The idea that everyone should have a job is so common we forget to question it

The idea that everyone should have a job is not often challenged.
The idea that everyone should have a job is not often challenged.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “We must create full employment or we must create [basic, guaranteed] incomes.” More than 40 years later, we talk a lot about the last half of that statement: Technology entrepreneurs like Y Combinator’s Sam Altman and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes have campaigned for universal basic income (UBI)—the idea that everyone should receive a regular, unconditional, government-issued stipend that would be sufficient to cover one’s material needs—to the point at which it’s become a trendy topic.

There is much less talk about the philosophical underpinnings of King’s other idea—“full employment.”

This view that every able-bodied and able-minded adult should have—and, what’s more, should want to have—a job has become so widespread that it is almost invisible. In our work-obsessed society, most people would say that of course everyone should have a job.

But the claim, I believe, warrants just as much debate as UBI.

After we decouple the claim that “having a job” is an unalloyed good from the desires to survive, to leave some traces on the world, and to make a reasonable contribution to the lives of others, we might see that having a job is at least a sacrifice, if not a Faustian bargain.

The underpinnings of “full employment”

The justification for full employment was a “right to work,” which was written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 and which some scholars have argued can be traced back to the 1848 French Revolution’s droit au travail.

What the “right to work” actually means remains a matter of debate. Article 23.1 in UDHR reads: “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.” Some have interpreted the right to work as protecting the opportunity to be gainfully employed. Others see it much more as a guarantee of gainful employment: some other entity—the likeliest candidate is the state—has a corresponding duty to actually supply each citizen with gainful employment by availing itself of some means (such as the market) or other (state employment) to bring this about.

Is the right to work actually feasible?

Notwithstanding good intentions behind the right to work, many scholars doubt whether the proposal is actually feasible. The late legal scholar Bob Hepple and the political theorist Jon Elster have both made arguments to the effect that it is not.

Elster believes that a right to work would only be feasible where workers were “relatively unskilled,” where the work was “labor-intensive” and of “short duration.” This would mean setting up the kinds of public works programs championed by FDR as part of his strategy of getting the United States out of the Great Depression. But work such as this, Elster insists, does not fulfill a human desire to contribute to the lives of others through work; instead, it may seem like a national workshop, resembling in some degree a labor camp.

For his part, Hepple argues that in lieu of a guarantee of employment, states should continue to take a patchwork of approaches: they should provide social security and assistance; enforce strong laws cracking down on discrimination while also promoting a right to equal opportunity; provide job security with regard to unlawful dismissal and in the form of proper legal redress; support job training and skills retraining; and provide unemployment assistance.

Through these means, Hepple believes, we can make headway on the issue of how more people can provide for themselves and, as a result, can nudge the needle closer to full employment.

A lack of imagination

Discussions of the right to work as a way of guaranteeing full employment rest on two unexamined assumptions. First, they imply that gainful employment is an unqualified good, indeed something inherently laudable. And, second, they take it as self-evident that this system of survival is the best way for people to support themselves as well as those who are dependent upon them.

What both assumptions, when articulated, help to expose are the limits of the imagination of a modern culture centered on having a job.

For instance, certain indigenous peoples, by living off the land, have resisted the urge to leave their land, to disembed themselves from their people and their culture, and to go on and “get a job.” Similarly, successful ecovillages illustrate that living collectively can occur through an emphasis on “internal economies.”  Other means of meeting material needs have been proposed outside of our current conception of work. The late Andre Gorz, a French social philosopher, once made the case for Local Exchange Trading Systems. In these “cooperative circles,” he proposed, individuals in a small-scale community would utilize their skills and talents to make offers and trade with other members of the community—all without having to have jobs.

While gainful employment itself may not be an unconditional good, it doesn’t follow that all kinds of work are without any human significance whatsoever. Indeed, there is an ideal embedded in the right to work, an ideal worth holding onto.

The sweetness and sorrow of work

Our society so highly esteems gainful employment that being unemployed feels like being lost. This is because certain things about work, when understood in a broader sense, are sweet to us.

The philosopher David Wiggins offers that the “special strength of the demand” embedded in the right to work can be seen in the idea that there be some way “for each and every one of us to engage and engage cheerfully in labor that makes some however slight difference to something that we can care about.” What is lost, therefore, in the life of an unemployed person is much more than subsistence; it is a place in the world.

Supposing we see work broadly (too broadly, I’d argue) as action we take the world in order to shape a piece of it, as well as ourselves in turn, then it could be said that it matters to us that we leave some marks here and there on the world, etches that give shape and direction to what, and those, we care about.

Though this broader conception of working may be sweet, our unexamined concept of a job, packing too much beneath it, carries its own hidden sorrows. It promises that each of us will have a reliable means of survival (surely?), that each person’s gifts shall be well-utilized (will they?), and that each of us could make a significant contribution to the lives of others (will we?). This, I think, is going too far. Puzzlingly, the careerist seeking ever more from a job rarely accounts for his or her unacknowledged sacrifice, which is the aching loss of autonomy, the sense of one’s life not really being up to one. And, tragically, because of our collective overvaluation of the job, when one loses a job, it can feel as if one’s world, and one’s place in it, is also lost.

We still have to reckon with the hidden costs of our job-obsessed society, and we have good reason to wonder whether our need to survive as well as our desires to use our gifts in the service of others could find better homes in a world where jobs weren’t front and center.