"No one wants to work."

What's the relationship between health, meaning, work, and survival in America?

As the country slowly, cautiously reopens, we find ourselves in the midst of a series of subtle, slightly awkward social negotiations about shifting norms and expectations. Where do we still wear masks? How do we ask each other about vaccination status? Do we shake hands? Do we hug? When do we go back to work?

In the midst of this reopening, I’ve had several conversations in the last month with small business owners — mostly bar tenders and restaurant owners but also people in construction, landscaping, and retail. I live in a small town with lots of local small businesses, and we all talk. Last weekend, I had a longer conversation with the owner of a classic little greasy-spoon diner in middle-of-nowhere New Jersey that went a little deeper.

Me: things seems busy — doing well?

Owner: better — but no staff.

Me: seems like everyone has jobs open…

Owner: but no one will come back.

Me: afraid of getting sick?

Owner: maybe. Too much unemployment —

Me: making more than they were working?

Owner: no. But still… we need them.

Me: I get that. They home dealing with kids out of school and stuff?

Owner: probably.

This diner owner runs a very narrow-margin small business. What’s interesting about this dialog to me is that he’s complaining about the government dis-incentivizing work — even though he admits that people are getting less money from the government than we was paying them. But what he needs from the government is a guaranteed source of labor. He expects government not to take care of people, not to ensure their health and safety. He needs government to ensure that humans are available to him as an economic input in the form of labor, to ensure that they have to work for their survival. His view of what the government is doing to support people is that it is undermining capitalism by giving people the safety, the freedom to choose health over work, to choose family and parenting first. I don’t blame this small-town diner owner. His business and the economic system in which he is running it requires the posture he’s adopted and built into his business model. But that requirement, the necessary prioritization of humanity as economic input is what needs exploration.

We may be in an “unprecedented” situation. As vaccination rates continue to climb, we may soon be able to set aside the public health question about returning to work. But the broader discussion about the role of work in life, the relationship between work and survival and work and meaning, about what we do with our time, and about we want from our government regarding our basic needs is just beginning – and way, way overdue. Much more on this theme to come.