What's a Job Good For?
Most people say that a job is good for making money. So, if you don't need money, what's the point? The fabled English aristocratic class of the late 19th and early 20th century apparently thought that way, if the caricatures painted by Jeeves and Wooster, Brideshead, and the like have any truth to them. Their main job was getting dressed and undressed. It seems like young Americans are thinking the same way.
Doug French drew my attention to some statistics from the Wall Street Journal on teenage employment that knocked me out. In 2000, slightly more than a third of 16- and 17-year-olds had jobs. Today, in 2011, it is 14 and 15 percent. These are shocking numbers. But in retrospect, I've seen enough anecdotal evidence to back them up.
I was speaking to a group of 200-plus high-school students (location I will not disclose) and I casually asked how many of them have worked in a retail environment, working directly with customers. Not a single hand went up. Shocked, I asked the question more broadly: how many have had a job that yielded a paycheck? Not a hand went up.
In talking to parents, it seems that a new attitude has taken hold among them. Their kids don't work. They are in school. They should spend their extra time doing sports and studying. Work is for the lower classes. What's to be gained? Putting the kids to work implies that the breadwinners in the household can't provide for their offspring. What are they going to do with the money they earn anyway? Buy more iPhone apps?
And there's also the problem of legal restrictions. Hardly any 16-year-old is worth the prevailing minimum wage, which has risen dramatically over the last five years. No employer would choose a teen over an adult willing to do the same job for $7.25 an hour. Also, schools require all kinds of permission slips — because of ghastly "child" labor laws — and what employer wants to jump through those hoops? And it is ever harder to fire people you hire so few are willing to take the risk of hiring kids in the first place.
There are vast opportunities today for independent contracting in the digital world, where no one cares about nonsense like age and minimum wage and the like. Ideally a kid would jump right in. But, without the character formation that leads people to acquire and profitably use skills, this isn't going to happen in most cases. Becoming a digital self-starter is something that happens only once work habits are ingrained.
Faced with all these barriers, the culture has adapted. Since, as we know, no parent has ever made a bad choice for the life of their own beloved offspring, parents have just decided that working is for other people's kids, not theirs.
And so fewer and fewer people know anything about the workplace. They will sit in desks and run around on fields until they are 24 years old and then present themselves, fully formed, to waiting employers who will proceed to cough up as a reward for staying in school.
Well, what's the loss? Let's talk about the loss by talking about what might be learned from a job that will go unlearned.
There is the "work ethic," a phrase that is batted around all the time, but what does it really mean? You have to actually work to acquire one. As innumerable titans of the Gilded Age attempted to tell us, no young person is born wanting to work. How do you learn to come to thrive on it?
To have a "work ethic" means the willingness to experience discomfort on the way toward the completion of a job done with excellence. This doesn't come naturally. The "natural" thing is to stop doing what you are doing when it begins to be something discomforting or when more is expected than you want to give. But this approach goes nowhere. In fact, if this is your approach, you trim more and more until the point that you become a sofa slug, which pretty much describes — a whole generation.
I recall when I was ten or so working on a roofing job with my great uncle. It was in the middle of a boiling-hot summer. We were balancing ourselves on a black, slanted roof, banging nails into things. After about 30 minutes, I thought I was going to die. We continued working up there for hours and hours. Finally he said it was time to take a break. I shoved the garden hose in my mouth and swallowed what must have been a gallon. He went inside and drank a cup of coffee. Now that was inspiring.
I have an early memory of my brother's first job on a construction crew. He came home the first day looking like a zombie. We spoke to him but he could not speak back. He held onto the wall as he found his way to his room and collapsed. It was this way every day for weeks and then suddenly he got the hang of it. He became a machine. This was one summer that gave him a lifetime work ethic.
Other memories of my early jobs include: repairing organ pipes in a high loft, crunching pigeon bones under foot and wearing a protective mask; drilling water wells in the blazing sun; scrubbing honey off tables in a fish restaurant for which I served as busboy; collecting paper plates from 500 tables after a lunch catered by the company that hired me as gofer; fighting off mobs of people who were trying to buy the $10 pants that went viral in a retail outlet; feeling terror that the piano I was moving up a flight of stairs would double back and crush me; picking up tiny pins on dressing room floors in a department store; learning to run the floor-waxing machine in the china department and later having nightmares that I hit an entire shelf of fine crystal.
You quickly learn in any job — and especially low-paying ones — that it hurts to work, physically and mentally. You must focus intensely for longer than you really want to. You do things you don't like. You can find every excuse to drift off but you can't because there are tasks that must be done. And if it is the right kind of job, if you don't do the task, it doesn't get done and then everyone up and down the line that depends on that task finds their tasks are harder and so everyone hates you.
If you are cleaning bathrooms, you must make sure there is toilet paper there, else customers are going to be very unhappy. If you are frying fish, you have to change the grease or else you will destroy the whole business. If you are moving a fence, you have to dig deep holes or it will fall down in six months. And so on. You learn to avoid these bad results in the only possible way: by completing the task.
We are not born into this world of plenty understanding that there is a direct relationship between what we do and what the consequences are. Quite the opposite: the very definition of immaturity is failing to take responsibility (as our mothers always said). Well, how do we learn about this connection between our actions and the results? There is no better place than the workplace or commerce generally. We work, we see the results, and we are paid. This is direct. It is beautiful. It emblazons on the brain the relationship between actions and results.
School doesn't always teach us this, and besides, the "action" in school is pretty limited. It is about studying, which too often means mimicking what the assigned authority says. In real work, you have to be creative. You exercise volitional control over your body and what it does and you see the results. And the results are not abstractions like As, Bs, and Cs, but very material: dollars and cents that can be used to acquire anything. And this reward comes from using the whole of yourself in a productive activity.
As John Wanamaker, the pioneer of marketing, said, a
well-ordered, modern retail store is the means of education in spelling, writing, English language, system and method. Thus it becomes to the ambitious and serious employees, in a small way, a university, in which character is broadened by intelligent instruction practically applied.
That's it! Work is like university — a real university that builds up a person and makes him or her better than he or she would otherwise be!
What you get out of a job is all about what you bring to the job, and what you bring must be more valuable to the employer than what you take out. I recall some bum who once worked with me who snarled: "No way am I straightening ties for minimum wage." Very interesting perspective. He wanted more money to do more work. But that's not the way it works. You have to do more work in order to get more money. You must provide more value than you extract in order to advance.
Work (and I should specify that I mean private-sector work) is the best way to learn this hugely valuable lesson and carry it with you your entire life. This is surely a feature of what we call the work ethic.
A part of this means acquiring a sense of the need to serve others in order to gain for your service. This is the very essence of a job, whether it is frying up potatoes, crushing boxes out back, or planting shrubbery. You are always doing something for someone else. If you do enough of this, you begin to make this need to serve part of your mental outlook.
I've never understood the celebration of "volunteering" for a soup kitchen or whatever. Most of the "customers" are not grateful and the employees are mostly self-congratulatory about their wonderful pious deeds. Far better would be, for example, a fast-food restaurant where people pay and where workers are truly serving others — in their own self-interest. This is the ideal. This is the setting where true virtues are learned.
You might say: oh, this whole world of commercial life is the big phony. The service providers pretend to like customers because the business wants money. And the customer is faking it too. You could say that, but then there is this: if we behave a certain way all the time for years, we might eventually find that our minds conform. We become sincere. We begin to value others for what they do and give. We learn how to get along, how to appreciate differences among people, how to look for unique qualities in others and see their merit.
Someone once said that a capitalist society is a friendly society. This is not surprising at all, since the essence of capitalism is mutual service, cooperation, and trade to the betterment of the whole. To take part in that reshapes who we are. It makes us better people.
Contrast this with the blasé existence of desk sitting, couch potatoing, or working in the public sector (they don't call it "going postal" for nothing). It's the private sector and its commercial ethos that can give us that thing we need most: self-improvement.
What strikes you immediately about jobs in commerce especially is how forward-looking they are. It takes some getting used to. If you had a bad day without many customers and sales, there is always another day. If you had a good day, there is another day coming and you can never be sure of how it will go.
So you learn to live in a world in which bygones are bygones and the future is always uncertain but possibly bright. In commerce, there are no grudges because today's seeming enemy could be tomorrow's customer, coworker, or business partner. The past is merely an assembly of passing data; it is the future where the action and excitement are. And in this way, a job in commerce is completely different from the world of sloth in which neither past nor future matter, or in school, where the past is stockpiled and never goes away.
With a job in commerce, you have your finger on the pulse of life itself, the thing that is active, moving, growing, and reflective of changing social values and interests. You have something that becomes you, something that gives you bragging rights, something that connects you to others. You become defined, skilled, useful, experienced. You have stories. You are in some measure liberated from the authority structures you inherit from birth and from growing up, and you adopt new ones of your own choosing.
Now, consider all of this and imagine whether teens really are better off not working. Research has demonstrated that retirement in general "leads to a 5–16 percent increase in difficulties associated with mobility and daily activities, a 5–6 percent increase in illness conditions, and 6–9 percent decline in mental health, over an average post-retirement period of six years." And this is after a lifetime of work. The effects on the mind are much worse with the young who have never developed the mental habits that come with working.
Do we really want to deny all of this to an entire generation and then expect these people to just leap into the "real world" at the age of 24 or so, fully formed? They will not be formed. They will not be ready. They will be less useful, less skilled, less productive, less shaped in their character, less ready to be free and responsible. Sorry, but languishing and pretending to study aren't substitutes.
 "The Effects of Retirement on Physical and Mental Health Outcomes," Dhaval Dave, Inas Rashad, Jasmina Spasojevic, 2006.