“Good work” is different from “meaningful work.” How people make “meaning” through their jobs depends more on the worker than the work. Oren Cass reviews “The Job” by Ellen Ruppel Shell.
The market for handmade brooms is understandably small. Even smaller is the subset of such broom makers prepared to wax eloquent about the sensibility of their chosen profession as a response to automation. Such real-life characters fill “The Job,” journalism professor Ellen Ruppel Shell’s meditation on the meaning and future of work.
This is an unconventional book, providing a vantage point far removed from the economics-based analyses that tend to dominate discussion of the American labor market. Through stories of jobs in places like the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a cooperatively owned laundromat in Cleveland and a small Finnish sausage factory, the author conjures fresh insights about work as a social institution whose value extends far beyond the dollar amount printed on a paycheck. Ms. Shell feels that it’s imperative “to sort out and fiercely protect those critical elements of work that are essential not only to our economy and our democracy but to our very humanity.”
She begins in the small town of Marienthal, Austria, with “the first systematic effort to lay out in detail the true cost of unemployment.” Marienthal’s rapid industrial decline between the world wars was the subject of an exhaustive sociological investigation that stunned researchers eager to document a revolt by the masses. “Deprived of their livelihood, the villagers did not unite in protest or incite political action,” writes Ms. Shell. “Rather, they withdrew. . . . In Marienthal, joblessness itself had become a job, a thankless, miserable one that set citizens into revolt not against the system but against one another.” The effects of unemployment were not only financial—indeed, most villagers had unemployment insurance, some had pensions—but also psychological and spiritual. “Joblessness was an evil unto itself: demoralizing, soul killing, and dangerous.”