In the opening pages of Roald Dahl’s acclaimed children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we meet the Bucket family, which includes young Charlie, his parents, and his four grandparents. The book relates that “life was extremely uncomfortable for them all,” which isn’t surprising given that Mr. Bucket, the sole breadwinner for the family, “worked in a toothpaste factory, where he sat all day long at a bench and screwed the little caps on to the tops of the tubes of toothpaste after the tubes had been filled.”
Daily life for the Buckets couldn’t be said to exemplify human flourishing. Sleeping on the floor and eating cabbage soup every day is not most people’s picture of a happy and holistic lifestyle. But it must have been especially trying for Mr. Bucket to be a toothpaste cap-screwer, not only because he didn’t make much money, but also because of the profound monotony and seeming insignificance of his daily labor. The book doesn’t say how he ended up in such a position, but I picture him as someone creative and intelligent, with the potential to build something for himself and see the real fruit of his hard labor, if only he weren’t wasted on the assembly line by force of necessity.
Mr. Bucket’s plight demonstrates the negative ramifications of too much division of labor. Like Adam Smith’s famous example of pin-making, where “[o]ne man draws out the wire, another straightens it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it,” toothpaste cap-screwing feels extreme in its level of specialization. What toll does it take on the worker when his subsistence is reduced to executing the same minute task over and over?
When we look at the meaning of human work, we can say on a basic level that it has value in and of itself. To provide for his family, it is better and more humane for Mr. Bucket to be earning an income with his own two hands than to be begging in the streets or robbing grocery stores. But while work has intrinsic value for humans, the kind of work we do also contributes to or detracts from our flourishing.
Human beings are rational, free, social, creative, incarnate, and sacred. A proper understanding of human labor will take all of these facets into account. Human beings are not cogs in an economic machine, nor are they resources to be used up to the last drop of their capacity. They ought not to be slaves to the gods of efficiency and economic growth; rather, at a fundamental level, the economic sphere should be ordered toward their well-being.
Of course, not every necessary job in our current economy perfectly jives with all of these aspects of the human person. The menial tasks of our society must be performed by someone in order for civilization to continue to function; some people may even enjoy or thrive on these tasks. The principle of division of labor is by and large a good thing, and has been essential to the monumental advances in technology and industry over the last few centuries.
But we cannot forget the dignity of those who perform these tasks and minimize their ability to participate in meaningful, authentically human labor. The goal of widespread human flourishing cannot be met by denying the flourishing of individual humans.
This is to say that we might need to do some rethinking of certain necessary jobs and tasks within our society that could be called soul-crushing. As an example, I would say that manual data entry into a computer might be considered the modern equivalent of toothpaste cap-screwing. How can we use our human creativity to create an environment where even those assigned these tasks can flourish?
One way is through allowing workers the freedom to innovate. Smith admits the importance of this later in his work, saying that “[t]he man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same…has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur.” I might qualify that to say that even if he does use his mind to try to improve the task he is performing, he may not have an outlet to realize the improvement.
When we are not constrained, we naturally find better ways of doing things, which not only contributes to the success of our ventures, but also allows us to use our human capacity for creativity. Even garbagemen can find outlets for creativity and ingenuity within their jobs if given the freedom to do so.
Another way to humanize an otherwise trivial task is by adding variety. Rather than performing a single function over and over like a robot, humans tend to thrive when they have multiple job responsibilities that use different parts of the brain and body.
We see the efficacy of this in the example of Florentine La Marzocco, an espresso machine company highlighted in Episode 6 of The Good Society, a film series from the Acton Institute.
La Marzocco is an innovative company that is doing it right on the labor front.
“Usually in the production line every guy is doing a phase that can be 10 seconds, 20 seconds…We would like to do the opposite,” explains Roberto Bianchi, La Marzocco’s research and development director. “Today one of our guys is doing a big phase; he can do one electrical wiring, or he can do one mechanical assembly. Some of them are able…to do everything that is needed to do a coffee machine.”
This is an excellent example of how a competitive company in the free market provides working conditions for its employees that value and cultivate their humanity rather than suppress it – allowing for variety in each person’s tasks.
A final way to avoid dehumanization in the workforce is to allow workers to see the fruit of their labor. There is something decidedly human about seeing a task through from start to finish and having something to show for it. More than that, it reflects the divine character of agency.
Scripture often employs the image of sowing and reaping. A highly accessible illustration to an ancient agricultural society, it shows a natural desire to witness and receive the outputs of one’s efforts. “For whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” (Gal 6:7) When reflected in the workplace, this natural relationship humanizes the labor that is invested toward a purpose which the laborer deserves to see.
There is hope for the modern Mr. Bucket, then, if workplaces can come to see their employees as human beings with innate dignity and capacity, rather than as mere assembly-line drones. By creating space for innovation, variety, and transparency of final products, even the smallest tasks can be transformed to contribute to human flourishing.