The Work that Saves

Comments - WHAT one Does is Important.  Much More Yet, HOW it is Done….

By Luigino Bruni

Published on Avvenire,  14/10/2012

logo_avvenireThere are 25 million unemployed in Europe, a number that is destined to grow in all probability in the next few years, unless something unexpected happens which is as yet undreamed.  We should stop and reflect more on these flesh and blood numbers which can tell us many things and which could propel us into action to change things for the better. By not stopping on the surface of the phenomenon and getting to the bottom of these numbers, we would realize soon enough that the principal cost of an economic crisis is always the human one, especially in a deep, epochal one as is happening today.  But the principle obstacle we meet with, is the lack of budgeting indexes or a currency able to measure it, to compensate for it, or often, even to see it.  

It doesn’t enter in the GDP, but it could be partially revealed only by observing real lives of people and the world of work.

The main components of this human cost, invisible but real, are two, both of which increase in times of crisis: Unemployment in the strictest sense, and the suffering born of having to do the wrong jobs in order to survive.  About the first component, that is, unemployment costs, we know enough, but we don’t know everything and we don’t say everything: for example, the damage done in having an increasing number of young people out of work is hardly mentioned.  When this happens, it’s the young people who lose the most for lack of income, and for not being able to invest during their best and most creative years; but the business world also loses much because, in lacking young people among its work force, it cannot truly innovate, it doesn’t have enough enthusiasm, gratuity, need of future and hope.

A country like ours and like many others in Europe, (not in remaining parts of the planet) who leave too many young people out of the production world, do greater, double damage: for this generation (and therefore for all) and for the businesses (and therefore for all).  But there is more, and in order to understand it we must consider the second component of the human cost of unemployment: the deep suffering of those who, not having a job, are forced to accept work that does not correspond to one’s vocation or one’s talents.  Why? And, how?  One day, I met a friend from college-days, with a degree, who worked as cashier in a supermarket.  On seeing me, she turned red, evidently distressed by knowing already, that the job she was doing was not the one she would have wanted to do, the one she had dreamed about, for which she had studied and sweated over for many years.  The first thing I would have liked to say to her, to help her to see, is the ethical value of work, even when it is done ‘simply’ in order to earn one’s living so as not to have to depend on others, and done also to help family members and those we are  responsible for, to live better lives. 

Millions of people go to work for this very reason, and by working in order to live and to help live, dignity is given to the work they do, to themselves, and to society.  All of this could be a lot already; but a job is not only this, because that symbolic being we call a ‘person’ is always in search of meaning in what he/she does.  If the job does not have meaning while I live (therefore direction and sense), still, the job can give a good (wage, salary, social identity), but it will also bring the worker much pain in relationships around him/her, inside and outside the workplace.  There is, however, a possibility (I would have added in that silent dialogue between two ex-classmates), wanting to redeem and give sense to this pain: to try to do well what one is doing.  Rather, I am convinced a sort of aural rule exists: “The more that a job we do is wrong for us, the more it must be done well, if we don’t want to die”.

If we work in the wrong place, if we do the things furthest from those we know would help us bloom and grow, the only way to save ourselves is to do them well.  This is because, if I work badly in the wrong job, I will slowly die inside.  Because there is nothing real that we can grab a hold of in order to live and grow.  To do any work well it’s helpful to think of it as a ‘service’, this word being a not very fashionable one today because life is not fashionable, but which is always at the foundation of every civilization.

Everyone however, citizens, businesses, institutions, must do more for an ever growing number of people (young ones in particular) to have a job, possibly in the right place.  It was these things that I would have liked to say to that friend from the past, and that we should be able to say to all those who, in order to live or survive today, continue to make their work, any work, sacred and worthy.  Sometimes, not so rarely, it may also happen that while we try to do a job well, even if it isn’t liked, one day we might end up enjoying it.

All of Luigino Bruni's comments on Avvenire can be found under Avvenire Editorial.

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