopkeepers, and tradespeople into employees, and then to use the employees as cheaply as possible, and then to replace them as soon as possible with technological substitutes.

So there could be fewer working hours to divide, more workers among whom to divide them, and fewer unemployment benefits to take up the slack.

On the other hand, there is a lot of work needing to be done—ecosystem and watershed restoration, improved transportation networks, healthier and safer food production, soil conservation, etc.—that nobody yet is willing to pay for. Sooner or later, such work will have to be done.

We may end up working longer workdays in order not to “live,” but to survive.

Wendell Berry
Port Royal, Kentucky

Mr. Berrys letter originally appeared in The Progressive (November 2010) in response to the article Less Work, More Life.”

Source: The Progressive 

Image by jimbowen0306, licensed under Creative Commons. 

jay eff
1/26/2011 11:53:58 AM

While this commentary makes some good points, I fear Berry misses the mark. Essentially he's differentiating between work and Work, with capital W "Work" standing in here for vocation, for calling, for labor of love. Some very fortunate people experience no difference between work and Work. People who have Work will always find ways to pursue it above and beyond (or completely outside of) any legislated workweek. Most people have work, lower case, and they do it for pay. Their working conditions are the ones we need to worry about. The United States is absolutely benighted compared to other industrialized nations when it comes to vacation, pension, maternity leave, union protection, and a host of other conditions that are crucial to employees' well-being.

12/30/2010 9:46:09 AM

The vision of work and a meaningful life as “one” is great if you can achieve it. If everyone who had to work could choose exactly what they wanted to do and under the right circumstances, make enough money to pay the bills and still have time for social and creative interests, then work hours would not necessarily be an issue. People who love what they do tend not to live their life watching the clock or longing for affirmation for a job well done. However, those who are not so lucky and are caught in “meaningless, demeaning, and boring” jobs probably long for a meaningful life separate from work. Even people with dreams of making a difference in their chosen vocation often find their ideas and enthusiasm curbed by corporate or academic indifference, and thus become members of the disaffected masses. Go find another job? Easy for some, hard or impossible for many. In this age of chronic layoffs, perhaps saving more jobs with a 30-hour-work-week plan is not so bad. Maybe reduced work hours would be the catalyst for improving one’s qualify of life – having some breathing room to enjoy creative pursuits or consider other employment options.

susan troy
12/27/2010 7:08:53 PM

I love Mr. Wendell Berry because he makes sense. I used to think reducing the workweek was a great idea until I became what have always wanted to be, an artist. I find there are not hours enough in the day to work when you are doing something you love and that stimulates your heart and mind. I am lucky in this regard, but even when I was raising children, a job of endless hours and not a little risk, I was always busy and generally challenged. I work far harder for myself than I did for an employer and happily so because I can see the rewards of my work. I can also see the failures which are nobody's fault but my own. Because my main medium is clay, I feel very connected to the earth. Thank you, Mr. Berry, for once again looking below the surface and gently asking the really vital questions.

el poeta
12/27/2010 12:55:29 PM

As we approach a new age it has been foretold by Maitreya that man will work less and have more free time to spend in creative endeavors; "In an age of competition the old adage holds. Work alone confers the right to eat. But man is ready to experience a new relationship; a new and caring cooperation beckons him to be his brother's keeper and to safeguard the right of all to the necessities of life. More and more, machines will free men to be themselves. Leisure will ensure that each man can reach his full potential, reflective of his stage upon the journey to perfection, adding his gifts for the enrichment of the Whole." From Share International Magazine

linda eatenson
12/27/2010 11:12:33 AM

We complain about "work" because our energy expenditure has been taken over by the already-rich, the lies we are told about what a "good life" is made of, and by escalating pressures to do more in less time. Of course work is just part of life: everything, even a tree, expends energy in order to survive. And sometimes it's pressured by drought or flood. But even a tree (or a tiger, or whatever) will crater when the pressures become too great. It's the more-more-more, grow-without-restraint mentality that has created the chasm between how you view "work", which is accurate and natural, and how others view it, which brings in artificial pressures in the service of an artificial economy.