Editorial: People need the dignity of work

Published on Friday, 2 June 2017 15:40 - Written by

Our workforce participation is low, and many demographers are pointing to things like opioid abuse and disability, or even just poor health in general. Perhaps we should look at this another way.

But what if those aren’t causes? What if those are - at least in part - symptoms of not participating in the workforce?

“Since about the turn of the millennium, the labor-force participation rate, or the share of American civilians over the age of 16 who are working or looking for a job, has dropped pretty dramatically, with an acceleration in that drop taking place after the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession,” reports Business Insider.

Why? It’s not because there aren’t enough jobs.

Instead, there are a number of other factors. The first is simple demographics. The Baby Boom began in 1946. The boom is defined as any year with 4 million or more live births in American; the trend lasted until 1964. So those earliest Baby Boomers are now 71 and retiring in greater numbers.

There are other reasons, though. According to the Brookings Institute, “one-third of prime-age men not in the labor force have a disability, compared to 2.6 percent of prime-age employed men. Half of those not in the labor force take pain medications daily.”

But maybe the lack of work is causing at least some of those problems, instead of the other way around.

In his encyclical “Laborem Exercens,” Pope John Paul II wrote, “The Church is convinced that work is a fundamental dimension of man's existence on earth.”

Work gives dignity, he wrote.

“Work is a good thing for man - a good thing for his humanity - because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes more a human being,” he wrote.

Work is a source of dignity - something every human being needs.

“At its core, to be treated with dignity means being considered worthy of respect,” writes Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute. “Certain situations bring out a clear, conscious sense of our own dignity: when we receive praise or promotions at work, when we see our children succeed, when we see a volunteer effort pay off and change our neighborhood for the better. We feel a sense of dignity when our own lives produce value for ourselves and others. Put simply, to feel dignified, one must be needed by others.”

Changes in the modern economy and culture have led to more and more men, in particular, being out of the working world. That leaves them alone and idle - a bad combination.

“That sort of isolation and idleness correlates with severe pathologies in rural areas where drug abuse and suicide have become far more common in recent years,” Brooks explains.

There’s a clear policy prescription here.

“If its goal is to instill dignity, the U.S. government does not need to find more innovative ways to help people; rather, it must find better ways to make them more necessary,” Brooks writes.