Job Creation and the Politicization of Work

We are living in an unprecedented era of financial instability and economic insecurity. Increased globalization and outsourced manufacturing jobs to foreign countries have led to a high unemployment rate, an economic recession that has threatened the prosperity of the United States and other countries throughout the world, and the division between work and labor, resulting in the looming elimination of the middle class.

The political machine is in full-spin mode as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney speak to the creation of jobs as the sole means to jump start a stagnant economy. President Barack Obama claims to have created 4.5 million jobs since the start of his presidency in 2009, but speaks to the truth that more must be done because “too many folks out there … are looking for work” (O’Brien, 2012, p. 1). Republican nominee Mitt Romney, in a statement built upon his experience in private business, said that he would create 12 million jobs in his first term upon being elected (O’Brien, 2012).

While politicians can and will continue to make blanket claims about the creation of jobs to ease the pain of American citizens, how will they go about making millions of new jobs? Is the problem truly a lack of jobs or it is perhaps a deeper reflection of what Marx refers to in his critique of capitalism as the conflict and competition between the rich and the poor:

The growing competition among the bourgeoisie, and the resulting commercial crises, make the wages of the worker ever more fluctuating. The unceasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious, the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeoisie take more and more the character of collision between two classes. (Newton, Englehardt & Pritchard, 2012, p. 18)

Has our capitalist society turned against the worker in order to develop larger corporate profits and a culture of mass-consumption rather than mass-creation? These are difficult questions that are not easily answered with a sound bite on a 24-hour news channel. In order for capitalism to survive the 21st-century, it is time for individuals and businesses to redefine what job creation is in the context of work, encourage private industries to continue distributing labor in order to provide opportunity and growth for all, and teach every human being how to create a culture of entrepreneurship and creation as a means to a job instead of relying upon the government or other business leaders.

A Brief History of Work

In the Judeo-Christian origination of work, Genesis says that because of mankind’s original sin, man was cursed to work the earth and, by the sweat of his brow, eat his food until his return to the ground (Genesis 3:17-19 New International Version).

Building upon Genesis, the definition of work would go through a variety of changes over the ages. Citing the works of Aristotle, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Benjamin Franklin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Karl Marx as instigators of the transformation of work from a curse to a necessity for a good life regardless of the notion of slavery and drudgery, DesJardins (2011) notes the dualistic nature of work: “Work can provide opportunities for valuable, meaningful, and uplifting human activity, and work can be dehumanizing, degrading, and oppressive” (p. 103).

This dualism leads to a few traditional views of the means and ends of work—classical, hedonistic, human fulfillment, and liberal—encompassed in three main purposes of work: a job, a career, and a calling. A job is the representation of both classical and hedonistic views of work. It is a means to an end, something that must be done to pay the bills and afford a certain lifestyle, as well as a gateway to pleasure. While a job at the fundamental level should meet a basic level of human need, most people are searching for more than just a paycheck:

[Work] is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. Perhaps immortality, too, is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book. (Terkel, 1972, p. xi)

It is in this quest for more that emphasizes the difference between a job and career: the marriage of work and identity through “ongoing activity that . . . establish standards of achievement and advancement” (DesJardins, 2011, p. 105). Much like the hedonistic question, “What will this work do for me?” (DesJardins, 2011, p. 112) and the human fulfillment view of work that asks the question, “What will this work do to me?” (DesJardins, 2011, p. 112), a career begins to solidify the purpose for life through the resolution of the dissonance between the answers of those questions.

Finally, approaching work as a calling is the return to past views of work that considers a person’s identity and what they do as morally inseparable. It is also the understanding that some work employs a sense of calling such as ministry, teaching, and the medical field (DesJardins, 2011).

With a basic understanding of the different views and purposes of work, what types of jobs are the political forces calling for businesses to create?

Redefining Job Creation

For many workers, they have become what Marx describes as “an appendage of the machine” (Newton, Englehardt & Pritchard, 2012, p. 16), focused on survival, and members of a not-so-elite-class, “the walking wounded” (Terkel, 1974, p. xi). For those without work, they too have become a variation of the walking wounded as they have lost self-esteem and self-respect, are stressed, depressed, apathetic, and anxious (DesJardins, 2011).

Is this what we are looking to politicians and job creators for? A simple switch from one set of negative emotions to another, allowing menial and demeaning jobs to strip the dignity of unskilled workers, and maintaining the balance of power in favor of the bourgeoisie?

In the utilitarian sense, jobs at a minimum must appeal to the greater good for everyone involved—both employee and employer. This would entail a notion of universal employee rights that are not subject to negotiation or violation. There is also a sense of duty, of right and wrong, that ensures work will maintain a proper balance of worth and power between employer and employee. Jobs that seek to provide not only a living wage, but opportunities for improvement go beyond the basic utilitarian nature of jobs.

Regardless of whether a job is fair or ethical, it needs to exist, and the best way to create millions of new jobs is through the use of Adam Smith’s theory of the division of labor.

Creating Jobs Through the Distribution of Labor

Adam Smith wrote extensively about the theory of dividing labor within all the different arts as a means to distribute “universal opulence . . . to the lowest ranks of the people” (Newton, Englehardt & Pritchard, 2012, p. 5). Building upon Smith’s theory’s, Murali Chemuturi wrote Distributing Work for a Revolution (2011), to illustrate how “implementing the division of labor concept in software development could create a million jobs and drastically cut software costs” in six months (p. 47).

Software development is a highly technical industry reliant upon workers and engineers with years of education and experience who carry out all tasks related to the project. The work generally stays in their control because as Chemuturi (2011) reasons there are a lack of standards and procedures to communicate and describe the tasks to workers with less training and education.

If division of labor is to be established in the software industry—or any technical industry—there must be a shift of burden for the assurance of productivity and quality from the individual to tools or systems. Once a system for production and quality is in place, three essential attributes are needed in order for an activity to be divided: one, aesthetics and creativity must not be greater than 25 percent of the task; two, it must be a significant task which has a measurable impact upon the final product; and three, individuals with entry-level qualifications can both perform and grow accordingly (Chemuturi, 2011).

It is important to have entry-level jobs in as many technical industries as possible because as the United States shifts from a nation built upon manufacturing and production jobs to a collective of creative and knowledge-based workers, there will be people left behind and it is our duty to not only create new opportunities for as many people as possible, but make certain that businesses will continue to be competitive, productive, and profitable.

A Culture of Entrepreneurship

Although there is tremendous value in the redefinition of job creation and in the distribution of labor, there needs to be a shift of focus from industrial workers to industrious, knowledge workers. The physical nature of work has been replaced by more efficient and stronger machines, enabling workers to cultivate knowledge work built upon new ideas and creativity. However, the education system of the United States is still focused on developing workers for an old-world job market through the perpetuation of an anemic definition of work ethic and mass-consumption.

In 2007, Tim Ferriss wrote The 4-Hour Workweek (2007) to show others just what it takes to live a life built not upon drudgery and delayed satisfaction, but upon “doing less meaningless work, so that you can focus on things of greater personal importance” (p. 32). Approaching an entrepreneurial view of work would require workers to learn how to “measure the results of their actions” in order to “produce more meaningful results” (pp. 32-33).

Essential to the production of increased meaningful results is the deconstruction of the work ethic and replacing it with the play ethic in which: “Players need to be energetic, imaginative and confident in the face of an unpredictable, contestive, emergent world.” (Kane, 2004, p. 41). Kane’s manifesto, The Play Ethic (2004), asks a series of questions, effectively illustrating the need for play in our modern society:

Why do we still tolerate the uptight severities of the work ethic? Why do we give the time of day to politicians who regard play—or at least, that free time(“idleness”) in which they make their playful decisions—as devilish, degenerate, corrupt, dissolute? Why can’t we assert an alternative theology of human activity? Why can’t we say that the angels make work for idle hands? (p. 72)

Kane begins to answer these questions through the channeling of Max Weber saying that “the work ethic is a tough adversary because . . . it represents the ‘spirit of capitalism’” (p. 72). This spirit of capitalism is useful to impose social order by the governing forces of democratic markets, preserving a “consumer culture that melts everything solid into air, puts mad and burning dreams in the minds of men, women, and children, and is a force for the incitement of rampant desire and uncontrollable aspiration ‘in all’” (p. 72).

Kane’s play ethic is a liberating force that maximizes the worker’s ability to judge “how work affects [people’s] ability to make free and autonomous decisions about their own life” (DesJardins, 2011, p. 114). By overcoming cultural and societal pressures to work in order to consume, work becomes the ultimate fulfillment of not only individual pursuits, but a vehicle for creating social change.

Work in the 21st-century has become intertwined between our identity and our ability to survive. Without a proper view of how work affects our ability to live free and autonomous lives, we will unknowingly perpetuate the system that favors inequality and social injustices. However, it is not easy to overcome societal forces of conformity, but it is possible as witnessed in the thousands of artists, entrepreneurs, and social business owners working everyday to change the world.

References

Chemuturi, M. (2011). Distributing work for a revolution. Industrial Engineer: IE, 43(12), 46-51.

DesJardins, J. (2011). An introduction to business ethics (4th Ed.). Boston: McGraw Hill.

Ferriss, T. (2007). The 4-hour workweek: Escape 9-5, live anywhere, and join the new rich. New York: Crown Publishers.

Kane, P. (2004). The play ethic: A manifesto for a different way of living. London: Macmillan.

Mutikani, L. (2012). Job growth steps up, but jobless rate rises. Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/

Newton, L. H., Englehardt, E. E. & Pritchard, M. (2012). Taking sides: Clashing views in business ethics and society (12th Ed.). Boston: McGraw Hill.

O’Brien, M. (2012, August 3). Obama says more to be done on jobs, as Romney decries ‘suffering’. NBC News. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/

Terkel, S. (1974). Working: People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do. New York: The New Press.

Notes

This post originated as an analytical paper for my master’s level course Organizational Ethics, Values, and the Law. It conforms, to the best of my ability, to the APA style of references, citations, and format.