Editor’s Letter, February 2021: What Does It Mean to Work These Days?

”There’s no doubt that work is essential. But the coronavirus’s assault on our sense of purpose is as devastating as its attack on our immune systems.”

Illustration by Lars Leetaru

It’s an age-old question that supposedly divides us into two camps: Do you work to live, or do you live to work? In other words, is work something you do in order to afford a lifestyle, or is work your primary identity? Is work the means or the end itself?

As with most important aspects of life, the question presents a false choice. The better conjunction is and, not or. Think about similar ways to analyze yourself: Are you good or bad? Introvert or extrovert? Conservative or liberal? Compassionate or selfish? Ninety-nine percent of us spend our days along the spectrum of these polar opposites, a little of this at times and some of that at other times.

Our relationship with work is similar. There’s no doubt that work is essential to our well-being and self-worth. For 50 years of our lives, between our teen years and retirement, it helps create stability around homes, family, and friends. For the majority of Americans, work provides access to health care and to financial independence. It can also offer purpose and satisfaction we might not find anywhere else.

We often ask children what they want to be when they grow up. The answer isn’t Fantastic father or Excellent neighbor; we mean what kind of work they envision doing as adults. The first or second thing we ask someone we meet is So what do you do? I like to answer When? but I know they’re talking about work. So many people have struggled with job disruptions and losses during the pandemic—maybe you have too—and had their stability and self-worth shaken, if not broken. The virus’s assault on our mental health and sense of purpose is as devastating as its attack on our immune systems.

This month’s cover story, “The Value of Work,” offers a snapshot of Cincinnati at work in early 2021. Eleven people share what their work means to them and to the world around them and how the pandemic has impacted them. It’s a fascinating peek at how we live and work now, and how we’re trying to keep it all together in these trying times.

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