Our life is more than our work

By John Bennett, via Flickr.

“What do you do for a living?” — or its shorter (and more annoying) cousin, “So, what do you do?” — is the kind of question I avoid these days.

In my head, I tend to get snotty: “I live for a living, duh!” But out loud I am glib: “I am a woman of leisure”; or vague: “This and that”; or inaccurate: “I’m a housewife”; or an oversharer: “Well, it all started in 2009 when I realized I wanted a radical change in my life…” I can go on in this vein until the listener’s eyes literally fall out of their head with boredom. But on the forms I have to fill out, I am much more succinct. Occupation: unemployed.

In this, I am not alone. The official unemployment rate in the United States — calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics — is currently 8.3 percent, or about 12 million people.

But I am actually not part of that statistic, because the BLS only counts people who are not working and actively looking for work as unemployed. According to Ezra Klein, who edits the Wonkbook at The Washington Post’s website, a more accurate and telling unemployment statistic would be closer to 11 percent. Today, only 62.7 percent of the population is either employed or looking for a job and can be labeled “the workforce.” The other piece not included in an unemployment rate of 8.3 percent is those who are involuntarily working part-time; the “underemployed.” If you add in all those folks, you are talking about a real un- and underemployed rate of closer to 15 percent, or about 22 million people.

Forgive the detour into statistics. Back to me! I am very unemployed. I got a W-2 recording $500.00 in income for 2011.

I used to have a very good answer to the question of what I do; I even had business cards, a title (two actually: Senior Research Associate and Deputy Director for Publicity and Outreach) and bio on a webpage. All of this meant that I spent most social engagements — wedding receptions, birthday parties, open house brunches — stuck in a corner talking politics with a middle-aged man. I am not complaining. It was a great job. In fact, it was more than that; it was a career and an identity. I had a mentor, a community, offers to write books, invitations to lecture and teach, and the goal of becoming a public intellectual (all with a B.A. from Hampshire College).

When I was a kid, my brother and I had a lot of folk music records by Charlie King — who, with his wife Karen Brandow, is still touring. He had a great song back in the day in which he sang, “Our life is more than our work, and our work is more than our job.” Another record that we wore out was Cris Williamson’s The Changer and the Changed. In it, she asks, “What do you do for a living? Are you forgiving? Giving shelter?”

Those lyrics were my soundtrack as I transitioned from young(ish) wonkette with a 401K, a nice salary, and health and dental coverage to a crack dishwasher and soupmaker at Mary House Catholic Worker on the Lower East Side. I dropped out. I turned on. I did not want to make money or words or ideas anymore. I wanted to make change and soup and beds.

It was a privilege. I know that. I’m not saying everyone should do it. Now I am married, and we live on my husband’s salary. I only have healthcare because I’m pregnant and there is still some semblance of a safety net. We don’t have a lot of money, but I have time and energy and skills to spare and the freedom to apply those where they are needed (and where they make me and others happy).

This makes me think about freedom and happiness a lot when I read newspaper articles about joblessness.

Last weekend, The New York Times Magazine looked at recent college graduates and their job prospects. The picture is not good: 1.7 million people graduated from college last summer, and they carried an average school debt burden of $25,000. Recent graduates with liberal arts degrees have a 9.4 percent unemployment rate. The article focused in on Drew, an expensive (more than $50,000 a year), exclusive university in suburban New Jersey:

17% of our sample of Drew University’s Class of 2011 is unemployed.
39% have full-time jobs, including six who have both full- and part-time jobs.
35% of students who are employed part time have two or more jobs.
74% of students who are interning are unpaid.
22% of students are in graduate school.
34% of jobs involve food service, retail, customer service, clerical or unskilled work.

This is bleak stuff, but it is also the stuff of revolution. Right? One of the things that made the Occupy movement blossom so beautifully and quickly and diversely last fall is that there were large numbers of people who walked away from unsustainable or untenable homes and jobs and positions in society — or did not have any of that to begin with — to join this burgeoning, anarchic community. They were young people still smarting from bruising and fruitless job searches with their new degrees, middle-aged refugees from professional jobs handed a pink slip five years before retirement, and the chronically homeless with no illusions about America but happy to not be alone in the parks anymore. And many more — people so hungry for meaning, community and connection that they would sleep out in the heat and cold and rain, endure long meetings and even longer periods in police holding cells, in order to be fed by one another. People so alienated from traditional forms of appeal and persuasion that they jumped in with both feet, going from never having written a letter to an elected official or a newspaper editor into protesting in front of a multinational bank or pharmaceutical company or arms manufacturer. We might not have this rich fervor in a rollicking economy with 5 percent unemployment.

The “Aims and Means” of the Catholic Worker consider work carefully. From the vantage point of the soup line and the picket line, it is obvious that labor is exploited:

Human need is no longer the reason for human work. Instead, the unbridled expansion of technology, necessary to capitalism and viewed as “progress,” holds sway. Jobs are concentrated in productivity and administration for a “high-tech,” war-related, consumer society of disposable goods, so that laborers are trapped in work that does not contribute to human welfare. Furthermore, as jobs become more specialized, many people are excluded from meaningful work or are alienated from the products of their labor. Even in farming, agribusiness has replaced agriculture, and, in all areas, moral restraints are run over roughshod, and a disregard for the laws of nature now threatens the very planet.

The antidote? Nonviolence, the works of mercy and a new relationship to work — one of manual labor and voluntary poverty. “In a society that rejects it as undignified and inferior,” the Catholic Worker reminds us of the Benedictine motto, ora et labora: “The work of human hands is a gift for the edification of the world and the glory of God.” Dorothy Day, foundress of the community, wrote that “besides inducing cooperation, besides overcoming barriers and establishing the spirit of sister and brotherhood (besides just getting things done), manual labor enables us to use our bodies as well as our hands, our minds.”

Yep, it’s a toughie, I agree. Why be poor when you can be rich?

A few reasons spring to mind: One: It is pretty hard to be rich without stepping on other people. Two: Being rich in this society pretty much means aping an empty lifestyle of mindless consumption and epic waste. Three: Being rich means (unless you inherit it) working for a living.

And I would rather be poor and live for a living.

Now that I am finished with my weekly Waging Nonviolence column, I have a long to-do list: wash the dishes, empty the compost, tend my community garden plot, stock loose tea at the local coop, add to the Witness Against Torture website, go for a walk, mend the five-year-old’s tights, prepare for Clarification of Thought at Saint Francis House on Friday… It doesn’t pay the bills, but it is work, and it is a life!

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