Work: The basis of human dignity
By Ken Root
I’ve recently hired a young man to work with me a few hours a week. We would work more but I am not capable of strong physical labor except for a few hours a day. He is eager to earn from his labor, but my goal is for him to learn how to work and why it is important. As I sweat in the Iowa humidity, I ponder the relevance of labor to our most pressing legislative debates in Washington, D.C. It comes down to the premise of working to improve one’s economic and social status and whether we should welcome immigrants who are willing to do jobs that native born Americans won’t do.
I have felt the need to work since I was 10 years old. I remember putting on oversized hay gloves and following the truck just in case they needed a “hand.” I was greeted warmly and placed in the back of a small pick-up where I could be protected and succeed at the task, even if meant scooting the bales rather than picking them up. I was paid for my efforts and I walked back to the house with a smile on my face and some jingle in my pocket. It was simple, but clearly the first step toward contributing to society and reaping economic benefits.
Farmers have introduced a “work ethic” into rural youth for generations. Some are good at instructing and mentoring a young person and realizing the accomplishment of the task is secondary to the life skills they are teaching. You can only set an example by being an example, as even the greenest employee observes what is done far more than what is said.
I believe there are backgrounds that are more conducive to work than others. It begins with parents who are determined to provide food, clothing and shelter to their family. It comes from loving expectation, otherwise known as discipline. The desire to do, and satisfaction from doing, is passed from one generation to another.
My 15-year-old apprentice is just coming into his physical strength, so I don’t count on him to be bull strong in doing heavy work. I try to show him that there is an element of finesse in even the most strenuous job. We both use shovels to clear an area and dig some short ditches. My father taught me how to use a shovel and I still love to do so until I run out of air. I see the awkward moves of this youth and hope he will observe the way leverage works when the tool is used to greatest advantage. My hope is that he will become skillful at the task and more appreciative of powered equipment that replaces physical labor.
As Americans, we have determined that we don’t want to do hard physical labor. I realized that when I was hauling hay and working construction. I knew a college education would give me other opportunities and I was motivated to work my way out of the ditch (literally) and into an office. Today, we have disconnected higher income skill development from the alternative of hard physical labor. My father said: “If you can run a shovel, you will always have a job.” The literal interpretation means that if you will accept basic employment, you will always have some level of income. I feel there are many who don’t buy into that philosophy, and even though they did not learn in the classroom or develop a trade or skill, physical labor is beneath them. That is the real definition of “entitlement” in the current day.
At the same time, there are people who would gladly come to the United States and do the basic physical work to support our economy but are denied any legal means to do so. In agriculture, we are long on work but short on laborers. Over 60 percent of farm workers are undocumented aliens. We have the contradiction of a legal population that refuses these jobs and an illegal population that will gladly do them.
Here is the catch: As we let people in, they bring a strong work ethic and will be productive citizens as long as their health holds out. They will realize that the best pathway for their children is to educate them so they won’t have to do basic, low wage jobs. They enjoy the American dream by raising and educating a family. The children become doctors, lawyers and accountants and raise families. As they fully integrate into our society, their grandchildren realize “entitlement” and become as reluctant to work as any of the rest of us.
As a nation of immigrants, we appear to need continuation of the stream of new workers to revitalize our economy. In Congress, there is gridlock on how much money we should allocate for food aid to those who are unemployed, or underemployed, and there is equal intransigence on how to deal with 12 million immigrants who are working here, outside the legal system, and the millions more who would come here to do our basic jobs if we would allow them to do so.
I don’t know if I’m more disappointed in our government for not dealing with entitlement and immigrant issues or that my fellow citizens have lost the ancestral heritage for working to gain self-satisfaction as well as economic advancement. I’m at the other end of the spectrum from the little boy who wanted to work, but was too young to do so, as now I approach the age of being too old. I am glad that I have the opportunity to interact with a new generation. Maybe I can show just a few how to find themselves, even if it’s at the end of a shovel.
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.