Denied the Fruits of Their Labors

Denied the Fruits of Their Labors

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in Boom-Time America
by Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books, 2001, 256 pp., $23

White-Collar Sweatshop: The Deterioration of Work and its Rewards in Corporate America
by Jill Andresky Fraser
W.W. Norton & Company, 2001 352 pp $26.95

Touring West Virginia during the 1960 presidential campaign, John Kennedy was accosted by a miner demanding to know whether he was indeed “the son of one of our wealthiest men.” Kennedy admitted that he was. “Is it true that you’ve never wanted for anything and had everything you wanted?” the miner pressed. “I guess so.” “Is it true you’ve never done a day’s work with your hands all your life?” Kennedy nodded. “Well,” the miner drawled, “let me tell you this. You haven’t missed a thing.”

Mindless drudgery or moral elevation? In the Western tradition, work has been both, and for good reason. On the one hand, work, whether physical or intellectual, can be fulfilling. Reversing the usual stereotype, Karl Marx criticized Adam Smith for lamenting the burdens of work and failing to grasp that “the overcoming of . . . obstacles” was a basic component of human freedom. Work pressed men and women to develop their full capacities, a prerequisite for the realization of self. Less romantic types have celebrated work for the relief it provides from the misery of the human condition. Without work, Sherlock Holmes confesses to Watson, there is only tedium—and cocaine. “My mind,” he says, “rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants.”

But work can also be the misery of the human condition. It often requires demanding physical effort. It takes men and women away from more satisfying activity. It can be mind-numbing and oppressive. There is a reason, after all, that work is a biblical curse. And not only hard labor can seem onerous: whatever the charms of the life of the mind, Anthony Trollope noted, they alone could not compel a writer to put pen to paper; only the rewards of money and fame compensated for the painful effort writing required. “Take away from English authors their copyrights,” he archly observed, “and you would very soon take away also from England her authors.”

In recent years, this historic ambivalence about work has given way to a more flattened consciousness. In our post-welfare era, work is an unqualified good; the only bad thing is not having it. It gets people out of poverty—and out of bed. Going to work “constitutes a framework for daily behavior,” writes William Julius Wilson, without which “life . . . becomes less coherent.” Work instills disciplin...

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