Losing the dignity of our labor

I have been working at a job since I was 13 years old. My first job was running a Mobil gas station in Fairmount, North Dakota. A two-pump station that taught me a lot of things about the value of hard-work, sacrifice, resiliency, and self-reliance. 

Today, 45 years after my first job I continue to learn the value of hard-work, sacrifice, resiliency, and self-reliance.

But, in those 45 years I have learned a lot of other things about work, as well. I learned that without the support of one’s peers and colleagues you will only accomplish so much. That communication, cooperation and collaboration aren’t fancy words but fundamental elements of a successful and productive work environment. I learned that whatever work I performed, at whatever task I was assigned or whatever duties and responsibilities I was given, my labor built something more than whatever it was the company or organization was creating, selling, or marketing.

It was building an economy and along the way it was strengthening a nation.

We are at an interesting inflection point in America and, in particular, the economic system that has made this nation the most powerful force for good on the planet at any time in human civilization. The idea has taken hold in many corners of society that work is an undertow that causes pain, discomfort, and dissatisfaction in our day-to-day lives. 

The stories abound that companies can’t find workers. That workers are quitting their jobs in droves. That droves of employees have embarked upon something called “The Great Resignation.” 

There’s an increasing notion that human “self-care” is more fundamental to living one’s best life than having to shoulder the worry, stress, and discomfort of working for a living. That all of us have been spending far too much time caring about work and not enough time caring about ourselves.

Conversations with friends have put forward any number of reasons and theories behind where we stand at the current point in America’s economic history and the perplexing state of affairs as it relates to the dearth of people willing or available to fill empty jobs. Or what we are told is a massive evacuation from jobs in favor of a new life of reflection, leisure and focusing on “what matters most in my life.”

I don’t think it’s all that complicated. 

We are losing our respect for the concept of the dignity of one’s labor. 

I think we have forgotten that a job isn’t solely about making money to buy things that we want, or we need. It’s learning skills one needs to be successful in life or one might want to do something else that creates opportunity and a sense of harmony and balance along the way. Work, and one’s labor, puts each of us in places to learn from one another and about one another. It gives us the chance to find wonder in what it takes to make things. 

Most of all, labor is what built America. Labor is what made, and makes, America great.

Then. Now. And again. 

My life path has given me the option to provide my labor for others, as well as myself.  But, in the end every job I have ever had has contributed to the America I live in today that has given me, my family and others freedom, liberty and opportunity.

I have had jobs that have been horrible. Jobs that paid me far less than I deserved and sometimes exactly what I deserved. I’ve pumped gas, used a blowtorch to take apart railroad tracks, sold pillows on the phone, cleaned toilets, packed luggage, stocked shelves, lobbied politicians, begged for money, and a lot of things in between. 

Not a single job I have ever had hasn’t made me a better person – a better American – and a better citizen. 

Along the way I have had a remarkable life. I have an amazing family. I live in a decent house. I’ve gone on vacation to places near and far. I have given back to my community. I put a few bucks in the bank for a day when I may not be able to work the same way I have since the first job I had when I was 13-years old.

The worst job I ever had was the best job someone else who wanted the life I have had would have gladly taken. I never forget that. No matter how much I feel overwhelmed by the day-to-day responsibilities of the job I have today – or any other job I have ever had in my life.

The dignity of labor is something we’ve lost respect for. We haven’t paid people who work the jobs that make America work enough. Not by a long shot. By not doing so we not only rob them of a wage that can allow them to elevate them from their economic station in life, but we insult and sully the dignity of their labor. 

But Americans themselves have lost an appreciation for the dignity of their own labor. They view it as something untoward, unnecessary, and unproductive.

In doing so we lose sight in the long game of life. 

Our labor isn’t something we do as human beings.

It’s something we have as human beings. 

What we do with it doesn’t just make a difference to ourselves. It makes a difference to the world.  

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