How to Fight Back Against the Inhumanity of Modern Work

From a New York Times opinion essay by Tish Harrison Warren headlined “How to Fight Back Against the Inhumanity of Modern Work”:

“It is easy for me to imagine,” wrote Wendell Berry in his 2000 book, “Life Is a Miracle,” “that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.” I quote this a lot because so many of our social problems spring from a resistance to the glorious yet limited state of being human. And increasingly our work and workplaces are shaped by this same inclination.

Digital technology offers new ways to force human labor into the mold of machines rather than allowing work to be part of the creative capacity and flourishing of unique persons. Workers are not necessarily “wishing,” as Berry states, to live as always-on, limitless, sleepless, unemotional machines. But at times they are forced to perform as though they are.

An August piece in The Times described how digital monitoring, which was meant to keep workers productive, has resulted in hyper-controlled environments, to the point that employees couldn’t chat with co-workers or go to the bathroom without fear. In one egregious example, hospice chaplains were assigned productivity points for how many visits to the dying they could squeeze into a day. There’s hardly a better example of Berry’s warning than treating the dying as tasks given to worker widgets evaluated on a point scale.

Productivity monitoring affects both white-collar and lower-wage workers. “In lower-paying jobs, the monitoring is already ubiquitous,” The Times reported, “not just at Amazon, where the second-by-second measurements became notorious, but also for Kroger cashiers, UPS drivers and millions of others.” According to The Times, “Eight of the 10 largest private U.S. employers track the productivity metrics of individual workers, many in real time.”

The jobs site Indeed reported in 2021 that 61 percent of remote workers and 53 percent of on-site workers found it more difficult to “unplug” from work during off hours than before the pandemic began. Nearly 40 percent of all workers said they check emails outside of regular work hours every day. Derek Thompson made a compelling case in The Atlantic that despite all the talk of “quiet quitting,” it’s mostly a fad and a fake idea, the kind of thing the very online latch onto to have something to talk about. Worker productivity has not really decreased. Yet Thompson also says that the neologism is a stand-in for more essential “chronic labor issues, such as the underrepresentation of unions or a profound American pressure to be careerist.”

When a careerist culture meets a digital revolution that allows unlimited access to work, something’s got to give. And in America, that something tends not to be work demands but is instead the human soul. The rise of digital technology requires us, as a culture, to re-examine what it means for work to be humane. As we do so, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us in the labor movement. They offer us a model for how to begin this re-examination.

The Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries birthed the labor movement, which attempted to curb the excesses of capitalism and new technology. There was a time when hunter-gatherers and then farmers worked only as much as they needed to survive, which, according to a report by NPR, was often less than 40 hours a week. With the introduction of factories, work hours grew longer and less flexible. The labor movement fought to change both culture and policy to limit our work weeks, and the 40-hour week eventually became a norm. What’s clear is that people didn’t suddenly become lazy and want to work less. Instead, a change in technology created a new way of work that demanded a response. We find ourselves facing this again with today’s digital revolution.

In the early labor movement, a broad and diverse base of religious people found common cause around Sabbath laws. These laws (often called blue laws) are now usually seen as examples of antiquated, puritanical, even theocratic impulses: prim religious people running around trying to make sure no one enjoys a beer on a Sunday afternoon. Advocates of Sabbatarianism, however, saw their work as an act of resistance to greed and a fight for the laborer.

When Philip Schaff, a 19th-century Swiss German theologian, immigrated to the United States, he was impressed by the ability of ideologically disparate religious groups to collaborate politically to solve social ills. For Schaff and many others, a key issue in the burgeoning industrialist economy of the North was the preservation of time for worship, rest and family life to preserve the dignity of the worker. They looked to Sabbath laws, in part, to help achieve this. Schaff stressed that keeping the Sabbath wasn’t merely a religious observance but served a civic function. It was a practical way, through time itself, to treat workers as valuable humans with whole lives to be lived.

In an 1863 address to the National Sabbath Convention, Schaff argued that “Sabbath rest” is necessary for both body and soul; that it preserves “health, wealth and the temporal happiness and prosperity of individuals and communities.” He went on to say that “our energy and restless activity as a nation, our teeming wealth and prosperity and our very liberty makes the Sabbath a special necessity for us.” He called Sabbath laws a check and limit to the “degrading worship of the almighty dollar.” “Take away the Sabbath,” Schaff said, “and you destroy the most humane and democratic institution,” which is made particularly for “the man of labor and toil, of poverty and sorrow.”

I don’t expect us to put blue laws back on the books. I understand that most Americans — including religious Americans — no longer observe a strict day of rest. I also understand, of course, that the Sabbath lands on different days for different religious traditions. Still, with the boundaryless work of the digital age, with consumer pressure for retail stores and e-commerce companies to remain open at all times, and with our unholy worship of productivity and convenience, the spirit of these laws is more needed than ever before. What practices now limit “our restless activity as a nation”? What resources are there in our culture to curb the “degrading worship of the almighty dollar”?

At the very least, workers ought to be able to completely shut off from work one day a week or more — no email, no notifications, nothing. My family attempts to avoid all digital devices from Saturday night to Sunday night, some weeks with greater success than others. This aids our goals for our Sabbath day: rest, play, worship and delight. This practice has shaped our family life, our work, our habits and our very bodies.

We also need to ensure that productivity monitoring doesn’t trump the kinds of trust and human connectedness — knowing and caring for one another — that are necessary for people to thrive in work environments. And intrinsic to the logic of the early Sabbatarian movement was a mandate for a living wage — hourly workers need to be paid enough to afford to have a day off a week and not be forced to string together multiple jobs just to survive.

The theologian Marva Dawn, who wrote “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly,” would talk about not just taking a weekly day of rest but also cultivating a “Sabbath way of life” — a life where a healthy rhythm of work and rest characterize each day and each week, a life where we can do good, hard, meaningful work and then truly leave it behind. This is the kind of life I want for myself and for every other glorious, limited human being.

Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”

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