Wendell Berry on Work

| 12/22/2010 1:03:06 PM

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?

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.

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