I sometimes struggle, when teaching about unemployment, to explain just why work matters. It's straightforward enough to note that elevated unemployment leads to loss of economic output, lower tax payments, and greater need for government welfare benefits. I can refer to evidence on how unemployment is connected to social ills like bankruptcy, divorce, depression, and even suicide. But this listing of consequences, while a necessary part of teaching the economics of unemployment, doesn't quite touch the human heart of the issue. The poet Marge Piercy, in her 1973 poem "To be of use," gives a more concise and powerful sense of why useful work matters so much.
"To be of use"
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
Marge Piercy (1973)
Note: I published this poem in a blog post back in 2013, but it felt as if sufficient time had passed to mention it again on this Labor Day Holiday.