10 June 2011

On the value of work

I've been thinking a lot about work recently. I think there are several reasons for this. Firstly, I'm looking for work in my field, education. Secondly, a former colleague and current friend started blogging, and the second thing he wrote was about the value of physical labor, at least in part. Thirdly, I work a summer job which is totally different from my chosen profession.

When you put these three things together, you get a guy with a college degree and nine years of teaching experience thinking about work. Most of what I'm thinking isn't world shaking or soul shattering, but one of the points of this blog, I said way back at the beginning, was catharsis, and this is going to be a cathartic experience for me.

You see, I think we as a culture have made a grave error in our devaluation of labor within society. We value the person who makes more money, and in general we do so at a loss to our overall well being. We have lifted up the idea that Greed is Good . I understand why this has happened, as I'm sure most of you do. This happens because we live in a society built on self-interest. It seems to be in our self interest to obtain more things, more money, more status. And so, in our quest for more, we look to those with more, and those tend to be people who make lots of money in clever ways.

But Those People very rarely do anything good for society. Sure, there are exceptions to this claim. They aren't hard to find. Bill Gates is rich, and his cheap, easy to use, and innovative PC operating system changed the world. However, if you look at the others in the Top Ten richest Americans, there's only one other person on the list who makes things, and that person only made so much money making things because of Gates. The other 8 made their money through being born lucky to a hard-working five and dime owner or in investing and banking. What does an investor or banker make? Money? While there is value in money (econ pun there, for those of you paying attention), money's value to society in being made by manipulating markets is, I think, pretty scant.

Sure, Warren Buffet is going to give lots of his money away, but that doesn't mean there is value in the way he made most of it. It means that he's a good person who wants to better other people's lives. What I'm trying to get at here is the question of what value there is in his life's work.

You see, he didn't really contribute to society, and yet we will venerate him because he is wealthy. More and more I am coming to believe that we should also venerate the men and women who actually make things in this country. As my former colleague and current friend pointed out, if everybody got a college degree, what would all of those college graduates drive around in and on? Who would make the cars and the roads to drive them on? 

This nation needs a laboring class, and that class needs to be the middle class. People like Michael Moore would be quick to point out that a laboring class protected by strong unions became the middle class between 1930 and 1970. They would also point out that union busting largely destroyed that middle class. They would, of course, gloss over the extravagance and largess of the unions. However, that's a post for a different day. Let's get back to the topic at hand, shall we?

I think what I'm trying to get at is the idea that society must learn not to look down on the doers of things. We must recognize that the guy who builds a bridge, grows corn or hogs, lays Internet cable, or roofs our homes and businesses is just as important to society as the stock broker, insurance seller, or sales manager (if not more important). We must stop believing that to have value in this nation you must have a college degree. Mike Rowe tries to highlight these people on Dirty Jobs. Tom Hanks has a movie coming out about the struggles of a man going back to college after he was fired for not being a college graduate. Sure, the world needs college graduates, but we also need laborers, and I'm not sure that the laborer should make less money just because he works with his hands more than his mind (in many cases)

(Since I know former students read this blog, let me talk directly to you for a minute, if I could. I think we've done you a disservice by making college seem like the best option so much of the time. Listen, there's no shame in roofing, building, paving, or service. Our society needs people in those jobs. Find a passion and follow it. Don't think that your teachers will be ashamed. One of the brightest students I ever had enlisted in the Army and became a medic. I admire his willingness to serve his nation in that way. Don't go to college because you think you should, or because your parents want you to. Go to college to learn about something that you love.)

But there is more to labor than the material reward. (although I'm sure those of you that work in labor would argue that you could use a little more material reward). Ask anyone who works for a living (and I mean that they do work, not that they go to a place of employment and move money from one account to another), and they will tell you that there is an mental reward to doing physical labor. When the job is done, you can see that you have accomplished something. Teaching isn't like that (see, this post will relate to teaching, if only tangentially). Teachers might not ever know the reward of their labor. Their best students will probably walk forward to success without ever looking back. 

When you work in labor (like I always have during the summer), you can see the fruit of your labor right away. When I mounted tires, there was a pile of tires, and some of them had my initials on them. Now, when I fix something, or chainsaw a trail open, or plunge a toilet, I can see that I have done something. That is immensely rewarding. You feel the effort you put in in your muscles, but your eyes will show you what you have accomplished.

Think about the hobbies taken up by men in the business world. Often they're into cars, or woodworking. Why? Because these are tasks which allow them to feel the satisfaction of creating something. I think that many people want to create things. Perhaps it's the way they were raised. Perhaps it's ingrained into their psyche. I don't know for sure why those are the things they take up, but I suspect it has something to do with the need to do things, not just crunch numbers.

Further, laborers rarely work alone. I know that in the manual jobs I have worked at, there was a camaraderie that is often missing in white collar work. Sure, that comradeship is often a little more vulgar, more sarcastic, meaner (on the surface); but it is also deeper than a professional relationship. (I should note here that I value professional relationships as well, but those tend not to be as deep and binding as my "shop" relationships.) The shared suffering of manual labor forms deep bonds. Also, I think the world of manual labor is one of the few remaining places where new guys are forced to become part of the team, and where that transition isn't made all that easy.

You see, in the professional world, people want the company to make money, and new employees generally are transitioned smoothly into the office. However, in a shop, that dynamic isn't always there. Members of a shop are generally territorial. They force new members to become part of the team. There are things you must do to gain acceptance. It is not always easy, and there is no mentoring program or checklist. However, once those tests are passed, and you become a part of that team, you are a genuine member.

One of the highest compliments I've ever received came when I was a part of one of these teams. As I mentioned, these groups of laborers tend to be a little more vulgar than your average lunch at the insurance agency, so please excuse the off-colorness of the language. We were sitting at lunch at the end of my second summer mounting tires for Goodyear Racing Tires. We were in an "office" on the shop floor. I was sitting on a steel stool, eating jelly beans while people whom I had worked with told stories about what they thought about me when I started. (I had the job because my father-in-law ran the company) They were talking about thinking I would spy on them, that I would "Casper" (shop-speak for disappearing when there was work to do), that I would never last a whole season. That was when a guy who was on his way to becoming a lifer paid me a significant back-handed compliment. He said, "This guy's alright. I mean, 9 months a year he's a pencil pushing, pencil-necked f*ggot. But then he comes out here and busts his hump. I can respect that." 

Coming from a co-teacher, this would have been, at best, laughable. However, coming from someone who works 10 hours a day, who does things, who respects hard-work above all else, it was a badge of honor, which is why I'm still talking about it 4 years later. 

That, I think, is probably a greater reward than being rich, but I wouldn't mind trying out being Bill Gates rich for a while. (just a little while).

note: if you'd like to read further on the idea that maybe labor is more rewarding than making money, I suggest you check out Shop Class as Soulcraft by Mathew Crawford. I've read chunks of it, and I think that he has even better insights than I do.

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