Obsessed With Work or Just Bored? Bringing the Conversation About Work Across Acoma Street

It’s well past 1 p.m. From my desk I look across Acoma Street and see a woman in her early 20s wearing baggy sweat pants, a cigarette hanging out her mouth, tossing an empty Mountain Dew bottle in a dumpster that’s been parked in her driveway for months. She squints at the sun, as if it’s an unwelcome guest disturbing her slumber.

Next door is a man, mid-40s, sitting on his porch. Can of Coors Light in hand, he chats with his cat, as if expecting to hear a punch line to a joke. A broken beer bottle shimmers on his sidewalk.

Of course, white upper-middle-class office-dweller that I am, I vigorously type emails on my computer, staring at them both, wondering why they aren’t working. But maybe I shouldn’t be so shocked.

Some argue that our culture is obsessed with work. But is that really true?

To be fair, it’s true for a narrow slice of the population. The top 10 percent define themselves  - find their deepest worth and value - by their achievement. David Brooks describes them well. They’re often raised by “Uber-moms” who give their kids Mandarin lessons at age 4, are playing Bach symphonies by 6, and refuse to eat anything other than Whole Foods Veggie Booty by age 8. These kids, says Brooks, “turn into the junior workaholics of America… By the time they’ve applied to schools, they’ve started six companies, cured three formerly fatal diseases, played obscure sports like Frisbee golf. When I ask my students what you are doing spring break, it’s like ‘You know I am unicycling across Thailand while reading to lepers.’”

The upper crust, many of whom are left-leaning politically, Ive League educated, urban and areligious, are often workaholics. And though I’m none of those, I too can make work an idol.

But truth be told, this is the minority of the American population. The majority of Americans view work as a disagreeable necessity to be avoided at all costs.

Though I’d rather not believe it, the statistics are convincing.

Each year, Gallup does a poll on workplace engagement. Over 70 percent of Americans are either “not engaged” with their work or “disengaged,” meaning that over half of Americans are either just punching in and punching out, bored with their day-to-day tasks, or are actually so disgruntled they’re actually working against their bosses’ agendas.

Cross reference that poll with worker “satisfaction.” By this count, a majority of employed Americans are "satisfied" with their work. Not jazzed, but embracing an it-could-be-worse attitude.

But the most disturbing labor force trend has nothing to do with either engagement or mild satisfaction. It’s the labor participation rate. Today America has a 62.6 percent labor participation rate, the lowest rate in nearly four decades. Though we often pat ourselves on the back for the dropping unemployment rate, that doesn’t count those who’ve stopped looking for work. (It only counts those who want to find work but can’t.)

I have several friends who own businesses in the trades. Everyone of the them is currently looking to fill positions for middle-skilled and high-skilled labor. And everyone of them says nearly the same thing: “We simply can’t find enough people who want to work hard.” High pay or not, taking a look at the American workforce today, you’d think the Protestant work ethic is a relic of the past.

Often we have an image of the hard working American that’s just trying to get by if only he could get a lucky break. Unfortunately, this is largely a fiction. Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart: The State of White America from 1960-2010 illustrates what our real blue-collar America looks like. Consider Murray’s “Fishtown,” a statistical construct of white, blue-collar America. Instead of the hard-working, industrious and virtuous American small town, today Fishtown is inhabited by women who routinely have children out of wedlock; less than a third of kids grow up with both biological parents; churchgoing rates have plummeted; and men “claim physical disability at astounding rates and are less likely to hold down jobs than in the past.”

But if this is broadly true - that the majority of America would rather not be working - we have a big problem on our hands. Why? Consider the warning about those not wanting to work in the book of Proverbs:

“I passed by the field of the sluggard
And by the vineyard of the man lacking sense,
And behold, it was completely overgrown with thistles;
Its surface was covered with nettles,
And its stone wall was broken down.
When I saw, I reflected upon it;
I looked, and received instruction.
'A little sleep, a little slumber,
A little folding of the hands to rest,'
Then your poverty will come as a robber
And your want like an armed man.”
Proverbs 24:30-34

Poverty is often a direct result of not working. Work produces wealth; laziness (by and large) produces destitution.

(I want to acknowledge that a good number of those living in poverty in the U.S. are indeed working but can’t afford to pay the bills on the wages they make. I’ve made the case publicly that we need to create good jobs for these people.)

But contrast that dire warning again laziness with the promise connected to those who do their work well:

“Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.”
Proverbs 22:29

Work was meant to be an outlet for human creativity, a contribution to the well-being of our neighbors, the way we build a robust economy and human civilization. If a growing percentage of America sees work instead as a mere exchange of hours for dollars, a way to extract value from a community for personal gain, the entire system of our shared human civilization begins to deteriorate.

For a long time, those who’ve spoken about “faith and work” have primarily been that top 10 percent - those already inclined to see the value of work because they were raised with that ethic by successful parents.

But the challenge moving forward to is begin conversations with our neighbors who live on the other side of Acoma Street. The opportunity here is to find a shared vision for work which crowns rich and poor alike with dignity, as all have been given unique skills that can be put to use to enliven families, communities and organizations.

The right view toward work can offer individuals not only a means of financial support, but a valued role in the community. Neither apathy nor idolatry need guide our view of work. Instead, a renewed emphasis on vocation, which is a life of service to God and man, can infuse our culture and economy with hope.

At a minimum, it should make me quit typing and walk across the street and meet those who are not quite as “obsessed” with work as I am.