Redefining Work for the New World

My Grandfather, on my mother’s side, was born on a farm. You may have gathered this from some of my earlier postings. Grandfather got up in the morning well before dawn to run his trap lines or possibly hunt before he had to begin morning chores. The weather didn’t matter, school later that morning would be well, later that morning but chores had to be done. If it was cold enough the night before then the ice had to be broken loose from the horse troughs. This farm wasn’t mechanized and horses were very much a necessity. Grandfather once said that horses weren’t the brightest of Gods creatures as they didn’t seem to be able to get around frozen water, even if liquid water could be seen beneath. I guess we all have our limitations. The family farm at that point was about 1200 acres and was free of any mortgage at least that how the story was always told. Grandpa stated on many occasion that they didn’t have a lot of money. They had food, heat, clothing, all things they could provide with their hands.  Whatever money they did possess went to buy seed or pay farm hands and pay what taxes they may have owed. Grandfather was the first of his generation to go to college. He did so on a football scholarship to the University of Dayton. That football game was played long before the forward pass was invented. His sophomore year Dayton gave up their football program…imagine that, so grandfather finished at Wittenburg. He wanted to be a doctor but Wittenburg had no medical program so he found himself a school teacher. In the mean time the farm, due to the co signing of a friend/investor’s loan was forfeit, shortly after the dear family friend jumped out of a window.  It was the depression, you know the great one, grandfather’s younger brother also went to college and found himself a civil engineer just in time for world war two. He was a seabee. So Mom’s dad got to live through the beginning of the first of many transitions. This was the beginning of the movement from the family farm to the job…usually in a city. The word Carrer begins to get kicked about a lot. This is a change from land ownership to renting or owning a home but not a farm. The process of loss of farm industry would still be in full swing when I would be in college in the early eighties. Grandfather worked as a school teacher and a coach. He was the first person in the state of Ohio to have a masters in education. His second job was as the co director of a local poverty hospital back when corporations and churches still gave a damn about their fellow inhabitants or neighbors.  Now its hard to see us over the wall.

My Dad’s dad, left the farm at the age of seventeen to find work on the railroad. differences, Dad’s dad didn’t need a higher education, in the formal sense to do this work. Although there was education on the job. By the time second grandpa was 22 years of age the foremen made a remarkable discovery. He still had all his fingers and toes. They figured he must have known something and promoted him to foremen. He was in charge of four crews each numbering one hundred men, Chinese, African, Irish, Italian it didn’t matter, those crews laid about two miles of track a day. This was during the depression. As with every other economic bump some industries actually expand. Grandfather did that job until about the time my dad entered the 6th grade then the old bird cashed in his pension and got a job at Dad’s school because he felt he needed to keep an eye on dad and my uncle. Knowing what my brothers and I are like I figure it was probably a good move. Both mom’s parents and Dad’s parents had their children later. They both held full-time employment until they were ready to retire. This brings me to my Dad and Mom.

My Father went to college on a football scholarship just like his father in law but there was a difference in the way they proceeded.  Grandpa wanted to be a doctor but dad, well, the only thing he wanted to do was play football.  To the old man classes and grade point were just a prerequisite to playing the game that he loved.  He was a remarkable athlete.  He could run the four fourty in eleven seconds flat which may not sound that fast to some until you understand that he stood almost six and a half feet tall and weighed in at nearly three hundred pounds.  He had long arms and legs which in the long run would be his weak spot, his knees.  After two years he received a serious injury and being that he was a less than serious student Syracuse dropped his scholarship.  He was picked up by the United States Navy where he played a few more years and served out the rest of his term as a sailor.  Dad’s life between Syracuse and marrying my mom is something of a mystery.  There were several years there where none of us can place him and he wasn’t much of a talker.  I know that he worked at one of the rougher establishments in the area as a bouncer.  After an incident involving the daughter of one of the local politicians, a politician with family connections if you get my meaning.  Grandfather smuggled Dad onto one of the lake freighters were dad worked as a deck had for a few years and found himself as a union negotiator for the longshoremen’s union in chicago in the late fifties maybe 1960-61. When things got back home cooled off the old man came back and got a job with Mead Trucking even after he and mom were married.  When Mon discovered she was pregnant with me, Dad started to hound the local Ford Automotive Factory, tail light assembly, for a position on the line.  That is where he was working when I was born, where he was working when my mother died, I was 24 years of age and where he retired from, with a small pension about two years later.

Mom on the other hand started at a local school of nursing right out of highschool.  I understand that she was an exceptional student and when she graduated and passed her licensing exam, LPN, she quickly found a job at the same school as a teacher or instructor.  After two years or so in that position she enrolled in Case Western Reserve University and finished her education with a bachelors in Nursing science.  Its my understanding that Dad and she were on better than speaking terms at the time and he lent some considerable financial help to her which allowed her to complete her coursework.  She said, once, the only C she ever received was at Case Western Reserve.  A fresh new RN she went back to her position as a teacher at the Providence School of Nursing until she became pregnant with me.  I was born in 1964, July, and mom took most if not a whole year off to be at home with her child.

But times had changed, where grandfathers had been able to support their family on one income with a wife at home to care for the house and children and cook now it was financially more difficult.  According to my wife Meta, who was raising children herself in the later sixties, Union Jobs in the area paid a prevailing wage of about $3,50 and hour which at the time was a lot of money but the war in Vietnam and American involvement in said war was putting upward pressure on the cost of living and downward pressure on the buying power of the dollar.  So if our parents wanted to live as well as our grandparents they both had to work.  When Mom went back to work her position as teacher had been filled so she took a new spot at the same facility, in pediatrics where she worked until she entered semi retirement and died two years later, in 1988.  For the record she was forty nine years old.

The world I have lived in since then has been very different.  I’m disabled so for the sake of this conversation I don’t count.  Among unskilled labor, like my father and his father, the job market has been under constant pressure since the 80s.  I have a brother, he has his bachelors, who maintained constant employment, in sales up until a few years ago he started his own business which I am under the impression is doing well.  I have a blood brother, also the possessor of a bachelors plus higher degrees, whom has been employed for the last twenty plus years in the military.  My friends from college all maintained positions with full employment.  That is old data as we no longer speak regularly but I assume that they are still employed as they were then.  My family members and friends who fall into the unskilled area have at best spotty work histories or have never been employed.  There are more reasons for this than you can shake a stick at but it is important to not underplay the shrinking job market inside the United States.  There are several reasons for this.  First, the consolidation of many small businesses into one big business, a process that started in the sixties and really started rolling by the middle seventies.  Second, the prevailing belief in business that one person can adequately do a job that would take two is replaced by the notion that One person can adequately do the job that would normally take three.  This downward movement in manpower under the guise of multitasking has more to do with decreasing cost to keep larger business increasingly more competitive in shrinking commercial markets and also allowed for the steady increase in top management pay, again a movement that started in the 60s but really got rolling by the late 70s.  The exporting of american jobs overseas to poorer less regulated markets, ie., sweatshops, child labor, and deadly working conditions with little or no pay.  And Finally, the rise in the, “All I Need is a Couch, a T.v. and A Couple of Bucks movement,” which is surprisingly larger than most people would be prepared to believe.  The couch people believe that their parents, often single women, where stupid for breaking their bodies for minimum wage, working far more hours than most and never being able to pay all the bills.  This group in the work force are called the working poor, according to my Wife Meta.  The fall out from some of the more brutal tactics of what we like to refer to as the free market has left a population of people the I refer to as the couch people.

Couch People feel if they can get hooked up, eg. The Couch and The T.V. without being ultimately responsible for covering the expense of either then they will comfortably stay there until there 15 dollar an hour dream job comes along which it never will.  This is not to underplay the value of couch people as they are prepared to render certain services in return for sharing your space.  Child care, the couch people I have known are great with kids, light menial repeating tasks, each couch person is different some will do more others will do less.  One couch person I know takes out the trash every day others do a wider range of work and others yet do nothing at all.  The final advantage is security, extra eyes, ears and hands are becoming more valuable as the world around us becomes less certain.  But there is still a problem.

Couch people generally reside with two groups of individuals, Seniors and the disabled where feet, hands and company are very important to the well-being especially with the elderly.  Learn to discern, a criminal is not a couch person.  criminals have too much ambition to classify as a couch person.  The second group couch people reside with are the middle class and the upper working.  These groups are being squeezed in the current down turn which will have a great destabilizing effect on social stability than I think most realize.

I just blather on and on about all sorts of crap.

One of the biggest problems we face actually isn’t listed, yet.  The big issue lays in the very definition of work.  Both of my grandfathers spent most of their developing years on the family farm.  To them work was not dependent on the amount of money you made.  Instead work was an expenditure of energy for some gain.  Tangible gain, food, food was obtained through sweat.  you planted it cared for it, animals need to be feed and looked after, leaves needed to be raked, errands need to be accomplished, clothes needed mending.  Almost everything they had, came directly from their skill, knowledge with arms sore from all day sweat and effort.  For School teacher Grandfather, Grandpa Z learning was work.  You coud learn a tangible thing like how to fish, hunt, trap, skin, distill, chemistry, math or speak spanish just to name a few.  These things enabled you to do something that either yielded a good or a testable skill.  There were intangibles hat could be learned as well, economics, history, world cultures the good book all of these things yielded strength of mind and finally there was work that yielded money.  Remember that both grandfathers were raised on farms that were without electricity so all they needed was fire wood, which could be chopped or coal oil which they could trade for.  Both grandpas knew how to patch roofs, a bit of carpentry, basic gardening, grandpa A could cane and Grandpa Z was a wizard in the financials.  For my father, things had started to change.

Really it is best summed up in one experience.  Meta’s boys are just a few years younger than I.  When I moved in to her apartment, as she had a job and I did not I began trying to do some house work cleaning some but mostly cooking.  It became readily apparent that neither of her sons would assist in any such activity the reasoning being that it was woman’s work.  In other words the kind of work you don’t get paid very much for, if at all, doing.  Fascinating really as I found myself experiencing what many a housewife had experienced.  When I relayed this story to my father a few years later he said simply that there is no such thing as woman’s work.  Work is work it didn’t matter who does it.  I was born the last year of the baby boom and my wife the first.  My father, was one of the scarier men in the city and he took pride in his ability to cook and did it often.  But the answer still surprised me for I was fully well aware of how much more important, to my father, the money was (As far as amount) than it was for either grandparent yet he still valued the effort that cost nothing.

The men that fall around me or just beneath, I don’t want to say all, I do want to say many, have expressed, in no uncertain terms, that they only work worth doing yields a great deal of money.  They say they want to go to college but they only want to learn whatever limited area they are interested in and college’s have become sensitive to that offering more and more 11 month certificates where you don’t really have to worry about learning or working a great deal to reach your goal and the end result is a rise in student loans attached to a population that still seem unable to find work.  If I cooked dinner and it was tasty and we could eat on it, that’s four grown people, for four days and accomplish said task for no more than 10 or 14 dollars than damn it, in my mind, that was work.  But for the boys it was something they got for free and therefore didn’t value it.  Over time though the expression of this point of view began to disappear.  The boys would find their living environment with us less and less tolerable as we insisted that they do more around the house, turn off the lights or get a job and eventually they would wander to some distant state where they knew for certain a couch was available and that would be it.  That is until they wore off their welcome there and then they would be back with us.  This was also the case for one of my brothers to be fair and several others who did stay on our couch per say.  With buddies getting married and an economy that really started shrinking before 9/11 the availability of couchs has practically disappeared and a  major change in behavior as taken place.  Don’t worry, neither is employed as of yet but at least they are willing to help out more.

Somewhere between my father’s youth and mine there was a fundamental shift in the definition of work.  Work as I described for my grandfathers was the effort to produce, learn or serve, became work earned money.  For grandpa’s work was determined by how well you lived on a little bit of money, now the difficulty of the work is based on the amount of money you earn.  The value of effort has merit only in circumstances where great deals of cash are being accrued.  As a society over all we value actual work less and less because in most cases there is little or no money attached to it.  Other things are attached to income and employment like self esteem and value again based on the volume of cash not the value as a human being to one’s neighbor’/s or family.

This is not good.  As wealth is redistributed upwards which is class warfare just as much as shifting downwards, more and more people slide.  They do less and less and their living conditions deteriorate.  Both sides feel justified in keeping the system and its values the same because if poor people wanted to be rich they’d just work harder and if rich people wanted the poor to work they’d pay them a decent wage.

This leaves people who desperately want to do something, work, the work force, trapped and sitting on their hands watching the world, as they understand it, fall apart because they have no idea that they are trapped in a sea of definitions.  They don’t even in many cases get that there are definitions, like boat anchors around their necks, pulling them down into oblivion.  I can only say this, DO SOMETHING WITH YOURSELF!  Doesn’t matter what it is, you got the time don’t waste it.  Learn something, write, art, fish, hunt, try cooking, spend time with your family and think about what is written here because there is one important question posed.  If we, as a small group, or a large group or even a society change these fundamental definitions could we produce a better world, more fulfilling, enriching and comfortable…Is that even possible?

My mother use to say…”JOB should be spelt J-O-B-B because it should be a four letter word.”


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