Work was once at the center of political theory, but in recent decades it has been relegated to the margins. The centrality of work derived from the Reformation’s affirmation of ordinary life and the power of Marxist criticism of work under capitalism. In everyday life, work is still at the center of things; along with love, it is the most important element of a satisfying and happy life. Its importance in a life well-lived presents a challenge for young people, who today believe they need to find not only a job, but a job they care about and for which they have a certain kind of passion. In ordinary life, the ideal of “meaningful work,” or work that has sufficient scope for self-direction, complexity, and consequential effects to support pride and a sense of purpose, is more relevant than ever.
Yet meaningful work has become more of a therapeutic concern than a political one. Take, for instance, the reception of Matthew Crawford’s powerful account of manual labor, Shop Class as Soulcraft. This spirited and thoughtful defense of artisanal work in a postindustrial age shows how manual work gets its meaning from the way it develops one’s judgment, understanding, and power. Although Crawford’s book is explicitly concerned with a public education system that displaces manual work from the curriculum, it was not generally received as part of a political argument. And although Crawford is a political philosopher, the book was not generally seen as a criticism of the polity. It was seen as philosophic biography or a guide to living well—but not as something political.