The Dignity of Leisure in an Age of Unemployment

What Women Really Think
Sept. 10 2012 1:27 PM

The Dignity of Leisure in an Age of Unemployment

On Thursday Joe Biden gave a speech that involved some unobjectionable bromides about the inherent dignity of drawing a paycheck, the salutary effects of honest toil. The following day the jobs report came out, and we learned that more people had stopped looking for work and the self-respect Biden says comes with it. The average duration of unemployment is 39 weeks, which is slightly shorter than it was this time last year but still very high relative to other recessions.  

It makes you wonder about the dignity of labor, which is something we heard more about back when Congress decided that the biggest threat facing America was poor mothers subsisting long-term on welfare. Dignity-pushers spin visions of uniformed Americans shoving stacks of paid bills in the mailbox, sticking plates of meat in front of their 2.4 children, buying a house in an exurb somewhere. It’s easy, in the abstract, to hold this nebulous pride distinct from any particular kind of labor. But in practice, taking pride in your work spills very easily into defining yourself by your work. And that seems like a problem for a country in which the average unemployed person spends nine miserable months on Landing a job demands a certain flexibility, and there are American ideas about work and identity that make flexibility difficult. 


Laid off lawyers want to say they're doing lawyerly things, and unemployed investment bankers bankerly things. One saw, during the days when Occupy Wall Street was often in the news, many miserable PhD students unable to find the kind of work they had come to expect was coming their way. Here’s a very reasonable article informing MFA graduates that they are not required by law to serve as low-paid adjuncts after they get their degrees. This is necessary because it very often does not occur to people with graduate degrees in creative writing that they might seek work outside of higher education, and the assumption that they must stay in the system leaves them earning minimum wage. (I realize that MFA grads are not common objects of sympathy, but I take the point not to apply not merely to them.) One wants, at a party, to be able to say that one is teaching at such and such university. There’s assumed to be dignity in it, if not much of a living. You’re a writer, after all, and real writers don’t write ad copy or edit corporate newsletters.

The point isn't to blame anyone holding out for a kind of work they think befits them; only to recognize what pressures, coupled with a disastrous economy, trap people into a certain kind of life. Perhaps a more adaptive culture would prize the best hustle rather than whatever job title accords with one’s identity. Being the non-employed Rafalca-riding wife of a bazillionaire seems like a good deal, whatever it says about who you are. Being on welfare electively also seems like a good deal. We all know that there is more dignity in leisure than in labor; how you get to your weekend might matter less.

Kerry Howley's work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and the New York Times Magazine. She is currently finishing a book about consensual violence, ecstatic experience, and the body.



Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Photos of the Crowds That Took Over NYC for the People’s Climate March

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

I Wrote a Novel Envisioning a Nigerian Space Program. Then I Learned Nigeria Actually Has One.

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
Business Insider
Sept. 22 2014 9:39 AM Adrian Peterson Has a Terrible Contract, and Cutting Him Would Save the Vikings a Lot of Money
The Eye
Sept. 22 2014 9:12 AM What Is This Singaporean Road Sign Trying to Tell Us?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 8:08 AM Slate Voice: “Why Is So Much Honey Clover Honey?” Mike Vuolo shares the story of your honey.
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 7:47 AM Predicting the Future for the U.S. Government The strange but satisfying work of creating the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 22 2014 5:30 AM MAVEN Arrives at Mars
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.