It’s Thanksgiving season, and whatever your way of celebrating, chances are you’ve enjoyed some free time from work. If you, like most of us, were gathering with family and friends, you may have even paused to consider what exactly makes sense to your life.
And just in time, the Pew Research Center is out with a study of 19,000 people in 17 developed countries on just that question. Respondents were given 17 possible sources of opinion and were asked to rate them. What is remarkable is how consistent the answers are – but also how different the United States is.
The family dominated. In 14 of the 17 countries, family was first; in another it was bound for first. In the other two, the family was in third place. Almost everywhere, occupation or material well-being took second place. And although friends reached the top five in 13 of the countries surveyed, the United States was one of two countries where friends were number two.
Families and friends: the people sitting around the Thanksgiving table.
The United States was also unique in being the only developed economy in which religious beliefs were the top five sources of meaning. Nowhere else did faith even reach the top 10. The nation’s degree of religious faith continues to set us apart from other developed countries – a truth that many find uncomfortable, but which some of us consider valuable and important.
All of this brings us back to work: what Thanksgiving gives most of us time off from.
We do not know how many people like their jobs. In the United States, job satisfaction is as high as 85% in some surveys and below 50% in others. A recent survey conducted by Goodhire showed that Generation Z were most dissatisfied with their jobs. (It is not clear how much the final result is affected by pandemic conditions.)
But whether we are satisfied with our work or not, in the Pew survey, employment was ranked as the fourth most important source of meaning in the United States, just behind material well-being, for which work is the typical source unless you inherit wealth (or become wealthy) through some less tasty means).
But now that it’s Thanksgiving season, maybe we should all thank you for the existence of the work itself.
The historian Jan Lucassen has in his beautiful new volume “The history of work” reminds us that although slavery has been a dominant form of work throughout history and in any culture where work has been freer, for millennia workers have taken pride in a job well done. To many, it seems that work was a source of meaning in life, long before we embarked on the conscious search for meaning in life.
It is common these days that even well-paid professionals complain about the wear and tear of work, but Lucassen suggests that we have never had it so good. Even as slavery faded as a source of labor worldwide, wage labor was hard: “Around 1830, it averaged more than 300 11-hour days to earn a living in Britain, or 3,300 hours net a year.”
Although the early hunter-gatherers worked less than many of today’s professionals do – estimated at eight hours a day for men and 10 hours a day for women – they also had a life expectancy of perhaps 30 years, not least because their existence was ravaged by predators and disease.
19th-century utopians imagined that humanity now, driven by “mechanization,” would live leisure time, but that imagination still lay somewhere in the hazy future.
Like other theorists, Lucassen points to the rising standard of living: Some people work hard because they like their work, while others work hard to live up to the standard. He quotes an unemployed English miner from the 1960s: “Honestly, I hate work. Of course, I could also say with equal truth that I love work. ”
Is our problem then that we like too many fine things?
It turns out that the desire for nice things is not new either. Lucassen, for example, points to evidence that already in the eighth or ninth century BC. the development of tools was accelerated by the desire to cut and polish the gemstones.
Still, leisure means something, and relatively speaking, we enjoy it a lot. The advent of free labor, along with improved technology and a burgeoning welfare state, has led to life where we start our careers later (all that schooling first), work fewer hours (hard to believe, but true) and generally have the opportunity, at . a point to decide to put the burden of the work and enjoy our relatively extended lifespan.
It’s more time for family and friends – the things that make life meaningful – than at any point in recorded history. And if that’s not reason enough to enjoy a happy Thanksgiving, I do not know what is.