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The future of work: Arthur Brooks on human dignity and ‘neededness’

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Although unemployment continues to hover somewhere around 4.7 percent, the labor-force participation rate offers a grimmer outlook, falling from 67% in 2000 to 63% today. With the continued acceleration of globalization and automation, the future of work looks increasingly uncertain.

The pains from the decline are widespread and diverse, and are particularly pronounced among men, as Nicholas Eberstadt outlines in his latest book, Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis. “Nearly one in six prime working age men has no paid work at all,” Eberstadt explains, “and nearly one in eight is out of the labor force entirely, neither working nor even looking for work.”

Such developments have plenty of implications for the “tangibles” of daily life — income, food, shelter, healthcare, etc. — but we’d do well to remember that the evaporation of work leads to an evaporation something far more profound than mere material stuff.

In a recent piece for Foreign Affairs, Arthur Brooks points to this reality, reminding us that the shifts we’re seeing in human work and creative service is bound to influence our sense of dignity. “At its core, to be treated with dignity means being considered worthy of respect,” he writes. “….Put simply, to feel dignified, one must be needed by others.”

We were made to create. We were made to serve. We were made to trade.

According to Brooks, our economic policies have ignored this basic reality, seeking only to provide things and “help” people by creating jobs as ends unto themselves. Instead, he argues, we should remind ourselves of basic human “neededness,” setting our focus on a single, basic question: “Does this policy make people more or less needed—in their families, their communities, and the broader economy?

As for how we might proceed, Brooks offers a range of prods and recommended reforms, from welfare to immigration to wage subsidies to education and skills training.

Yet in the end, such policies offer support, not a solution. For Brooks, it requires a “profound cultural shift” in the country at large:

A public policy agenda focused on building dignity and neededness would mark a departure from the status quo, but not an unthinkable or radical one. But on their own, these policies would not produce the dramatic change that is necessary. Only a profound cultural shift can achieve that.

…Moral suasion can be even more powerful than policy. Before elites on the left and the right do battle over policy fixes, they need to ask themselves, “What am I personally doing to share the secrets of my success with those outside my social class?” According to the best social science available, those secrets are not refundable tax credits or auto-shop classes, as important as those things might be. Rather, the keys to fulfillment are building a stable family life, belonging to a strong community, and working hard. Elites have an ethical duty to reveal how they have achieved and sustained success. Readers can decide for themselves whether this suggestion reflects hopeless paternalism, Good Samaritanism, or perhaps both.

Throughout that entire civilizational project – as we go about the business of building healthy families, sowing into our communities, and cultivating an ethic of servanthood – we can begin by shifting and renewing our existing attitudes about work itself.

Brooks highlights the importance of “neededness,” but it’s not just the policymakers who forget and neglect it. In our daily work, our service helps to heal that “dignity deficit,” regardless of job or industry or its (mis)alignment with our preferred vocational aspirations.

“Our working puts us in the service of others,” writes Lester DeKoster in Work: The Meaning of Your Life. “The civilization that work creates puts others in the service of ourselves. Thus, work restores the broken family of humankind.”

In its own role and responsibility, government must do a better job at putting human neededness at the center of its policymaking. Just as we ourselves must put it at the center of our everyday stewardship, from work in the home and family to creative service across the economic order.

Image: Public Domain

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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