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 of change in the job landscape. I’d like to unpack some thoughts from Dr. Preston Jones, a history professor at John Brown University, about the first of those two stances on manufacturing jobs.
A Better Life In and Out of the Workplace
Jones often leads discussions with workers and floor managers at local factories. Recently, these discussions had taken place at furniture and rubber hose–making plants. 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.”
More recently, Jones visited a chicken plant. He was unprepared to address the specific needs of the workers there—workers who are tasked with scanning 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 when compared with the work of the furniture and rubber hose plants.
The Inherent Worth of All Work
There are millions of individuals in the U.S. in manufacturing jobs. Many—though certainly not all—of these jobs include prosaic tasks we may think many would struggle to enjoy.
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 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 jobs create 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 suggests that, on a surface level, even an apparently 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 good, fruitful work.
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.
Editor’s Note: On “Flashback Friday,” we take a look at some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. Today’s post was previously published on Nov. 11, 2014.