‘Meaningful Work’


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Some of our more Utopian intellectuals lament that many people work “just for the money.” They do not like a society where A produces what B wants, simply in order that B will produce what A wants, with money being an intermediary device facilitating such exchanges.

Some would apparently prefer a society where all-wise elites would decide what each of us “needs” or “deserves.” The actual history of societies formed on that principle — histories often stained, or even drenched, in blood — is of little interest to those who mistake wishful thinking for idealism.

At the very least, many intellectuals do not want the poor or the young to have to take “menial” jobs. But people who are paying their own money, as distinguished from the taxpayers’ money, for someone to do a job are unlikely to part with hard cash unless that job actually needs doing, whether or not that job is called “menial” by others.

People who lack the skills to take on more prestigious jobs can either remain idle and live as parasites on others or take the jobs for which they are currently qualified, and then move up the ladder as they acquire more experience. People who are flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s on New Year’s Day are seldom flipping hamburgers there when Christmas time comes.

Those relatively few statistics that follow actual flesh-and-blood individuals over time show them moving massively from one income bracket to another over time, starting at the bottom and moving up as they acquire skills and experience.

Telling young people that some jobs are “menial” is a huge disservice to them and to the whole society. Subsidizing them in idleness while they wait for “meaningful work” is just asking for trouble, both for them and for all those around them.

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  • darrell

    One of the best articles i have read by you, Mr. Sowell. I know you like Hoffer and he wrote at length of the importance of people working with their hands and not just their mind. It is a pity that working with ones hands is not respected as it once was.

  • Lady_Dr

    Exactly right. My first job was babysitting at age 12, at 18 I got a job as a waitress but was so bad I was fired 4 weeks later, then I worked in a bakery (and didn't get fired), then as a receptionist. Jump 40 years and I just finished a contract research job at one of the world's leading universities. I don't remember the name and/or location of a lot of places I worked over the years but in every one I did my best in each and every one. Alas, too many today believe htat somehow they 'deserve' to transition from student to professor or highly paid professional. We need a return to the old-fashioned work ethic.

    • Jake

      Your life sounds a lot like mine. I babysat, then at 16 got a job as a waitress after school at a drugstore, and years later retired from a junior college. Those menial jobs taught me responsibility and hard work. I agree with you, we need a return to the old-fashioned work ethic.

    • Jim_C

      If you go to a high school or college campus today, you might notice how many students drive nicer cars than their teachers/professors.

      They don't work because, apparently, they don't have to.

      (Even though actually there are a lot of hard working kids out there).

      • Rifleman

        That was the case when I was in school back in the 70s and 80s, but it isn't anymore. Even the crossing guards are driving new BMWs in my county. They don't get as many days off as they used to though.

  • mistykennedy

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  • Hank Rearden

    A generation ago or, alas, two generations ago, we were taught that all work was noble, that each job contributed to society. In school, janitors were addressed as "Mr. ___." Even by mentioning this, I am not giving a proper sense of things because nobody gave it any thought, and even the coolest kids automatically observed that convention. The janitor was a respected figure and, something important to children, a reliable one. (That said, what WAS that green stuff they threw down on the floors? I never figured that out.)

    I go to McDonald's because I don't want to cook that hamburger myself or oversee the person who does cook it. The people there are providing an important service. We can't all be poets! And what a world it would be if we were, because most poetry is unreadable.

  • theleastthreat

    In economics books that I've read at least part of, there were comparisons of guns and butter, spending vs saving, supply and demand, but I've never come across the inclination to make money. That doesn't mean it's not in there, I've just never come across it. However, people do have that desire. They work an extra job, or overtime, or start up a side business out of their homes. Or they go on to learn a trade, get a degree, play Lotto, invest, or go to Las Vegas, Atlantic City, or Biloxi to gamble. Even criminals look to make a score. Seeking more income is natural behavior. Who knows how much it drives our economy? Take that drive away and I suspect we will find out in a hurry.

  • oldtimer

    I remember a good friend, who has passed on, said to me that he worked his way through college, had a medical degree, but he was happiest when he was a house painter.

  • Rifleman

    I guess back in the days of low unemployment the left had to complain about something so they came up with this "meaningful work" nonsense. If the job a person works wasn't 'meaningful' nobody would pay them to do it.

    • AAC

      When the government gets into the "making life meaningful" business, it crowds out the more traditional means of finding meaning in life, like working hard, taking personal responsibility, etc.

  • StephenD

    Excellent work here sir. I started washing dishes, making coffee and any other task needing to be done in a Howard Johnson's restaurant when I was 13. By the time I was 15 I was running the kitchen on weekends for their busiest hours. I even got a raise from the manager who for the duration of my time there would ask me for my "working papers" (required by the State for underage employees in Massachusetts at the time). To this day I credit my time there with, through many difficult jobs, being able to know that things will get better and everyone has to “do their time.” I have had a productive work life in which I was able to own a home and provide for a family of 6 my entire adult life because of this experience…which started with taking out the trash, cleaning the toilets and washing dishes so I ask you, how is that not “meaningful work?”

    • mlcblog

      Hear hear!! I, too, have welcomed whatever I had to do, not been to snobby about it and this has benefited my life. The discipline acquired is priceless. I like to remember that the great apostle, Paul, was a lowly tentmaker.

  • fiddler

    I can't tell you how important a piece this is; very well stated. While there may be some vaildity in criticizing Wall street, enterprising individuals (many of them Asian) just don't have time for the spectacle — they are too busy finding where to earn money. I was laid off of a job I loved in California due to that business declining. It was creative and and I got recognition for a job well done. I moved to the MidWest where I was not known and to support my little family for awhile I had to stand on an assembly line putttin small bags into boxes. Some of us have to start over — that's the way life is sometimes. It builds character. You don't learn character or humility in a class room, that's for the school of hard knocks. Enrollment is open to anyone who is willing.

  • mlcblog

    This is a rich article about what I remember in my addle-brained family and set of la-la-land residents. These leftists and social noodle-heads used to rhapsodize about so many things, including the nobility of common labor, much as they did about the wonderfulness of the "natives." They make me sick, then as now. They are so out of touch with what is actually meaningful. Their heads are full of weird ideals in my mind.

    The picture became clear to me when we white intellectual do-gooders descended upon the black neighborhoods in Oakland and other parts of the Bay Area and were met with (if we were sensitive enough to see and open to) complete disdain. Who did we, who couldn't even run our own families well, think we were coming in to tell others how they needed to live…?? just like us who were so great!?

    Liberalism truly is a derangement of the brain and soul.

  • Amused

    Oh what a STRAWMAN ! People work for money , ya know just like those 1 % ers .Honest work is STILL considered NOBLE work , dont know what make-believe universe you people operate in , perhaps you've been living to long in your own echo chamber .This is a capitalist country , buisiness seeks to increase profit and cut expenses , workers no matter what walk of life seek to make more money and enjoys the fruits of their labor.Some are not physically fit for strenuous jobs , others not suited for jobs that require years of technical training ….this whole article is just another CROC of bullshheeet to suit your warped and hypocritical ideology .
    Do you people take training courses in hypocrisy ??? There are no menial jobs as long as there is a fair wage .Nor have I ever heard any on e in academia that would tell a young person that . So you co-opt another lie to aid in your attack against those you oercieve as enemies – teachers and professors . You schmuchs are so damn transparent it's a joke .

    • Jim_C

      It's all fatalistic empty blather. Ask how we got this way, they'll say "liberalism." Not immigration patterns, population increases, technological advancement, economic policies, two-income families, inflation, evolution of communities, etc. Nope, it all comes down to snobby ivory tower types, lazy civil servants, and welfare queens.

      • reader

        Forgot to mention global warming, zombie. The fact that so many people aren't sick and tired of being lectured by utterly ignorant in economics marxists like you bodes dread for the state of educational system of this country.

    • http://RussP.us Russ P.

      Wow, dude, that's deep! (But don't quit your day job.)

    • Don Watson

      Some people engage the challenges before them, others do not. It has always been this way and I think it always will be. Does the ideal of equality consider is? I think not.

  • Amused

    Like I said Jim_C , just another strawman , like 99% of the articles on FPM . Republicans are beginning to sound like the arabs in their railings against Israel and the Jews , the Republicans are the "eternal victims " of those evil Democrats who are out to destroy America and the whole wide world , they are the cause of all the ills of the world . Too bad Goebbels didn't have a crew like this eh ? If anyone perpetuates the notion of " a menial job " it is those who constantly try to knock down the minimum wage , and consistently vote againdst any increase in it …..and we all know who that is . Hypocrisy is the common commodity here on FPM and it's cheerleader editorialists who skip back and forth beteween FPM and Breitbart.com . It's no wonder mostly ALL birthers are Republicans .

  • http://www.blograju.com BlogRaju

    I worked at a carwash as a teenager. That was meaningful work, although I do not want to do that job again.

  • Don Kosloff

    Dear Amused,

    Your first step to discovering what is meaningful may be to learn what a “straw man” is. Then you may want to discover which Congressman asserted that it would be degrading to require that people receiving welfare do some work. Hint: he was a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

    • Amused

      Dear Kosloff- it's obvious that you do not recognize a "strawman " when you see one , it is a fallacy used to counter an opponents position . The origin , because it is basically, in addition to being an aspersion , usually baseless , it is also a "weak " argument , thus knocked over easily ….like a straw man " .
      Perhaps a course in reading comprehension may be of help to you . {Evelyn Woods is a good one ]

      • Amused

        P.S. Kosloff , your deficiency could indeed be pathological , as with the many here, and most of these psuedo-journalists writing these …uh …editorials , you are so immersed [brainwashed] in the echo-chamber of your narrow ideology , that these strawman arguments take on a reality ,where opinion becomes fact .

  • sedoanman

    Victor Klemperer wrote … "They [the intelligencia] were the guilty party, not the ordinary Germans. Given the opportunity to mete out punishment after it [the next Holocaust] is all over, he wrote the following in one of his published diaries, "Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years 1933-1941":

    "If one day the fate of the vanquished lay in my hands, then I would let all the ordinary folk go and even some of the leaders, who might perhaps after all have had honorable intentions and not known what they were doing. But I would have all the intellectuals strung up, and the professors three feet higher than the rest; they would be left hanging from the lampposts for as long as was compatible with hygiene."

    "Heil Professor!” by Phil Orenstein http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle….

  • sedoanman

    Victor Klemperer wrote … "They [the intelligencia] were the guilty party, not the ordinary Germans. Given the opportunity to mete out punishment after it [the next Holocaust] is all over, he wrote the following in one of his published diaries, "Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years 1933-1941":

    "If one day the fate of the vanquished lay in my hands, then I would let all the ordinary folk go and even some of the leaders, who might perhaps after all have had honorable intentions and not known what they were doing. But I would have all the intellectuals strung up, and the professors three feet higher than the rest; they would be left hanging from the lampposts for as long as was compatible with hygiene."

    "Heil Professor!” by Phil Orenstein http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle….

  • Amused

    Very Good sedoanman ! You got it totally assssbackwards .No surprise there huh ? …lol…Phil Orenstein ? FPM…"Heil Professor " …lol..sure is strange [ and amusing ] to watch the Advance of Stupidity in action

  • Don Kosloff

    Amused,
    I know what a straw man is. There is no straw man in the article. If you had an interest in reality, then you could have done a simple Internet search to discover that. But that might have allowed you to learn something real, an outcome that you appear to fear.

  • Amused

    I dont fear anything Kosloff , especially arguing with people like you who attempt to sound intelligent . Unfortunately for you , like many others here , you begin to believe your own bullsheeet . The whole article 's a srawman if there ever was one , but in order to detect that , it would take sonme thinking on your part , something you don't do very well .