Are jobs a cost or a benefit?
In other words, are jobs a means (cost) or an end (benefit)?
This question is key for much economic policy. Economists treat jobs as the former; politicians, the latter. We often hear some economic policy being touted for the number of jobs it creates/saves (or, conversely, some policy is lambasted because it destroys jobs). Comments like these treat the job as the ends and not the means.
But, if jobs were an end rather than a mean, then we’d see people refusing vacations and leisure time (indeed, people would need to be paid to take vacations/days off). As it is, people fight to get vacation time and days off. If jobs were an end, then the labor movement in the US would be vilified for things like wanting weekends, vacation, family leave, sick days, etc since they reduce the work done by Americans. But the labor movement is celebrated for such things. Why?
The reason is simple: because jobs are a means toward an end. What is that end? Consumption and leisure. We work so we can put food on the shelves, a roof over our head, clothes on our back, our children in schools, etc. My father worked hard so I could study and not have to work as hard as him. And his father did the same. And his father and his father and, in turn, I will do the same for my child. Every parent works so that they might give just a little more leisure into the life of their child. If jobs were an end, then this action would be parental abuse.
People want jobs and those jobs do provide a benefit, but it doesn’t immediately follow that those jobs are in and of themselves beneficial. Consider the following: going to the dentist incurs a lot of costs: there’s the poking and prodding while they clean, the doctor’s inevitable one-way conversation because his hands are in your mouth and you can’t respond, the lecture on flossing, and the reminder you have to do that again in six months. But the end is healthy gums. If there was a way to achieve that ends without all the costs, people would jump all over that. It’d be insane to suggest that the poking and prodding is why people go to the dentist. And yet, that is exactly the conclusion politicians make regarding jobs.
People work, they suffer, because it leads to some better end. That suffering in and of itself is not the valuable part; the consumption that it leads to is.