Work

By the time I landed my first professional-track job, I had a great deal of experience with the working world.

When I was 14, I got my first summer job. Despite being the son of a prosperous lawyer, I took an opportunity to work as a janitor in a lower middle class housing complex – I wanted the spending money that a job would give me.

My responsibility was to clean out all of the trash rooms daily. It was a dirty, smelly job, especially on hot days, and it taught me all about how badly some people behave when they think nobody is watching. Some assumed that because I was their janitor, a long-haired kid (hey, it was the early seventies) wearing t-shirts, jeans and sneakers that were often pretty dirty, I was far beneath them socially; I was somebody to whom they could behave thoughtlessly, or worse.

Later, I worked as a janitor again – it was also the only job I could get at 15 – and subsequently as a busboy, a waiter, a concierge and a sales clerk. All of these jobs taught me both about things that needed to be done and about how to work with and for others. They also taught me just how much I wanted to excel at my studies in order to find a more productive path for myself. And, of course, they paid for the things for which I wanted spending money.

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal there was an op-ed full of advice for classmates from a graduating college senior who has just landed his first full-time, could-be-permanent job. The writer leads into the advice portion of the op-ed with a sentence that begins as follows:

“So to my fellow generation of entitled adult-adolescents who expect to get a $75,000 salary if they’re going to get up before 10 AM, here’s my advice…”

They expect to get a $75,000 salary? They simply assume that a lower-paying, non-professional job is unworthy of their efforts? When did we begin teaching our children that they are above manual labor? Or, implicitly, above manual laborers?

The op-ed columnist’s comment reminded my older son of an even more appalling statement made recently in an appearance on CNN’s Piers Morgan Live by a member of the freshman class at Duke University, in which the young interviewee favorably compared her ongoing work as porn actress to her previous work as a waitress:

“To be perfectly honest, I felt more degraded in a minimum-wage, blue-collar, low-paying service job than I ever did doing porn.”

My summer and school-year jobs from junior high school through college were all “minimum-wage, blue-collar, low-paying” jobs; did I find them to be degrading? No.

Some people behaved badly to me, true; but the jobs themselves were far from degrading – they were essential. Somebody has to clean trash rooms; somebody has to serve meals; somebody has to clean dishes; somebody has to operate a cash register. There is dignity in all such work; the indignities that come from how people sometimes treat manual laborers reflect badly on the ignoramuses, not the jobs.

And as for the young woman who thinks that being the sex object in pornographic movies is more dignified than being a waitress, and is quite clearly enjoying her newfound, television-worthy notoriety, I can’t even go there to analyzing all the mistakes that she is making; I can only hope that those who love her are on the case. A 19 or 20 year-old is by no means necessarily a fully mature adult. This one seems to have absorbed all the wrong messages about sexuality, fame and what used to be called honest work.

I worry about our culture.

 

Work (originally posted in January, 2013)

My father was an exceptionally accomplished and hard-working man. One of my fondest early childhood memories is of occasionally having been allowed to accompany him to the office on Saturdays. On those special, foreshortened days, he relaxed enough so that he could bear to have a child nearby while he worked. His office was something of a ghost town on weekends, with only two or three of his partners, similarly informally attired, working quietly in their offices. I was permitted to wander around, look out the windows onto the city below and play with the adding machines and other office equipment. At lunchtime, dad would take me to the same nearby coffee shop where he and a friend/law partner would eat their fast, simple lunches on every other work day. Often, people would recognize him on the street and in the coffee shop.

Dad had a wife and seven children, and doubtless his sense of personal responsibility for our well-being was a great river that fed his ocean-deep work ethic; the other river was his enormous pride in being very, very good at his job. When he spoke to us of the substance of his work – he was a corporate tax lawyer – he showed real joy in the complex beauty of his craft. He felt that he was one of just a few lawyers in Boston who truly understood how to unravel the mysteries of the tax code in the context of his clients’ needs, and it gave him great pleasure to do so.

American men – more so than American women, or adults of other cultures, derive a huge proportion of their personal identities from their jobs. What do you do? is a quintessentially American question; to most, you are what you do. Each of us wants to be loved for being much more than our occupational designation, but the overwhelming presumption of our society is that if people know what you do, they understand your essence. The movie Tender Mercies captured this sense brilliantly when a random passerby asked the central character: “Didn’t you used to be Mac Sledge?” Implicitly, the man had lost his identity when he ceased being a country star.

In general, women’s identities are more multifaceted than those of the men. Their lives tend to have more distinct phases, based on whether and when they bear and raise children; they may work at one job, have children – a job of cosmic importance – then take on other roles as time goes by. Men mostly just work.

I used to tell my older son that the life of a man is rather like that of an ox: when you reach adulthood, you put on a harness and your job consists of pulling, until you drop. He always disliked that description; but I hoped that in his hearing, the lesson’s literal meaning was tempered by my smile and his inchoate understanding that I love to work.

Oftentimes popular culture sends the message that it’s crazy to love to work. “Nobody ever had a deathbed regret of not having spent enough time at the office” is a common enough bit of received wisdom, and the world of advertising constantly stresses the satisfactions of, say, sitting on a pristine beach with a beautiful woman and a martini. And who am I to deny that such moments of relaxation are among life’s pleasures? We are all human.

But if life consisted only of such moments – an endless array of hedonistic delights – I cannot help but think that they would yield exactly no pleasure at all, other than fleeting physical pleasures akin to masturbation. Relaxation is a delight when it is rest from, and in celebration of, a hard-won achievement. Context is all.

Perhaps nobody did die regretting not having spent more time at the office, but I would guess that a lot of people die with regrets about the things that they could have accomplished, but didn’t.

Why did my father, and why do I, love work? What is work?

At its simplest level, work is service to others. After all, if other people don’t want what you’re selling, they’re not going to pay you for it. Work might or might not involve financial compensation, but it is almost always something that you do with the intent of somehow benefitting somebody else. Whether you are a janitor (my first part-time job, at age 14) or helping to manage a substantial company (as I do now) work is all about improving the quality of others’ lives.

Those others whose lives you’re improving might be your customers, your employees or your suppliers. In fact, they had better be all of them – as well as your family – or the whole equation won’t work for long.

Perhaps in Eden work consisted of climbing the tree to pick a banana – an act from which no others benefitted, and which cost others nothing (there was no scarcity there); but after the fall we live in a world where virtually every single thing we eat and drink, wear, communicate with, travel on or live in represents the sweat of another’s brow. Others traded all of these marvelous things for cash and in turn used the proceeds to make their own choices of their allocated desires.

Every person who works produces things that others want, and seeks (and usually receives) compensation in some combination of cash, respect and appreciation. Most of us need the cash proceeds from a normal job to meet our daily needs. The self-respect and appreciation that can come from parenting, or charitable work, for which there is no cash compensation can be sublimely rewarding. A rich life includes many kinds of work for many kinds of rewards.

Or it may consist of doing one thing so brilliantly that millions of others’ lives are improved thereby. Immortality – or great wealth – can be realized by writing one poem as great as, say, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, or by inventing Facebook in a dorm room. But for most of us, in the absence of the perfect muse, achievement comes from rendering service to others in more prosaic ways.

We strive to do well those tasks that are set for us, and to exceed expectations by improving things along the way. (And this is the greatest distinction among employees: some see their jobs as sources of sustenance only, so they do exactly as they are told – or, worse yet, the barest minimum that they think they can get away with – and daydream of going home or sitting on a beach; others see their jobs as sources of sustenance and personal satisfaction, and devote most of their mental energies to figuring out ways to improve the products or processes on which they are working).

One of the greatest gifts I ever received was the summertime janitorial job that a friend of my father gave me when I was, by law, too young to work for pay: he wanted to teach me what life was like for people who were not lucky enough to have successful lawyers for fathers. I had to clean the trash rooms in a large housing complex; it was a frequently disgusting job. Some of the people whose garbage rooms I cleaned were far from kind to me or the other janitors; their attitudes, and those of the guys with whom I worked, taught me lifelong lessons about dealing with my fellow man, and being dealt with by others who perceived themselves to be my social superiors. (Obviously! I was their janitor!). You know better how to deal with those who serve you if you have served others, and serve them still. Through secondary school and college I had a wide array of the kinds of jobs available to the uneducated; they taught me a great deal about the world.

I know a few contemporaries who never really got jobs. They were born into circumstances that did not require them to work. They are uniformly unhappy, irrespective of what they consume. Their relationship with the world at large is as a leech; they know it, and are ashamed. They reap what they have not sown. We need to be needed, and we need accomplishments of which we are proud.

One of the worst aspects of our government’s programs for the poor, its heavy taxation of their earnings from entry-level jobs, heavy regulations of, well, everything, and minimum wage laws is that these strictures strongly discourage the poor from working. The government seems fully intent on destroying the lowest rungs of the ladder to a happy and productive life, and encouraging a soul-destroying dependency.

So at the lowest end of the economic scale we have millions who have been deprived of the incentive or opportunity to work (at least, on the books); and at the highest, a much smaller number of the unhappy and aimless. For the rest of us, work is both a blessing and a burden – but much more of the former than the latter, for we are the ones who move the world forward, and we know it. And progress is a pretty piece of work.

 

M.H. Johnston

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