THE DANGERS OF WORKISM

First Things | 9/7/2017 | Lyman Stone
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Sen. Marco Rubio recently wrote that the purpose of economic policymaking is to ensure that people have dignified work. This idea—that the primary goal of economic policy is worthy labor, rather than, say, GDP growth—is consonant with what Oren Cass calls the “working hypothesis.” Cass encourages conservatives to prioritize “work” (by which he means “remunerated market labor”) in policymaking. Rubio’s op-ed reinforces Cass’s argument with a theological point: Scripture and Church teaching require this emphasis on dignified work. But alas, this kind of economic policymaking does not necessarily serve the interests of American families.

In a recent article, I, along with two co-authors, showed that ultra-low fertility in Asian countries is the result of lifestyles that revolve around work. We built on prior research showing that fertility rates are lower in countries where survey respondents indicate a strong belief that “work provides meaning in life.” Italy, Spain, and Poland fit this description, among other countries. Many ultra-low-fertility Catholic countries are highly “workist.” In countries that combine this “workism” with labor regulations that prioritize steady, full-time work and protect “salarymen” from disruptions, like in Italy or Japan, birth rates are lower still.

Hours - Worker - America - OECD - Hours

Average working hours per worker in America (as tracked by the OECD) have declined since the 1950s, but less than average working hours have declined in any other country. We are increasingly becoming a work-obsessed society. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that the only values shared by majorities of young and old Americans were tolerance and the importance of work. Patriotism, family, and religion all slumped significantly across generations.

If work-promoting policymakers didn’t care about family, there would be no tension here. But Rubio’s op-ed also includes explicit support for family benefits like a child tax credit and a paid family leave program. Rubio was one of the few...
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