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In the argot of politicians, a “job” is a commodity, like a pork belly, or a widget. “We created eleventy-umpteen new jobs on my watch,” says the incumbent to raucous applause — as though they came freshly-stamped out from the line at the Acme Jobs Plant.

But what is a job, really? What does it mean to have one, or to not have one? These questions are less straightforward than we are encouraged to think. A job, you might say, is what one does to make a living — to pay the rent and the taxes, put food on the table, and (maybe, if you’re lucky) save for the kids’ college educations.

If that suffices as a working definition of “a job,” then we must recognize that it doesn’t jibe with statistics regarding employment. One of today’s biggest employers, for example, is WalMart — and we read that the wages of a large portion of Walmart’s employees are low enough to qualify them for food stamps and other forms of public assistance. According to a 2012 survey by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, no US worker, working 40 hours a week at minimum wage, can afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent. And that is for a single person! For families, the poverty level is well above what basic workers can expect to earn at the “jobs” available to them.

But a gig at the Seven-Eleven for minimum wage isn’t really what we mean by “a job,” is it? There seems to be something pitiable about those folks, who may greet you cordially, or may not, who may be capable of counting out your change, or may not — one certainly doesn’t want their job (unless, of course, one does) and one feels a bit embarrassed in dealing with them, because you know (and they know that you know) that no one who isn’t struggling would take that job.

There’s a deep-seated American mythology about “a job” that colors this whole discussion. Ward Cleaver and Archie Bunker had jobs. Mary Richards had a job, and that was a pop-culture revelation (that a single woman would just go out and have a job like that). She paved the way for Dr. and Mrs. Huxtable to both have jobs. The American myth is that “a job” doesn’t just offer $15,080 per year (minimum wage), but the wherewithal to live a good, hopeful life. America was providing these jobs, in huge, gleaming factories, to anyone undegenerate enough to regularly show up, reasonably sober, to work. If American workers had the extra gumption of, say, a Claire Huxtable, then they could expect extra rewards.

At some level we know things no longer work this way (indeed, they never really did). Yet it seems to me that our default understanding of the word “job” — where we go emotionally when someone says it in a speech — is right back there with Cleaver, Bunker and Huxtable, and that misapprehension creates great confusion.

A “job” is something that you are paid to do. Presumably you wouldn’t do the work if you weren’t paid; it’s not something you find inherently pleasurable. (“Amen!” say the Seven-Eleven cashier, and the graveyard-shift ER nurse.) Yet we all aspire (to some greater or lesser degree) to work that we find pleasant, or creatively satisfying, or fun. Jobs that are particularly unpleasant or dangerous tend to command higher pay, even in very depressed labor markets. Conversely, people tend to accept lower pay for jobs that are more rewarding or pleasant — examples include teachers in private schools, or workers advocating some social reform that they believe in.

This is a poser for econometricians — how do you put a number on things like this? Suppose I work long, deeply-focused hours in support of a movement, for which my annual pay is, say, $35K. But I could, if I wanted to hustle, go out and get a job in advertising for $50K. Does that mean I’m providing my current employers with $15K/year of free work? Or that I’m an idiot?

The notion of “a job” is particularly fuzzy for the very poor — particularly in the developing world, but the same patterns obtain among the poor everywhere. If your opportunity for “employment” is to pump gas for next to nothing, then maybe you’re better off staying home, tending a garden, doing odd jobs for whoever, cooperatively cobbling together a living with your poor neighbors. For you, “having a job” would get in the way of making a living.

The very rich also have a odd relationship with “a job.” For them, money is less of a problem than meaning. They might devote great time and energy to a hobby, a sport, or a cause. For them, the opportunity cost of “a job” is the satisfaction of some other meaningful activity.

When you come right down to it, the only social group for whom the concept of “a job” really works is one that is rapidly shrinking in today’s world: the middle class. For them, “a job” means hope for security, a home, a better future for the kids, a comfortable retirement — in short, participation in “the American dream.” That’s why politicians want you to think they can start up the good old American production lines and crank out all the spanking-new respectable, well-paid jobs that good Americans could want.

But, of course, there aren’t enough “jobs” to go around, and who wants a damn job, anyway? For over a century worker productivity has gone inexorably up. In other words, the same number of labor hours produces more and more good stuff — yet workers are compelled, by labor-market competition, to worker longer and longer hours, just to keep their “jobs.” The obsessive focus, in our political discourse, on “jobs” is a clever way of diverting our attention from our true economic problems: unused land, wasted capital, huge fat gobs of monopoly privilege, and tax burdens that hinder enterprise. When the resources that workers need to make a living are kept from them by monopolists, then “a job” becomes the best they can hope for. The extent to which we focus on “jobs” is a good barometer of how unjust and wasteful our economy truly is.

Originally posted to WorkandWealth on Wed Feb 13, 2013 at 10:47 AM PST.

Also republished by Unemployment Chronicles.

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