Thursday, July 15, 2010

On the value of low-skill, low-wage labor

Believe it or not, there's a lot to recommend about John Derbyshire's column today at National Review. It's ostensibly about how Obama Administration policies are drying up the number of unpaid summer internships for teenagers, but it drifts into a meditation on how -- even in these recession days -- American elites don't seem to value manual labor the way they once did. The whole thing should be read, even if you don't agree with everything. But some of Derbyshire's anecdotes rang true for me.
I have noticed that if, among 30-something colleagues, I mention one of my own school or college summer jobs — factory or construction work, dishwashing, retail sales, bartending — my colleagues will look amused, and a bit baffled. How come a guy as well-educated as Derb was shoveling concrete? Boy, he’s a real eccentric! No, I’m not. Those experiences were perfectly normal for a person of my generation. They’re just not normal any more, not for children of the American middle and upper classes.

Well, I don’t suppose anybody ever did drudge work if better options were available. Until recently, though, a great many people reconciled themselves to it: as a means to support a family, as a pathway to as much independence as their abilities would permit, and even as something in which satisfactions might be found. Remember Luke in The Thorn Birds boasting of his prowess as a sheep-shearer and sugarcane-cutter?

Nor was physical labor always thought shameful. In the older American ideal, which is now as dead as the one-room schoolhouse, physical labor was held to have a dignity to it. Even elites believed their youngsters would benefit from a taste of it. Calvin Coolidge put his 15-year-old son to work in the tobacco fields of Hatfield, Mass., as a vacation job. (When the lad happened to mention who he was, one of his co-workers said: “Gee, if the president was my father, I wouldn’t be working here.” Cal Jr.: “You would, if your father were my father.” For a comparison with the “conservative” sensibility of our own time, recall Karl Rove’s remark: “I don’t want my 17-year-old son to have to pick tomatoes.” Good heavens, Karl, of course you don’t: The poor lad might break a fingernail.)
Now Derbyshire, because he's Derbyshire, uses all this to build a case against letting immigrants into the United States to do low-wage low-skill work. I'm not entirely on board with that, but I don't think that lessens the power of these observations.

A few years ago, I became convinced that one of the problems with journalism -- and I know, there are many -- is that there are few practitioners left who have ever done anything besides journalism. The went to J-school, got an internship, got a job at a newspaper and never ever worked or had much life experience that didn't involve the business. And that opinion was confirmed in the person of Mike Shields -- probably the best of a string of great editors I've worked for. He was -- is -- a hell of a journalist, but before he got into the business he'd worked in the Navy, construction and truck-driving. (Probably more, but I'm working from memory.) He had some college under his belt, but I think he got his actual degree somewhat later in life. I don't think it's a coincidence that he had a gift for shmoozing lots of "regular folks" on his beats: farmer-legislators from western Kansas, cops hanging out at the bar, that kind of thing. He could relate to working stiffs better than the average reporter because, unlike most of them, he had been a working stiff.

That said: There's a danger in romanticizing the "dignity" of low-skill, low-wage labor too much. As noted before: I'm between full-time gigs right now. I've taken on a part-time job at a nearby coffee shop here in Philadelphia. Before I started it, I think it's fair to say I'd romanticized the idea in my head: I'll work as a barista, and have plenty of headspace left over to pursue other income and creative endeavours. But it's not like that. It's harder work than I'd realized, for one thing. And I come home from most shifts with with sore feet and an aching back. There are benefits: We're not as poor as we might be. And I've gotten to know my neighborhood much better in the last two months than I did in the nearly two years previous. What's more: It doesn't seem very "low skill" to me -- there's a million small things to know and do to keep the shop running smoothly. But: It's hard work. For pay that won't, on its own, sustain my family. I do it now because it's the right thing to do, but there's not much that's ennobling about it. That's ok. The value of work isn't and can't always about self-fulfillment. It's about survival, first.


Notorious Ph.D. said...

Still, I'm one of those who goes on about the "dignity of labor." I mean that it's work that we should value, both culturally and monetarily. It's all well and good, for example, to tell farmers that they are the backbone of America (or tell my barista that he saves my life every morning), but this rings hollow if we don't put our money where our mouth is.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Hm. The first paragraph somehow disappeared. It was something like this:

"When I was in food service, we called this the 'verbal tip': when customers, on their way out the door, fulsomely praised your service, it usually meant that you were getting a truly cheap tip."

Pretty Lady said...

Yes, yes, yes. For professional survival reasons, I cannot write a blog rant about people who under-tip their massage therapists, or who do not tip at all.

I recently had a client give me a *hug* instead of a tip, as though I were her daughter who had just given her a free backrub.

My labor is not unskilled, and the wages I'm getting aren't remotely comparable to what they're paying the spa. Tips pay my grocery bill, and when clients don't tip, they're literally taking food out of the mouth of my child.

Our social values are truly screwed up.