Sunday, August 2, 2009

The High Priests of Job Creation

Across the land the cry was heard, "Give us more jobs!"
And Lo, many jobs were given, but little work was done.

Of course these lines do not appear in any sacred text. At least none yet. But when the job-creation epic of our time is finally set to paper, they surely will, in one form or another.

You are reading a short meditation on the growing metaphysical distinction between doing "work" and having a "job." And metaphysical is not too strong a word here. The meanings of these words are separating as surely as day from night or land from water.

Once, they meant roughly the same thing. "Job" entered the English language around the 16th century with the meaning "a piece of work," as distinguished from continuous labor. The first use in the sense of "work for pay" was in the 17th century. Over the next three centuries, the two words became interchangeable. Until now.

Now, a job is something you do for somebody else. Employees have jobs. Owners and housewives have work.

Now, politicians throw the word "job" around like it is a talisman that can produce wondrous effects and will justify any sacrifice. Politicians have become the high priests of job creation, but they rarely stop to ask if the job they invoke is valuable or necessary. You will hear about green jobs, high-paying jobs, jobs of the future, and good jobs, but you won't hear about valuable or necessary work.

Even when politicians talk about putting people back to work, they don't mean the kind of work done by small businesses or the self-employed. They are talking about corporate jobs, the kind they can recruit with tax incentives and great fanfare; the kind of jobs they can count, not the work done by plumbers, electricians, shopkeepers, bar tenders, auto mechanics and the like.

The news media aids the politicians in promoting this new faith in jobs. It tracks the job count like augurs used to count the geese in the sky of ancient Rome: 7 jobs here, 15 jobs there, 1,000 jobs somewhere else. Jobs, like victories, are won or lost. Jobs are omens, portents of our future. More are a sign that the sacrifices are working, less a sure sign that we must sacrifice even more.

Somewhere, in the enthusiasm about jobs, we have lost our concern about work. "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us," was the jest about jobs in the old USSR. Has it found new life on the job in the USA?

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