What’s Wrong with Not Having a Job?

(White House Press Secretary Jay Carney)

The Congressional Budget Office predicted that one impact of the Affordable Care Act would be hundreds of thousands of people choosing to work fewer hours, or even not work at all.

Republicans immediately attacked the president over this report, while many Congressional Democrats distanced themselves from the policy—Senator Joe Manchin III (D-WV) called the report Obamacare’s “Waterloo.” White House spokesman Jay Carney did his boss no favors by ducking the issue, seemingly unwilling to engage with the fact that the ACA is allowing people to give up unwanted jobs. Why would anyone be upset about people choosing not to work?

When we myopically champion a culture of work for work’s sake, that is exactly what we get: A proliferation of marginal busywork, paid little in part because it yields about that much.

While some Democrats have stood by the ACA, their defense has been quixotic and, in this writer’s opinion, counterproductive. For instance, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid commented that the report showed the ACA ending what he termed “job lock,” allowing people to be “free agents”—to choose other jobs if they so please. (The report, however, said that they are not choosing other jobs, but instead no jobs at all.) This was in fact one of the selling points of the ACA: that people could give up jobs they hated, and do what they like instead. Of course, that aspect was framed in terms of encouraging “entrepreneurship” (read: more jobs), but is it really so terrible if what people like is simply not having a job?

But the GOP onslaught and Democratic timidness in the wake of this report are indicative of more than just partisan role play. The fact that the policymakers who crafted the ACA can’t publicly embrace the fruits of their labor is a symptom of our culture’s near-pathological obsession with work-as-such. We are taught to pretend that we “love” our jobs, though privately workers overwhelmingly report much the opposite. This dissonant plague has spread beyond its roots in values conservatism and found home throughout the left, in those embrace “jobs” as a Keynesian salve to soothe all wounds. “Jobs created” is routinely held up as the metric by which programs and policymakers are measured and cut. Progressive commentators are even pushing the president to adopt a “full employment” target, the goal being to increase the market power that workers have to negotiate wages and benefits—for instance, health insurance.

Though the intentions of these analysts—to level the distribution of power between workers and corporations—are positive, and their calculus correct within its own narrow logic, something is lost when we substitute “jobs” as an end and set aside the real purpose of going to work: an overall increase in one’s quality of life. If a policy can help achieve that benefit for millions of persons while no longer forcing them to bear the odious costs, why not embrace it?

What is to be lauded about requiring people to suffer to survive?

When we myopically champion a culture of work for work’s sake, that is exactly what we get: A proliferation of marginal busywork, paid little in part because it yields about that much. Professor David Graeber of the London School of Economics termed this phenomenon “bullshit jobs.” He instead advocates standardizing on a four-hour workday as a way to increase the rate—and equitable distribution—of labor force participation, while maximizing individual freedom to choose how to allocate time. His proposal shares a spirit articulated by famed inventor Buckminster Fuller, who remarked that, “We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living … We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery.” If the public conversation included more of this sort of thinking, then the rubric we use to evaluate policy might shift from whether it causes more people to work, to instead whether it helps more people live without being forced to work.

There is much to dislike about the ACA, but this is one area where it appears to have accomplished a net positive. The next time you hear a policy justified in terms of jobs created—or excoriated as jobs-destroying—ask yourself whether the lives supposedly improved by those idealized “jobs” could be made even better by never forcing them to work in the first place.

When a person chooses to take on wage labor, that person is often giving the best parts of their day in exchange for the simple right to exist. That the ACA appears to has freed hundreds of thousands from this tradeoff should be hailed, an achievement to be built upon.


Aaron Bornstein is an independent writer living in New York City.