Digging Into the Meaning of Work (With Real Shovels)

Is the work we do for pay like digging a hole to nowhere? The author put shovels in the hands of 15 people to find out.

The Real Work from JAMIE MCCALLUM on Vimeo.

There is an anecdote in which economist Milton Friedman, a leading proponent of free-market ideology, visits a construction site in China. He asks local bosses why the workers are digging with shovels rather than heavy equipment. “This is a work project,” they reply, emphasizing that it was intended as much to create jobs as to remove dirt from the ground.

The economist replies, “Then why don’t they use spoons instead?”

Friedman probably never said these words, but the wisdom of the barb remains. And it could just as easily be directed at our society, where a majority say in polls that they are “actively disengaged” from their work, and a significant minority say their jobs are “meaningless.”

This trend seems likely to continue, as most new jobs being created are low-skill, low-paying, and low-status. Only 27 percent of the 50 million new jobs America will add by 2022 will require a college degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Therefore, while a small group of people can find fulfilling work, more and more jobs look like digging holes to nowhere.

A group of students and I decided to investigate the topic through a video essay. We hired 15 people to go to an empty field and dig holes on camera, with no skills required other than being able to do manual labor in the cold at a predetermined time.

Some of the people we hired were Vermont locals we knew, some were college students, and others responded to an ad we placed on Craigslist for day laborers.

During interviews, these people spoke about how digging holes for a day compared to their usual work. Some said their jobs illuminated a central aspect of their identity, which digging holes didn’t do. For others, shoveling dirt in an empty field reminded them of jobs they found socially useless, personally meaningless, or degrading.

This sentiment was especially popular with people who had to do these jobs to supplement socially useful work they loved, but which didn’t pay well.

Some were confused about why we were digging holes; others didn’t even ask. Most seemed to agree, however, that they would seek out ways to be socially useful in their communities if they had more time away from work. For example, some of the people in the video had helped organize campaigns to win paid sick days for Vermonters, union rights for health care workers, and greater environmental protections for their neighborhoods. One digger called this “the real work.”

If we want that “real work” to become a priority, we’ll need to transform our society’s dependence on low-wage jobs.