Last month’s unveiling of the Green New Deal by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) has been generating a hefty share of reaction and counter-reaction. It was immediately panned as an overly ambitious menu of democratic socialist policy desires from Medicare-for-All to a federal jobs guarantee complete with economic assistance for those “unwilling to work.” The latter sparked a debate about the importance, or lack thereof, of work. Both sides missed the mark.
In a column for The Washington Post, opinion writer Christine Emba argued that Americans ought to “reflect on how the well-being of others impacts our own” and remember that “work isn’t all that matters.” Additionally, a common refrain heard from individuals like Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) touts the superiority of the Nordic welfare system because of policies like jobs guarantees and myriad welfare programs. This view of work as a burden to be overcome is one shared by many on the left, and it is juxtaposed by a more meritocratic view of work on the right.
A study conducted by Pew last year found that around seven in ten Republicans believe “a person is generally more likely to be rich because they worked harder than others.” This view was on full display when a recent Trump administration statement advocating for additional work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, stated that “long-term reliance on government assistance has never been part of the American dream.”
Despite what appear to be divergent points of view, the core messages articulated by Democrats and the Republicans have something in common. Though they may not see eye to eye in how they view work — Democrats see it as an inconvenience in which those “unwilling” should be given alternative assistance, while Republicans see it as a means of generating economic value — they agree almost exactly in their implication of its value; work is a punishment and an obstacle to overcome in order to achieve happiness.
If merely having a job was a key to a life well-lived, stories like a recent New York Times profile on the surging unhappiness of wealthy and successful Americans would defy reality. It would certainly refute the Republican view that earning one’s way through life is the primary value of work.
Similarly, Democrats looking to the Nordic states for inspiration on this matter overlook the fact that, according to political scientist Charles Murray, it is often the case that “work [in the Nordic states] is most often seen as a necessary evil, least often seen as a vocation, and where the proportions of people who say they love their jobs are the lowest.” These findings suggest that the importance of work does not come from being arbitrarily given a job in exchange for payment, earning welfare, or any other manner of reasons. Instead, it comes from the satisfaction of the person doing it.
Summarizing his own research on the relationship between work and happiness, AEI president Arthur Brooks observed that “rewarding work is unbelievably important, and this is emphatically not about money.” He goes on to conclude that “Americans who feel they are successful at work are twice as likely to say they are very happy overall as people who don’t feel that way.”
New York Times columnist David Brooks goes further by drawing a comparison between work and marriage. In his words, “nobody would enter a marriage with a utilitarian mindset: ‘Does this pass a cost-benefit analysis test?’ […] You should enter a career with the question, ‘Who can I serve? What am I pouring my love into? Am I all in?’”
Herein lies why avoiding work also does not lead to happiness and, in fact, makes it even more difficult to pursue. In 2014, a Gallup study concluded “the longer that Americans are unemployed, the more likely they are to report signs of poor psychological well-being,” and this was connected to a lack of optimism on the part of the unemployed individual.
The consensus definitions of work emphasized by both parties are too narrow and give an insufficient explanation for why there is a connection between work and happiness. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) epitomizes the lessons both parties can learn, writing in The Vanishing American Adult that we ought to “reject passivity and mindless consumption and to embrace an ethos of action, of productivity, of meaningful work, of genuinely lifelong learning.” Though the value of work certainly includes its material outputs, it takes on deeper meaning and brings us happiness from the value it brings others. Every occupation from teacher to business owner to public servant to parent contains the great news of contributing to our happiness as long as we do not lose sight of how we are serving others.
Work is a key to happiness, and both sides of the debate should remember why that is so. Democrats ought to reflect on the value meaningful work has in a person’s life, while Republicans would do well to place greater emphasis on work as a vocation promising more than material rewards. Fulfillment in work is directly connected to the feeling of contributing something meaningful to those around us. That is a level of meaning that nothing from government aid programs to celebrating work purely as a means of earning a paycheck can ever fully capture.