What do we want to be? A few thoughts on labor.Posted by Donna Freedman on Sep 5, 2010 | 12 comments
When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to earn money. Penny candy was only part of the reason. Working was a sign of being grown-up. I’d already figured out that being a kid was for losers. Adulthood was where it was at.
That’s why in elementary school I would pick and sell flowers and strawberries. It’s why I rejoiced when it snowed — the local doctor would pay a dollar to have his steps and sidewalk shoveled. It’s why I started baby-sitting at age 11, when I was hardly older than some of my charges.
It’s the only possible reason I could have enjoyed my first “real” job, at age 13: Picking tomatoes in a greenhouse that felt like an incinerator. It was a half-hour bike ride away, through temperature and humidity that raced each other into the high 90s. The plants were taller than I was and their leaves brushed me on all sides. I came home slimed with sap; the shampoo bubbled green when I washed my hair.
But oh, the joy of making $1.35 an hour.
Other kinds of work I’ve done: glass factory worker (another explosively hot job), housecleaner, newsroom clerk at The Philadelphia Inquirer, pet-sitter, secretary, freelance writer, movie theater employee, produce stand sales, freelance writer, doughnut seller, typesetter, proofreader, newspaper reporter (Anchorage Daily News, Chicago Tribune). I’ve mystery-shopped, typed term papers, worked on a chicken farm, sold my blood, and participated in medical research.
Waiting for my ride to the glass factory one morning, I had a sudden thought: I don’t have to go to college. I can just work. I’m making good money. (And I was: As much as $4.36 an hour on the 11-to-7 shift.)
The thought didn’t last. Factory work was loud, hard and exhausting. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but that wasn’t it. The point is, going straight to work in a factory – or a supermarket, or a car dealership – was acceptable back then.
These days, it’s considered financial suicide. Maybe social suicide, too.
A career, or just a job?
Making it on a service-industry paycheck is difficult. But even if you could, you’d quickly learn that in this allegedly class-free country job choice does make a difference.
One of the ministers at my church spoke about her parents’ jobs at a restaurant. Her dad cooked hamburgers and her mom baked pies. If you took jobs like that today people would think you lacked ambition. You’d be told to go to school so you could make something of yourself.
But fry cook or pie baker isn’t what her parents were. It’s what they did. They held these jobs to support their family, and they did these jobs with dignity.
Their minister daughter pointed out that we tend to ask our children “What do you want to be when you grow up?” vs. “What do you want to do?” We may think we’re encouraging them to dream, but we want to make sure they choose the right kind of dream.
If your child replied, “I want to work at McDonald’s,” you’d think that was cute. But you’d promptly discourage this line of thinking. What’s the ultimate dead-end job in our culture? Flipping burgers.
As though fry cooks are invariably stupid or slow. As though architect, doctor, lawyer were the only right answers.
As though work were only about the way others see us.
It’s true that job choice can mean the difference between comfort and insolvency. Our jobs may also reflect what we feel we can offer: An obstetrician loves bringing babies into the world, a public defender takes pride in fighting for justice for all.
Yet an orthotics saleswoman changed my life because my left foot no longer hurts with every step. The men and women who drive Seattle buses get me where I need to go. And what would I do without the folks who pick up the garbage, bring the mail or stock the market shelves?
That’s why they call it ‘work’
In my lifetime I’ve seen the concept of “work” change from something everyone wanted into something that’s to be minimized, if not avoided altogether. Everybody seems to want to be rich, to retire early, or not to have to work at all.
It’s almost a given that people will steal every possible minute fom the workday to text, Tweet and check e-mail. Of course, they don’t really think of it as stealing; they think of it as a survival strategy.
Here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter whether you like your job or not. If you’re accepting a paycheck, then do the work.
Seem hard to you? Well, of course it’s hard. As my dad says, “That’s why they call it ‘work.’ If it were fun, they’d call it ‘fun.’” A thankless or low-paying job can be especially bitter when we see other people who seem to have had everything handed to them.
Guess what? Some people do have everything handed to them. If that’s you, well, congratulations – I think. In my opinion the only things we can truly claim are the ones we have worked to achieve.
The trust-fund babies of the world may never have to soil their hands. But they may also never know the satisfaction of an honest day’s work.