A couple weeks ago, Thomas Sowell wrote a column entitled “The myth of meaningful work.” “It was painful,” he noted, in referencing the unrealistic view of the world promoted in many educational institutions, “to see an internationally renowned scholar say that what low-income young people needed was ‘meaningful work.’ But this is a notion common among educated elites. …”
It was the term “meaningful work” that caught my eye. What, precisely, makes work “meaningful”? And why should we all see employment only on those terms? What’s wrong with just the “meaning” of a paycheck?
If you type “meaningful work” into any search engine, you’ll find a large number of organizations out there trying diligently to convince young people to bypass “meaningless” employment and aim for something “meaningful” in order to achieve their full potential in life.
But at what expense? At what point does “meaning” overtake or supersede duty and responsibility?
It should be abundantly clear that not every job is “meaningful.” There are toilets to be cleaned, floors to be swept, tables to be waited, dishes to be washed, beds to be made … the list of menial work is legion.
On this Father’s Day weekend, I would like to address the meaning of menial work for men. Because let me tell you, if there’s any group intimately acquainted with the myth of meaningful work, it’s men.
I know a man who works at a tire center. All day long he takes off old tires and puts on new tires. Does he get intellectual stimulation from this job? I don’t know. Is his work meaningful? The elites probably wouldn’t think so, especially if they saw how grimy and dirty he is at the end of the day. He’s not curing cancer, or solving court cases, or arguing for legislation in the Senate. He’s changing tires. Meaningless work, right?
But I do know that he performs this job efficiently, knowledgeably and with a smile. I also know he loves his wife and five children, and he works hard to provide for them. He takes pride in his “meaningless” employment, so much so that his 5-year-old son told me with great admiration that he, too, wants to work at a tire center when he grows up … just like his daddy. Personally I found that to be incredibly meaningful.
There is another man I used to know who worked as a clerk in the grocery store. He was modest and humble, but always had a smile and a kind word for his customers. He kept a bag of brightly colored lollipops by his cash register, and when my girls were young he would ask permission and then present the girls with a piece of candy. Over a couple of years of polite chitchat while checking my groceries, I learned that this was the latest of a long string of (cough) “meaningless” jobs he’d had, and this one was especially nice because he was indoors and out of the weather.
After a while, management started taking notice of his work ethic. He mentioned he might be up for a promotion. We were cheering him on because we felt at last he would be rewarded for the decades of “meaningless” work he’d done!
And then he died.
Yes, it was a heart attack, and his family and coworkers and customers grieved at the sudden loss of such a kind and gentle man. A man who, after all, never achieved “meaning” through his work.
Or had he?
Think of the people whose lives he’d touched, the children he thrilled with his lollipops, the managers who recognized what a treasure they had in a diligent and helpful clerk. Think of his wife and children who loved him deeply and set out through their grief to emulate his cheerful and optimistic outlook on life.
You see, not everyone is lucky enough to get “meaningful” work. Rags-to-riches bootstrap stories are nice, but not common. Millions of people go through life with no more meaningful work than what this man was doing … and are quite satisfied with it.
But what the elites who look down on “meaningless” work don’t notice is the long-term effect of such employment. The ability to work hard and diligently at menial jobs sets a work ethic and a high standard that one’s children will often emulate. Those children can then seek opportunities for “meaningful” work that had escaped the earlier generation.
My grandfather was a poor Polish immigrant who worked menial jobs his entire life. Most of his employment consisted of shoveling coal on trains and janitorial work in churches. On the morning of his 50th wedding anniversary, the pipes broke in the church basement and he was on his hands and knees making repairs and cleaning messes before donning his good suit and joining my grandmother at the altar for a repeat of their vows and an evening of celebrating with generations of family.
By such employment, he passed his high standards and strong work ethic to his sons, who grew up to become engineers and attorneys. Although the careers of my father and uncles may be considered “meaningful” to those who look down on menial jobs, these men remember the quiet, kind, stoop-shouldered man who led the way on his hands and knees, cleaning toilets … and recognized that my grandfather knew the true meaning of life.
In short, my father and uncles understood it wasn’t important if their work had meaning, as long as their life did.
There is honor in honest work, and this is what men do. Men are biologically programmed to care for their wives and children. To that end, real men don’t really worry about whether their work is “meaningful” or not – but they DO care about their ability to support their family. They care about their wife’s grateful kiss and their children’s joy at seeing daddy walk through the door at the end of the day. This is what gives their life meaning, not some nebulous “meaningful” job title which probably has just as much grunt as glamour.
On this Father’s Day weekend, I would like to offer my salute to the millions of men who perform non-“meaningful” work – work that pays them and allows them to support their families, regardless of how much satisfaction or enjoyment that work gives them.
Gentlemen, you’re the backbone of this nation. Thank you.