Volume > Issue > The Degradation of Work, Yesterday & Today

The Degradation of Work, Yesterday & Today


By Christopher Lasch | October 1990
Christopher Lasch is Watson Professor of History at the University of Rochester and a Contributing Editor of the NOR. His books include Haven in a Heartless World, The Culture of Narcissism, and The Minimal Self. His The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics will be published by Norton early next year.

Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd, published in 1960, is one of the few works of social criticism that deserves to be called prophetic. Rereading it 30 years later, I am amazed by the way it foreshadows so many intervening developments: the passionate and ultimately futile rebellion of youth in the 1960s, the alienation and despair of underclass youth, and the cynical opportunism of the yuppies. The only major trend Goodman did not anticipate was the rise of feminism, and even here his book helps us understand why the women’s movement has never lived up to its early promise.

Growing Up Absurd withstands the test of time because it went to the heart of America’s social malaise — the lack of honorable callings that would allow people to make the best use of their talents. Almost alone among innumerable investigators of the youth problem, Goodman linked it to the degradation of work. He showed how hard it is to grow up in a world that makes few demands on young people’s intelligence, imagination, or strength of character. The root of the youth problem, he argued, was that the “organized system” did “not want men”; instead it wanted hucksters, promoters, time-servers, and entertainers. It subordinated the production of useful goods and services to the sale of commodities designed to wear out quickly, to be superseded by changes in fashion, to appeal to the public’s jaded appetite for novelty, or to satisfy a desire for the social status conferred by conspicuous display. Young men wanted to feel useful, but the available jobs required them to produce and market useless consumer goods, as opposed to, say, “necessary food and shelter.” A young man might choose to become an auto mechanic — a seemingly useful line of work — only to find that “cars have a built-in obsolescence” and that “manufacturers do not want them to be repaired or repairable.” Under these conditions, “his feelings of justification, sociability, serviceability” were likely to dissolve. It was “not surprising” if he became “cynical and time-serving, interested in a fast buck.”

This kind of experience was bound to be repeated over and over again, according to Goodman, in a society that maintained its “so-called high standard of living” by turning out commodities that no one really needed. Opponents of the New Deal had pointed out the demoralizing effects of “make-work,” but the whole economy now depended on work that had no other object than to keep people at work and thus to sustain the national “capacity to consume,” which in turn sustained production, which sustained full employment (or an approximation of full employment) — all without reference to the intrinsic quality of the goods and services produced or the intrinsic satisfaction of the work that went into them. The vicious circle of a consumer economy made the popular perception of the workaday world as a rat race quite appropriate. Such an economy deprived young men of the kind of work they could “enthusiastically and spontaneously throw themselves into” and thus denied them any compelling incentive to grow up at all. The ideal of “having a real job that you risk your soul in” belonged to the “heroic age of capitalist enterprise.” In the new world of make-work and planned obsolescence, young men could no longer believe in either the jobs they were expected to grow up into or the country as a whole. In the past, “there was always something special in the American destiny to be proud of.” The increasingly narrow identification of the American dream with the American standard of living, however, extinguished the spirit of patriotism just as effectively as the consumer economy extinguished the spirit of workmanship.

Short of a frontal assault on the “organized system,” young men had only three choices, as Goodman saw it: to join the rat race; to appropriate some of its rewards without submitting to the boredom and humiliation conventionally demanded of those who hoped to succeed; or to join the “beat generation” in its rejection of conventional success. The first choice meant staying in school, pleasing those in positions of authority, doing work that was good enough to get by, and selling one’s soul, in short, in exchange for whatever rewards the system had to offer. The second choice appealed chiefly to the more adventurous spirits among the poor, who could not reasonably hope to achieve middle-class status and who were too proud, in any case, to submit to routines that promised so little in the way of adventure and excitement. They became delinquents — the “early fatalistic.” Goodman appreciated the code of honor that made life on the streets so appealing, but he also understood the self-defeating quality of this kind of rebellion. Nor did he have any illusions that the culture of delinquency offered a challenge to the dominant culture. On the contrary, delinquents believed in the conventional symbols of success — cars, money, glamor. They merely sought to achieve them outside the law.

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