The Chosen People
February 23, 2017
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Roll up your sleeves. Keep your nose to the grindstone. Don’t be afraid to get dirty. These three clichés, along with thousands of others, epitomize the very definition of hard work. It is the old American mantra that if no matter what, if you work hard you will be able to succeed in life. For our grandparents, and some of our parents, this is the exact attitude they held true to. You get up each and everyday no matter what, and do your best every single day at your job. Many of these people were fortunate enough just to get a high school diploma. Almost immediately after, they got right to work, whether that would be as a waitress, working on the line in a factory, driving semis across the country, or fixing cars. This hard working nature is what America was founded upon and what our parents continued to build on.
Today, in 2017, work is disappearing in America. No longer does one see high school graduates entering the workforce right out of high school. The expectation for young people everywhere is that you finish high school and continue your education on whether that be at a four-year university, or taking classes at a local community college. There is not the expectation to join the labor force, especially any kind of physical labor. This first installment of the three part series will take a look at what work in America looks like today among the millennial generation. It will then be followed up by what work looks like among the Gen X population. The final installment will take a look at where work in America is heading in the future and what we can expect.
The majority of college graduates expect to land a job that puts them comfortably in an office cubicle for eight hours a day. When those eight hours are up, they will pack their laptop and briefcase up and walk in their fancy suit down to their car comfortably parked in the parking garage and head for home without any thought of getting their hands dirty or bending down to lift anything of substantial weight. By no means is there anything wrong with this lifestyle amongst the 20-something year olds that are trying to crack into it. The issue trickles down to the teenagers that want this job in the future. They see the comfort that it offers and how nice that comfort will be, so they decide they will not work a job as a teenager because they do not feel that physical labor is something they should be doing. The most disconcerting number comes from the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings which used the Current Population Survey ASEC 2000-2014. In 2014, only 39% of teens ages 16-19 were participating in the labor force, down 17% from fourteen years prior. For whatever the reason may be, 3 in every 5 teenagers are choosing to not work while they are in high school. One explanation may lie in the same survey which tells us that the average hourly wage in that same age group in 2014 was $7.69 compared to $8.18 in 2000. These numbers are not surprising by any means, and point in a very rocky direction.
The lack of participation among teenagers goes all the back to the myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was condemned by the Greek gods for his behavior, and sentenced to hard, manual, futile labor for eternity. Each and everyday Sisyphus would wake up and push a big boulder to the top of this tall mountain, only for it to fall back down to the bottom at the end of each day for the task to be repeated the next. The thought of dreadful hell exists in futile work, with no opportunity for gain and no benefit to the work at all. It is this mindset, I believe, that plagues my generation of teenagers. They do not want subject themselves to the futile nature of flipping burgers for a few bucks an hour, even though they have no other viable skills at this point in their lives. They would rather sit around each day, go to school during the week and then do nothing substantial with their lives until they hopefully graduate college. They sit around and wait, not willing to take job opportunities in front of them because it is not the perfect job for them and their careers.
Our parents’ generation by no means had the same mindset. They believed that the most dreadful hell would be boredom. Granted all Sisyphus had to do each day was push that boulder up the mountain, but at least he had something to do. He wasn’t sitting in a room all day just waiting for eternity to pass, he was doing work with his life. The generation before us would take that $45,000 a year job driving trucks across the country because it gave them something to do. By no means did the majority of our parents plan on driving trucks for a career for 40 years, but it was something to do while the career opportunities filed in. In the meantime, they are able to earn a living and give some sort of meaning to their lives.
This difference in mindsets is why a gap exists in middle skills jobs in America today. The Baby Boomers are reaching the age of retirement and leaving these jobs open. The upcoming Millennial generation does not possess the skills necessary to fill these opens. The middle skills jobs are great opportunities for work and employment. The middle skills jobs I speak of are construction, police officers, sales reps, long-distance truck drivers, management, all positions that with a program and certificate of training, should not be that difficult to fill. These are the jobs that Lee Brice sings of in his song “Drinking Class.” “I’m a member of a blue collar crowd… if you gotta, gotta label me, label me proud!” It is these words, sung ever so elegantly by Lee Brice, that make the Gen X generation so proud. They are proud to put in a good, tough week of work just to turn it right around and do it all over again in two days. This is the mindset, and the work ethic that America needs to work its way back towards.
When discussing manufacturing and farming in a response in an inquiry from a foreigner on America, Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people…” These people that Jefferson speaks of had the same exact mentality as Generation X. They were willing to do what had to be done in order to thrive, or moreover in their case in 1781, survive. It did not matter if the work was hard, or they would be sore at the end of the day, these were God’s people that were doing this work. That is a pretty lofty distinguishment for people who spent their lives doing hard labor. It speaks to the backbone of how America was founded and created. The ideals still exist today, no matter how much they continue to fade. When push comes to shove, America was and still can be a land that embraces hard work. The change and improvement in the American economy will come when we begin to embrace the middle skills jobs again. It is important to remember that as one of the founding fathers once spoke, that God’s chosen people are those who work the land, and work it hard.