Earning Your Life: Teaching Kids the Value of Work, Not Entitlement

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Most of my teenage friends worked in the summer, but I might have been the only one to work every day after class during the last two years of high school.

It wasn’t by choice. My dad, a child of the Great Depression, required it. I protested that it would affect my school work and I think it probably did, but not so much that I didn’t do well.

I accepted my dad’s work dictum, but generally felt put-upon that I, in the minority among the lower-middle class kids I hung around with, had to do this. In the end, it taught me a good deal, as I shall relate to you.

I’d catch the Lincoln Avenue bus and transfer to the Ravenswood elevated train at Western Avenue. This would take me into the “Loop,” that place where the elevated tracks encircle a good part of what is also called “Downtown Chicago.” During my junior year of  high school I was employed at Chicago Band Repair/Ace Crystal Service, my Uncle Sam’s business.

There, I learned to make simple repairs on expansion watch bands, pack and ship glass watch crystals that had been ground to size on a lathe (this was in the days before plastic watch crystals), dispatch those repaired expansion bands, and run errands. The next year I was an “office boy” at David Altman Law Offices on La Salle Street (still in the Loop) doing filing, errands, and running a Multilith machine, the offset duplicating equipment that was used to copy and print large quantities of legal documents.

Those jobs were interesting enough. There were always lots of things to do, little “down time,” and some entertaining people whose life experience was entirely different from my own. At my Uncle’s place at 5 S. Wabash in the Mallers Building I worked with an almost entirely black and mostly female staff in the days just before the major civil rights legislation was passed. At the law office, it was lawyers and secretaries — all white and all white-collar. In both places I fit in pretty well and got treated pretty well.

But it was the summer work at one job that I hated. I was a college student by then, just having finished my junior year. The place was an un-air conditioned metal stamping factory. I had two mind-deadening tasks. One was bending the backs of metal bucket seats using a simple machine. The other was assembling a small gasket. Each job took a matter of seconds. Once you learned how to do it, you never got better at it, and the assignment never changed. You just did the same thing over and over and over. For eight hours, five days a week, while swimming in a river of sweat.

I started by punching in at 7:00 AM, which meant that I had to get up at around 5:00 AM in order to get to work on time. If I stayed out at all late the night before, I paid for it dearly the next day with the extra-strenuous effort that was required to stay awake while performing my deadly dull duties. You know the feeling — each eye lid seems to weigh 400 pounds and sleep beckons more enticingly than the most beautiful woman and more insistently than the most demanding boss.

I recall one day in particular. The summer was a hot one and the factory retained heat. Water was essential to avoid dehydration. Even so, it felt peculiar to be drenched in sweat at my work station at 7:00 AM in a building where the thermometer already registered over 100º Fahrenheit. Dutiful as ever, I did my best that day to keep alert and be productive. Three hours must have passed before I looked at the clock on the wall. It said 7:15 AM! It seemed impossible, but only 15 minutes had elapsed since the moment of my clocking in. Like a bad science fiction film, time had come close to stopping and eternity seemed nearer than the end of the work day.

I so-hated the job that I found another one that summer in order to get out of the factory, where both the duties and the temperature were liquefying my brain. But it was an experience I never forgot, nor the fact that there were men there who did work only slightly more sophisticated and challenging than I did, and continued to do it for the rest of their working lives.

Earlier, during the summer before my second year in college, I worked in the mail room at Edward H. Weiss Advertising Agency. I made about $1.25 per hour. I had a girlfriend named Beverly that summer and she fancied the idea of going horse back riding. One Saturday afternoon we did just that in Lincoln Park. But, to my dismay, I discovered that the horses cost $3.00 per hour. I knew something was wrong if an equine commanded a better wage than I did!

So what exactly did I learn from experiences such as that?

First, that honest labor at whatever level is nothing to look down upon. There are many worse jobs than those I did, but some of mine were bad enough to make me appreciate the men and women who make a living at tasks that provide little room for growth, excitement, or creativity. My hat is off to them and to what they do for their families and their children.

Second, those jobs taught me how to get along with people whose backgrounds were different from mine, in some cases individuals of a different color, sometimes of a different social status (both higher and lower), including people whose parents and grandparents had gone to college (as mine had not) and those who only could hope that their kids might some day be able to obtain more than a high school degree. I came to see the nobility in simple labor; the complexity and skill required to work precisely with your hands; the meaning of craftsmanship, duty, and dedication. I also learned respect for authority even when the authority wasn’t always fair, and the value of being able to make the best of a situation that wasn’t ideal.

I realized, too, that if one had some good fortune — in my case the opportunity to go to college along with parents who encouraged me to become educated and scholarships and fellowships that enabled me to obtain graduate degrees — one should take advantage of it. I saw, up close, that life could be different from what I hoped my life would be, and that the “different” path was one that I did not want to traverse.

And, I have come to appreciate, every day of my life, how lucky I am to do the work that I do. Work that is interesting, mostly in my control (since I am my own boss), and that has allowed me to make a good life for my children; labor that does not always feel like labor, that I do not dread, and that is challenging, enriching, and satisfying to myself and those I serve.

My friend Jeff Carren, who is an attorney, tells me that he has encountered new hires into legal practice (that is, new lawyers) who had never held a full-time job until they became associates at a law firm. And, that they were stunned at the amount of effort that “work” — a new job, any job — requires.

Perhaps then, in light of my experience, you will not be surprised to know that my kids, despite heavy academic and extra-curricular loads, both were gainfully employed part-time during high school. My oldest, Jorie, did her regular stint as a barista at Star Bucks, while Carly did lots of baby sitting. And, both performed full-time summer jobs when school wasn’t in session. They too, have learned the value of hard work and the worth of a dollar earned from that labor; that is, they have learned the one additional lesson of my early life experience — that money does not grow on trees. They discovered, early enough, what it feels like to “earn” a thing — quite a different sensation from having it given to you. And they have, thankfully, grown up without the sense of “entitlement” that is so pervasive in American youth.

JFK put the entitlement issue in quite a different context when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Similarly, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) in the movie Saving Private Ryan tells Ryan to “Earn It” as the latter faces the fact that men have given their lives to save him. That is, “earn” your life by making something of it, so that those who gave their lives for you will not have died in vain.

There is great value in “earning” your life. And, the way it starts is by doing work, “making” a living — in effect, doing what is required to sustain yourself and others.

Parents need to remember that we can let our children down just as much by expecting too little of them, as by expecting too much; as much by overprotection as neglect.

We are not entitled to anything — not you, not me, not our kids. Life can be a gift of opportunity, but there is no free lunch.

It is work, hard and honest labor, that helps to teach this lesson.

Thanks, Dad.

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