Work is a blessing, not a punishment

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In America today, too many people believe that work is drudgery — that only certain kinds of employment are ennobling or provide fulfillment. The notion that “hamburger-flipping” jobs and other kinds of low paying work lack value (popularly expressed during the presidential election of 1988 and reinforced by the media ever since) has far reaching consequences — for the next generation of American workers, for the poor, and for our economy.

We often hear, for example, that today’s young people (even those with college degrees) are not workplace ready — that they lack fundamental skills or any sort of work ethic.

And no wonder.

Today, many middle- and upper-class parents look down their noses at the notion that their kids should spend summers (or afternoons) bagging groceries or pumping gas — especially when time spent working means time away from SAT prep, private flute lessons, and additional hockey camps. Not surprisingly, data from the U.S Census shows that the percentage of non-working teens who want to work fell to 9.5 percent in 2012, from 12.6 percent in 2000. Why should they bother if mommy and daddy pay for everything?


At the opposite end of the economic spectrum are teens whose parents cannot afford to satisfy their every need with the swipe of a credit card but who, nevertheless, often reject unskilled minimum wage work as a waste of time. This, despite the fact that such jobs teach important lessons and help those who have never worked to establish an employment history that they can later use to climb the economic ladder.

Our society’s collective condemnation of unskilled work is a real tragedy. But Arthur Brooks, in his excellent book, The Conservative Heart — How to Build a Fairer, Happier and More Prosperous America, does a masterful job of explaining work’s transformative power.

Since 2012, Brooks has been the President of American Enterprise Institute, the leading conservative intellectual think-tank in America. But his path to this prestigious position qualifies him uniquely to write on the value of work and the importance of “earned success” — a phrase he uses frequently.

Brooks started out as a musician and liberal bohemian in Seattle – a college drop out at the age of 19. He traveled the world playing in concerts and ended up in Spain, seeking to convince a girl named Ester to marry him (she did). He ended up in the French horn section of the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra, but after a while, he found himself enjoying his job less and less and sought a new line of work back in America.

While teaching the French horn in a small conservatory in New Jersey, Brooks resumed his undergraduate studies at a community college, where he astonished himself by falling in love with economics. Completing his Master’s degree in economics and his Ph.D in Public Policy, Brooks became a professor at Syracuse University, where his research dealt primarily with charity and happiness. His book, Who Really Cares, stunned liberal intellectuals by documenting in great detail that conservatives, not liberals or progressives, give more to charity, and volunteer more as well.

In The Conservative Heart, Brooks shows that 80 percent of Americans (at all income levels) love their job, and he shows that ‘very happy” people work more hours each week than those who are “pretty happy,” who in turn work more hours than those who are “not too happy.”

Although unskilled jobs often serve as the the first rung on the ladder to economic independence, Brooks maintains that such work also has intrinsic value. The unemployed and those living on welfare often lack a sense of self-worth that even menial work can provide, Brooks notes. And he condemns as “an incredible act of condescension masquerading as concern” the notion that those who work in low-paying jobs must “loathe” their lives.

Every high school student (rich, poor, and middle class) should work, flipping burgers or otherwise, in order to learn how to show up on time, dress appropriately, interact with co-workers and customers, and take direction from others — and to gain the sense of integrity and self-worth that comes from earning a paycheck.

Every high school (and college) student should also read Brooks’s book. The concept that work, not money, is a fundamental source of human dignity cannot be overemphasized in this celebrity age where fame and fortune appear to be the harbingers of happiness.

Brooks is eloquent in writing that “work is where we create value with our lives and lift up our own souls. Work, properly understood, is the sacred practice of offering up our talents for the service of others.”

Americans need to re-learn these fundamental truths about work. The work ethic of previous generations helped America to become the most prosperous nation the world has known. But if the current cultural view of work persists, we will be increasingly susceptible to the siren songs of those who preach envy and class warfare.

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