On Jobs

Everyone from Pope Francis to presidential candidates to speculative economists talks of jobs. The word is apparently from late Middle English, a short blow, a jab. In today’s English, the word has many nuances. A “job” now means a regular employment with pay. A “job” is something that needs to be done. Joe has a good “job.” John has a lousy “job.” A “jobless” person is unemployed. The Mafia contracted a “job” on an uncooperative client. Sadie looks terrific after her recent “nose job.” “I won’t work at just any old ‘job’.”

The cabbies in San Francisco, a recent headline reads, worry about their “jobs” because of the advent of driverless cars. Our “jobs” are being sent to India. The “job” of an end in football is to catch a pass. Workers emigrated from their own countries because no “jobs” were available there. “Good ‘job’!” Scientists speculate that with the advance of robotics, we will not need as many “jobs” in the future.

In Genesis, the punishment for Adam was work by the sweat of his brow, for Eve painful labor in childbirth. They were to subdue the Earth. Unlike the animals, their well-being was not just given to them. To provide for themselves they had to work on what was already there. The Earth proved plentiful enough, but not without considerable toil. Uncultivated and unimproved land was not by itself sufficient for human needs. If everyone tried to provide everything for himself, not much could be done. A greater good, a more plentiful Earth, could be attained through a division of labor. People were to work in what they were best at. Equality could only be achieved by exchange of goods.


A farmer who owned and operated his own land had many specific chores to do –cultivate, plant, harvest, care for animals and trees. The term “job” came about when a regularly paying job took the place of doing all the different tasks yourself. The “job” earned money with which a family was able to provide what it needed. Wives did the needed duties to care for children and the household. An implicit ideal was that everyone should have a job appropriate to his talents to provide for the needs of those who rely on him. Full employment meant jobs for everyone.

Not all jobs were equally nice.

Slavery was in part an invention to do the nasty jobs that no one wanted to do. Aristotle even foresaw that, if machines could do many tasks, slavery would not be needed. The necessary but unpleasant jobs – the heavy lifting and the garbage – came to be the paid jobs of machinery operators and waste management companies. Today, we do not rake the grass after cutting it. What we do not collect in the catcher of the mower is blown away by a machine. Workers build a seventy-floor skyscraper without stopping traffic around the construction site. We sub-contract many jobs to various specialists. They earn their living by completing each job that needs to be done.

But we cannot talk of jobs without talking about what initially causes their necessity. Aristotle did not think that the essence of human genius was to provide jobs for everyone. He knew that staying alive and in reasonable human dwellings was necessary. But life was about living well, not just about keeping alive and comfortable. In Aristotle’s terms, human life at its best had little to do with what we call jobs. Socrates was a poor provider for his family. St. Paul made tents. It was no big deal. He did so in order to accomplish what was really important.

George Gilder rightly said the source of wealth is the human mind. In Father John McNerney’s excellent book, The Wealth of Persons: Economics with a Human Face, we see spelled out in great detail how the ultimate cause of wealth and therefore jobs is not land, labor, or capital, but human, personal capacity to innovate. Man, as Tolkien said, is a sub-creator.

The question that I have often asked myself is this: “What ‘do’ we do when all else is done?” The essence of the human task is not the provision of more jobs. This truth was once the very meaning of a “liberal education.” The assumption that only work and jobs exist was a Marxist notion. And the Marxists never figured out how wealth sufficient for everyone’s needs was produced. They claimed to know, though they really didn’t, how to “distribute” wealth after someone else produced it. What they repeatedly ended up with in their pursuit of justice was an absolute state, the only logical avenue open to them on the basis of their principles.

The crucial question about jobs remains: “What causes them to exist in the first place?” When that question is not correctly answered, we know with whom we conspire.


James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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