The United States likes to think of itself as the very embodiment of meritocracy: a country where people are judged on their individual abilities rather than their family connections. The original colonies were settled by refugees from a Europe in which the restrictions on social mobility were woven into the fabric of the state, and the American revolution was partly a revolt against feudalism.
In Thomas Jefferson’s day, aristocracies were far-reaching. European nations had powerful nobles who inherited their status, promoted their own self-interested politics and often considered their interests to be superior to those of the majority. They demanded legal privileges unavailable to others. In contrast, Jefferson hoped to create a society in which all citizens were considered equal.
Jefferson described the creation of meritocratic America as, “aristocracy of talent and virtue.” Toil, which had been seen as a necessary evil at best and mostly as a penance, was transformed into an expression of identity, a way for people to measure themselves and others.
“What do you do,” became an unavoidable acid test of relevance. And, there was much ‘happy talk’ about work being fun and the workplace being family. We started to expect our jobs to feed both our savings accounts and our souls.
In today’s economy if you’re lucky enough to have a job — especially a cushy, high status, well paying job — you might feel guilty about how much you hate it. Prosperity perpetuated a little white lie that work is supposed to make us happy.
According to British author Alain de Botton in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, the big question is, “When does a job feel good”? In his book his answer is, “Rarely. The tragedy is that we expect anything more.” Sometimes a job should just be a job — not what we live for, but what we do in order to live.
Matthew B. Crawford, an academic turned mechanic, echoes de Botton’s pessimism about the search for satisfaction in the daily grind, but goes further. In his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, Crawford says more people should consider manual labor which offers the comfort of objective results (does the car start or doesn’t it?) and says this offers a fusion of thought and action that makes a man “quiet and easy.”
We may not be able to identify ourselves as easily today with the answer to, “What do you do?” In fact, we might be talking about the importance of work that can’t be outsourced overseas.