*Author Note: Starting two weeks ago and continuing for the next two months or so, Ellie Roscher and Claire Bischoff will take turns exploring the seven core themes of Catholic social teaching.
This past Monday we celebrated Labor Day, which many young people know as “the day before school starts.” According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Labor Day “is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” It is a day on which many workers do not have to work, and families and communities pause to rest and also to rejoice in the standard of living in the United States that has been achieved by the work of everyday people.
Catholic social teaching also recognizes the dignity of work. As Ellie Roscher described it in her post on “Dignity of (School) Work,” the social teaching on the dignity of work “declares that all humans have a right to work, safe working conditions and living wages. Workers have a right to organize and form unions. In turn, workers are responsible for contributing a day of fair labor that works toward the common good of the society.”
There are certain professions where it is clear how people are contributing to the common good of society. Teachers work to educate youth, thus promoting greater knowledge among youth. Doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals work care for people’s physical health. Psychologists, spiritual counselors, priests, and many others work to support people’s emotional and spiritual well-being.
The problem is that there are many jobs where it is difficult to see how the work contributes to the common good of society. And many of these jobs are the ones that youth (and the working poor) have to work because of their age, experience, or education level. Throughout my life, I have had a variety of these types of jobs, yet one summer stands out in my mind in particular. I had just graduated from college, would not start my teaching job until the fall, and was flat broke. The only place I could get hired was at a large department store in the handbag department. For awhile, I found it depressing to go to work. Instead of working with middle school students, as I had been trained to do and would be doing soon, I was supposed to convince people to buy expensive purses; to add items to their purchase that they did not really need, like coin purses, key chains, and leather cleaner; and to open a credit card, even if it was not really a good financial decision for them to do so.
Eventually, my mom (probably sick of hearing me complain) gave me some advice: if I was unhappy, I could either change my attitude or change my situation. Knowing I needed the money, I could not really change my situation. So I changed my attitude. I gave myself a challenge: to treat every customer with the dignity due to them as a human being (another principle of Catholic social teaching). It may sound silly, but I strove to really listen to them so that I could help them pick out an item that would best meet their needs and wants. I also strove to listen to them so that they felt heard as a human being. This certainly made the day go faster, as I was regaled with stories of babies being born, friends lost and found, struggles with jobs. You name it, people told me stories about it. But it also allowed me to feel that I was doing my work with dignity and also, in a small way, contributing to the good of society by helping people, one by one, to feel valued in and of themselves.
Part of the principle of the dignity of work is a right people have: to safe work that pays a living wage. But the flip side of that principle is a responsibility. All of us, in whatever work we do, have the responsibility to work with dignity.
What work do you do? Think about paid work, but also consider other work you do, like the work of being a student. How can you do this work with dignity?
Photo courtesy of Rickydavid via Creative Commons License