Work ethic outsourced to new underclass
It used to be that children learned about the concept of hard work from their parents.
I have vivid memories of my father rising early every morning to go to work in his printing shop for a few hours before cleaning up, putting on a tie and heading to his day job. He almost couldn’t wait to ditch the executive garb after work to get his hands dirty on the printing press again for a few hours before coming home.
He learned his work ethic from his father, who labored at a variety of different jobs, including being the janitor at his high school. Hard work was something that was admired back then, and one felt somewhat guilty spending the day sitting in an office while his friends were getting their hands dirty.
That was then. Children now have many other role models to take after, presented in living color by the 24/7 media that wasn’t as prevalent when I grew up. Hard work isn’t worshipped as much today as those celebrities with their fancy cars and expensive jewelry, all the product of a seemingly work-free lifestyle. Kids spend so much time looking up at the rich and carefree that they don’t see all the hard-working people below who make that lifestyle possible.
There is little guilt anymore for working in an office. For the most part, the people who get their hands dirty doing the essential work of our society aren’t a part of our society. They cook our food, wash our dishes and take out our trash. We barely acknowledge their existence, other than to complain that they don’t speak English.
Just recently, immigration agents raided 11 McDonald’s restaurants in northern Nevada, arresting scores of illegal workers. Back when I was in school, you would have only found teenagers working there. I don’t know where these teenagers work anymore, if they work at all.
Some would argue that no one takes these kinds of jobs because they pay too little, and if all the undocumented workers were deported, the wages would go up. I think there is some truth to this, but it’s not the whole story.
We have taught our children, perhaps unknowingly, that they are above this kind of work. It’s not the money that keeps them away, it’s the image, their status among their peers. If they had to work at such jobs, or even any job, they are somehow inferior. That’s how, unfortunately, so many people view illegal immigrants … as inferior.
I fed dairy cows and bailed hay when I was in high school, not because I had to, but because my friends were all doing it. It was hard, dirty work, and it felt good, like we were accomplishing something important. There was certainly no shame in it.
Some time after high school, I lost my appreciation for hard work. Too much of college was about working with our minds, almost to the exclusion of working with our hands. I didn’t start to get it back until I became a father, and began to worry that my daughter wasn’t learning the right lessons about hard work, that she is above getting her hands dirty.
It leaves me concerned for the future as our country grows more polarized, with middle America becoming loath to work, and yet resentful of the new immigrants who do that work.
There are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in this country who one side of this debate wants deported. A part of me wants to embrace this solution, if for no other reason than to force Americans to get their hands dirty and start respecting hard work again. But this solution seems the most impractical, like closing the barn door after the horses have already run away.
Another solution is to give these immigrants a path to citizenship, to break down the walls that divide our societies, to make them part of the melting pot of America like the immigrant groups before them. Until they are equals, our children will not look up to them for the work they do to keep this country running. It would be a long, hard slog to make a solution like this work, and maybe we as a country are already too afraid of hard work to make it happen.
Whatever the solution, something has to be done before this rift becomes a canyon that cannot be crossed.
— Kirk Caraway is editor of nevadapolitics.com and also writes a blog on national issues at kirkcaraway.com.