What is Work?

Photo – US Department of Labor

This question came to mind recently and seems like an appropriate question for today, which is Labor Day 2021.

The question came to mind when my wife and I had some long-overdue landscaping work done in our backyard.  Three men, younger than I but not kids by any definition, spent several days changing the contours of the yard, taking out scraggly old bushes and putting in lush new ones, laying sod, mulching, planting groundcover, and building a semi-massive retaining wall with BIG rocks.

I work from home on a table in the corner of the bedroom and could easily observe what they were doing and the stress and sweat involved. What those guys were doing more than met my old-fashioned definition of work: lots of muscle and a day ending with dirty clothes, tired muscles, and a sense of having accomplished something.

I was jolted by the contrast a couple days ago when I searched Google Images for a picture representing “work” to accompany a story I was writing. Apparently, the Google definition of work involves one or more of the following:

  • Sitting in front of a computer screen.
  • Sitting with several people in a room of cubicles with everyone sitting in front of a computer screen.
  • Sitting around a table in a meeting in which everyone is sitting in front of a computer screen.
  • An exhausted “worker” passed out in front of a computer screen.

OK. As someone who spends most of his day in front of a computer screen, I’m not going to say using a computer can’t be work. But honestly, it ain’t work like those guys were doing in my backyard. And I wonder how much computer “work” people actually do that qualifies as real work.

As I said above, Labor Day reminded me of the men working in my yard. I expect most people (at least those who graduated from public school in the past 30 years) know little more about Labor Day than that it is the unofficial end of summer, relatives come over to cook hot dogs on the grill, government offices are closed, you don’t get mail, and there is no school. (When I was a boy – as old geezers like to say – school started AFTER Labor Day. Today it starts at least a week earlier, which I believe is because today’s kids need more time to learn less than my generation.)

The US Department of Labor has this to say about the holiday:

Observed the first Monday in September, Labor Day is an annual celebration of the social and economic achievements of American workers. The holiday is rooted in the late nineteenth century, when labor activists pushed for a federal holiday to recognize the many contributions workers have made to America’s strength, prosperity, and well-being.

Let me translate: Unions and social activists wanted Labor Day to emphasize their demands for less work and more pay and politicians agreed in order to placate labor leaders and attract votes. This is all part of the sometimes delicate, sometimes violent, dance between labor and management.

But at the risk of sounding hopelessly un-WOKE, belonging to a union or any aspect of the labor force doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing any real work. It seems to me that a huge percentage of the labor force is pushing papers around, shuffling files, checking the checkers, and generally getting paid for doing very little.

Woody Allen may be someone with many personal faults but he was spot on when he said that “90 percent of life is showing up.”

We all have worked with people who did little more than show up. On one occasion, a journalist asked Pope John XXIII how many people worked in the Vatican

“About half,” the Pope responded. That line generated quite a laugh, but it really isn’t funny. It is far too true in many organizations include, from my personal observations, the Catholic Church.

I like to think that I work hard and contribute to the world being a better place. I’m blessed to be able to see the fruits of my labor published in a place where many people can read what I have to say.

But when it comes to good, old-fashioned hard work, I have those landscapers in my mind’s eye. I hope they have the day off on Labor Day.

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