At Work & Economics 101 & Public Square

What Manufacturing Teaches Us about the Dignity of Work

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There’s something quintessentially American about the manufacturing industry. Many people from older generations possess personal ties to it in some form or fashion.

However, the nature of manufacturing has changed as demand for technology has advanced. Opinions of factory jobs are often split between disdain for less technical labor and fear at change in the job landscape. I’d like to unpack some thoughts from Dr. Preston Jones about the former.

A Better Life in and out of the Workplace

As he shared in an email, Jones, a history professor at John Brown University, often leads discussions with workers and floor managers at local factories. The discussions focus “on the ways that basic personal and ethical traits – integrity, honor, trustworthiness, dependability, discipline – tend to make for a better life in and out of the workplace.”

Prior to his visit to a chicken processing plant, Jones spent time at furniture and rubber hose-making plants. But at the time of his visit to the chicken plant, he was unprepared to address the specific needs of individuals in jobs that are externally as mundane as searching a conveyer belt of chicken nuggets for deformed specimens.

Not all manufacturing jobs are this tedious, but this task stood out to Jones as particularly thankless.

The Inherent Worth of All Work

Based on recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Congressional Budget Office, manufacturing jobs make up roughly 8.3 percent of current employment.

That’s over 12 million individuals. Many – though certainly not all – of these jobs include prosaic tasks we may think many would struggle to enjoy.

Jones reflected,

Booker T. Washington rightly criticized an outlook that sees hard labor as a “badge of degradation, of inferiority.” But if in my short visit at the plant I felt that my own humanity was under assault, I wondered what it would be like to spend hours, weeks, and months there. Of course, employee turnover is very high. Workers move on. But the enduring social price is the sense that this labor is demeaning, dehumanizing.

Because the work is hard and we may not be called to that particular job, we may be tempted to devalue the work. Instead, we should instead try to learn from it.

Just as each body part plays an essential role in the functioning of the entire body, as Paul explains in I Corinthians, so does each productive job in the functioning of a society. Each job that engages the individual in productive, helpful activity affirms his or her call to work.

Particularly when a job does not result in an obvious, tangible benefit to society, we are tempted to be disdainful toward the job and the individual in that position. We are equally likely to pass judgment on jobs we consider beneath us and those that are out of our sphere of influence or knowledge.

We might be just as judgmental of a Wall Street financial broker as of a factory worker because we don’t completely understand how their job creates value. Or, we might feel ashamed of our jobs because we somehow think that there is no dignity in a job that does not explicitly work for the kingdom. But this is not true.

The Dignity Found in Work

Jones suggested that, on a surface level, even a mundane job might allow an individual to:

  • Provide for his or her family.
  • Engage in honest work that affirms his or her dignity.
  • Contribute to the lives of others.
  • Develop habits and disciplines that can be put to use in later jobs.

A job that allows one to develop any or all of these things is not wasteful.

In closing, Dr. Jones observed,

These workers play an important role in the endlessly complicated fabric of the American economy. Nothing can or should be romanticized. But such workers should know that what they do does matter – it does contribute to society and people’s lives; it helps to keep the economy moving; it gives people a means to get started or re-started in life; it provides the workers themselves with the means to help others.

At IFWE, we believe that all work is valuable. We were designed to reflect the creativity of the One who designed and brought us into being. We need to be proactive about affirming the dignity of others in their work, just as we need to possess a balanced, honest understanding of our own value in society and to our God.

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