Work and Dignity   /   Fall 2012   /    Introduction

Work and Dignity

An Introduction

Joseph E. Davis

© Getty Images/Garry Wade (detail).

Work is in the news and on people’s minds. With high unemployment, stagnant wages, and downward mobility, public debate is focused on remedies to economic problems and preparing the workforce for the challenges of the globalized economy. These macro-level concerns, while necessary, tend to obscure the question of work itself: its organization, its meaning, and its effects on workers themselves. Jobs, business practices, education, career trajectories, opportunity—all are reduced to a metric of economic reward.

But work is not just an economic matter. Beyond survival, a range of other human values and ideals are at stake. The qualities of meaningful work include some scope for freedom and self-direction, the chance to use our capacities of judgment, a connection to others and to purposes larger than ourselves, and the sense of accomplishment that comes from doing something well and for its own sake.

Such qualities are not inherent in or limited to particular occupations. However, some forms of work in our society, especially manual and service work, are devalued, subject to uninformed judgments about intelligence and ability (see the Rose/Crawford conversation). Workers do not take this debasement lying down. Even as their work threatens body and dignity, workers push back to find self-worth and agency within the limits placed on them (see Snyder’s essay). Even in insecure and temporary employment positions, many individuals maintain a work ethic and sense of personal obligation. Yet, they also pay a price and must hide the very real losses they suffer (see Pugh’s essay).

Extending our understanding of what makes work meaningful and providing more opportunities for such work depend on a “certain kind of polity.” Questions about the politics of work involve attention to the different ways of defining and organizing work and to the place of work in a good life. They bear on the very public issue of how social arrangements and demands might change to allow for a fuller exercise and enjoyment of human capacities and the intrinsic rewards of good work (see Muirhead’s essay).

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