Michael J. Naughton’s Getting Work Right might be viewed as a treatise on the divided life, which puts our working lives into conflict with whatever there might be of our contemplative lives. Naughton says that the main thesis of the book is that “we will not get our work right unless we get our leisure right” (ix). But leisure isn’t to be understood merely as watching football or going bar-hopping. Instead, Naughton understands leisure in a deeper sense, having to do with “time set aside for remembering the most important things, for rediscovering ourselves and thinking about who we ought to be.” (26) If we can’t do that right, then how can we figure out how (or even whether) we ought to work?
The book begins with a chapter on the “two Adams” of the two creation stories in Genesis. This is not a hermeneutic I have much sympathy for, and Naughton’s main sources are Rabbi Soleveitchick and David Brooks, neither well-known Catholic exegetes. Still, taken as a metaphorical application of the biblical witness, I don’t see any harm. On this interpretation, then, Adam I is the active Adam, man the maker: focused on labor, achievement, and creativity. Adam II is the contemplative Adam, man the receiver, religious man: focused on leisure, and on being rather than doing. These two Adams illustrate the book’s theme of the divided life. Each of us is both of them, but all too often we are one to the detriment of the other.
There are two ways to try to heal this internal alienation. One way is to try to balance the two: be all Adam I in your work life and all Adam II in your home life, but try to get the two lives to hang together intelligibly. This isn’t really a healing, though, it just is the divided life. Naughton suggests a healing brought about not through balance but through integration, “by which each element informs, corrects and complements the other.” (17) But the task of integration itself is tricky, and can easily go astray.
In Chapter Two Naughton presents two common failed attempts at integration. The first attempts to integrate a “job-oriented” Adam I with an Adam II who thinks of leisure as amusement. One has a job-orientation when one views work as an unfortunate intrusion, undertaken solely because one needs the pay. This orientation makes a certain amount of sense, Naughton thinks, because jobs in the contemporary world are often “designed so poorly and managed so bureaucratically that the only possible good one can get from them is money.” (25) And this leads to a corresponding Adam II who naturally enough flees this tedium in escapism. Leisure becomes a soma tablet, allowing one to forget one’s troubles for a while.
The second integration is that of the careerist who sees leisure strictly for its instrumental value. The careerist Adam I is fully turned loose and stimulated, because he’s pursuing some kind of interesting or rewarding work. But there’s no place for contemplation or reception, and the whole point of leisure in this integration is to allow a recharging of the batteries. Leisure is for work: it simply allows us time to relax so then we can return to our careers more fully energized.
Although these attempted integrations are widespread, neither is a true integration. Chapter Three presents the proper kind of integration: work is seen as the vocation of the active life—a response to a divine call—and leisure is seen as receptive contemplation of God and his creation. The integration of these versions of Adam I and Adam II brings about true human wholeness.
The book next turns to a treatment of work itself, and begins by urging us to think institutionally. We are creatures of institutions, and must see ourselves so. The primary institutions are the family and the Faith. Business, schools, hospitals and so on are secondary institutions. It is in family and faith that we find our true meaning: this is, then, the home of Adam I. Work must have limits placed on it by the primary institutions. Business can’t be guided solely by profit—maximizing shareholder value or whatnot. It must focus on a core group of goods: good work, good wealth and good goods.
I’ll talk about the first two here and ignore the third.
Remember the job-oriented Adam I whose work is designed for him (poorly)? This is a common phenomenon in the industrialized world: work designed by someone else. As we saw, this can help lead to a degraded version of Adam I, because so often the work is inhuman, and in such cases it will be extremely difficult for the worker to achieve a proper integration. So work design is a major problem for Naughton—in order for work to be good work, it must be well-made by its designers. And the designers are, to a large extent, not the doers.
Interestingly, Naughton embeds the notion of work design within the principle of subsidiarity. As you know, subsidiarity is a fundamental principle of Catholic Social Teaching which says (roughly) that it is a grave evil to arrogate to higher levels tasks which can be reasonably performed at lower levels. When a business is run wholly from the top down, the talents and contributions, and indeed the humanity, of the workers at lower levels tend to be systematically ignored. Work is designed for maximum efficiency, maximum profitability, maximum simplicity or what have you, but not for maximum human stimulation or maximum development of human potential. Naughton points out that a subsidiarist approach to work design would focus much more attentively on the capabilities and needs of the workers.
He gives a case study: the Reell Precision Manufacturing company’s decision to move a particular inspection step out of the hands of dedicated QC inspectors and into the hands of the line workers who set up the production line for the manufacture of certain products. The manufacturing process for some of Reell’s products involved a line set-up; a brief run of the line followed by a shut-down of the line pending an inspection of some sample products by an official inspector; the performing of whatever tweaks to the set-up inspection might call for; the reinspection of the products; and finally (perhaps after more tweaks and inspections) the restarting of the line at full production. This process often took a very long time, principally because inspectors weren’t always immediately available—and when they finally arrived and performed their inspections, the set-up crews weren’t always immediately available to tweak the line. Lots of down time, lots of lost productivity. Reell solved this practical problem by teaching the set-up staff to do their own inspections. In other words, they made part-time inspectors out of full-time technicians. Needless to say, this increased profitability and led to raises in wages. I’ll come back to this.
Turn next to the problem of good wealth. Here, I can consider only one element: the family wage. Naughton gives us the case of Ruby, a nurse’s aid who lovingly tended his mother during her in-home hospice care. Ruby is a single mother without much education and without great technical skill, and her employer pays her poorly. Is she entitled to a family wage? Naughton say no. “The hospital is not responsible for paying employees more than a sustainable wage (a wage consistent with the sound financial management of the firm), even if that wage falls below a family wage. To do so would unjustly place the hospital—and all the firm’s employees—at risk of economic failure.” (139) And anyway, “Ruby must take responsibility for the fact that she does not have the skills to warrant enough wealth to pay her a living wage” (138).
The book ends with a chapter on Sunday—Naughton’s suggestions about how to structure our leisure so that we can better structure the rest of our lives. He offers three habits (silence, celebration and charity) and several practices as some specific ways to better spend the Lord’s Day. Instead of allowing our Sundays to become just another day to run errands or amuse ourselves or work, he argues we must use them to grow in knowledge and love of the Lord.
I find much to like about Naughton’s book. Surely, the kind of instruction he provides for managers and other business leaders is sorely needed in our culture, and offers much wisdom. Nevertheless, I think he does not go nearly far enough. For one thing, Naughton’s comfort with the denial of a family wage is hard to square with magisterial teaching. To take just one example:
Just remuneration for the work of an adult who is responsible for a family means remuneration which will suffice for establishing and properly maintaining a family and for providing security for its future. Such remuneration can be given either through what is called a family wage-that is, a single salary given to the head of the family for his work, sufficient for the needs of the family without the other spouse having to take up gainful employment outside the home-or through other social measures such as family allowances or grants to mothers devoting themselves exclusively to their families. (Laborem Exercens 19)
The late Holy Father teaches here that a family wage is just remuneration, and that hence paying less than a family wage is unjust (absent some outside addition to the wage). I grant Ruby’s responsibility to increase her skills, but the Church doesn’t say that employers get to treat her unjustly in the meantime.
In fairness to Naughton, he does not simply deny Ruby her just wage and leave it at that: “low wages are merely a symptom of a much larger problem of how the organization structures the work itself” (139). We’ve got some structural problems to address, as he sees it. Note the appearance of two themes we saw earlier: the dominance of institutions (the organization) and the top-down nature of work design. Naughton thinks these features need tweaking. I think no tweaking can help. There are some deep reasons for this. Consider the words that immediately preceded that above passage from John Paul II:
Hence, in every case, a just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system and, in any case, of checking that it is functioning justly. It is not the only means of checking, but it is a particularly important one and, in a sense, the key means.
The Holy Father does not, then, teach merely that a wage that falls beneath the family wage is unjust. He teaches that a system such as ours that allows—nay, demands—unjust wages can thereby be seen to be an unjust system. The “much larger problem” that Naughton speaks of, then, is actually that our system as a whole is functioning unjustly. Can this be healed via institutions making some adjustments to their methods of work design?
Recall the work redesign pulled off by Reall. It’s a top-down re-arrangement of factory assembly line procedures that does indeed give the line set-up crew an additional task to perform, and a correspondingly higher level of autonomy in that respect. But the factory workers continue to do work designed for them by others—by the organization—and this will be an inescapable fact about the work design at any such organization. In reality, the bosses control the work, and subsidiarity is a fairy tale, irrespective of whether the little slices of it are more or less humanely designed.
But an even deeper problem with the dominance of institutions is that being an employee as such is not viewed as a desideratum in Catholic Social Teaching. As Leo XIII puts it:
If a workman’s wages be sufficient to enable him comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children, he will find it easy, if he be a sensible man, to practice thrift, and he will not fail, by cutting down expenses, to put by some little savings and thus secure a modest source of income. (…) The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners. (Rerum Novarum 46)
The ownership in question here is not (as such) the ownership of a house or what have you, it is the ownership of the means of production. Leo XIII envisions a social order where workmen labor for others only until they become able to labor for themselves. The family wage’s job, ultimately, is to make wages unnecessary. The goal is real economic freedom, which entails genuine subsidiarity. We do not envision a society of hirelings, and no such society can be an embodiment of Catholic Social Teaching.
Needless to say—needless to say!—in no actual system whatever will it turn out that each and every person is capable of holding productive property and serving effectively as his own master. In this shattered world, we will never fully embody the ideal. But we must nevertheless recognize the ideal as the ideal. For all its excellence in its own place, I would like to have seen Naughton’s book present that ideal more fully.
Getting Work Right
by Michael J. Naughton
Emmaus Road Publishing, 2019
Hardcover, 200 pages
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