When I grew up in Western Canada there was a weekly CBC television show called “Marketplace.” The theme song was sung by Stompin’ Tom Connors and the lyrics I most remember said,

The Consumer, they call us,
We’re the people that buy
While everyone else is out to sell
Some kind of merchandise
Another sale on something,
We’ll buy it while it’s hot
And save a lot of money spending money we don’t got
We’ll save a lot of money spending money we don’t got

Oh, yes we are the people
Running in the race,
Buying up the bargains in the old marketplace,
Another sale on something,
We’ll buy it while it’s hot
And save a lot of money spending money we don’t got
We’ll save a lot of money spending money we don’t got


It was only a snippet of a longer song that spoke of the difficulties of the working population who were trying to pay their bills, get a good deal, buy quality products, borrow more money, and generally get a fair shake. Stompin’ Tom was using his platform as a folk-singer to say some of the same things Dorothy Sayers said in a 1942 essay entitled “Why Work?”. She says,

A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built upon sand.

Nearly seventy years later, I wonder if we have learned anything from Dorothy Sayers’  important essay. Indeed, have we learned anything from Connors’ folk song? Or are we simply “saving a lot of money spending money we don’t got?” As economies of the world plunge to new depths and we wonder how it will affect our country and our jobs, politicians encourage us to see things as “business as usual.” We continue to consume more than we can afford and individually and collectively go more and more in debt. We are told that it is just a temporary slowdown in the economy. “It will all get back to normal if we put our nation first. But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse.”* We spiral into more debt and consume more to stimulate our flat economy.
Sayers suggests,

Whatever we do, we shall be faced with grave difficulties. That cannot be disguised. But
it will make a great difference to the result if we are genuinely aiming at a real change in
economic thinking. . . . The habit of thinking about work as something one does to make money is so ingrained in us that we can scarcely imagine what a revolutionary change it would be to think about it instead in terms of the work done. To do so would mean taking the attitude of mind we reserve for our unpaid work – our hobbies, our leisure interests, the things we make and do for pleasure – and making that the standard of all our judgments about things and people. We should ask of an enterprise, not “will it pay?” but “is it good?”; of a man, not “what does he make?” but “what is his work worth?”; of goods, not “Can we induce people to buy them?” but “are they useful things well made?”; of employment, not “how much a week?” but “will it exercise my faculties to the utmost?” And shareholders in – let us say – brewing companies, would astonish the directorate by arising at shareholders’ meeting and demanding to know, not merely where the profits go or what dividends are to be paid, not even merely whether the workers’ wages are sufficient and the conditions of labor satisfactory, but loudly and with a proper sense of personal responsibility: “What goes into the beer?”

Sayers is reminding us that our jobs are about more than money; they are about producing a good product. We ought to “clamor to be engaged in work that was worth doing, and in which we could take pride.” Work is to be about making a difference in the world. I wonder if we might try that for a while.

*Bruce Cockburn, “The Trouble With Normal.”

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