Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What is Meaningful Work

When I was a child, we had apple trees in the yard. The previous owners had planted an orchard that had grown quite out of proportions, and the apples, while good, were small and not of much use. Hundreds maybe thousands, of apples regularly fell off the trees before they matured, and in late August the matured apples fell, since they were out of reach to pick. My Dad used to assign my brother and I to pick up the apples, by which he meant to rake them into piles, put the piles into the wheel barrow, and cart them to the compost heap. It was a big job for two little boys, and of course we didn't much like doing it. But as my Dad pointed out, it needed doing, it was legal to do, therefore we should be grateful for the work. Thomas Sowell has an article that debunks the latest thinking of academic elites on the nature of work that parallels what my Dad taught us. The article, entitled Meaningful Work can be found on today's Townhall.com. Before Sowell gets into the meat of his argument, he takes time to discuss the elite's understanding of reality here:
The lack of realism among many highly educated people has been demonstrated in many ways.

When I saw signs in Yellowstone National Park warning visitors not to get too close to a buffalo, I realized that this was a warning that no illiterate farmer of a bygone century would have needed. No one would have had to tell him not to mess with a huge animal that literally weighs a ton, and can charge at you at 30 miles an hour.
People living close to nature know that animals of any type have defenses. If they didn't, they would not have survived being chased down by powerful cats and other natural predators. But today's children have grown up with anthropomorphized versions of animals that often think and talk just like people, and have the same views of people as they have of the animals. Thus they approach real animals in the wild as if they were the cartoon versions. Sweet little Bambi and her mother aren't so sweet when they are feasting on your carefully nurtured tomato plants and your peaches. Sowell goes on:
It was painful, for example, 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, regardless of how counterproductive its consequences may be for society at large, and for low-income youngsters especially.

What is "meaningful work"?
You can read the rest of his article. As for me, I will stand by my Father's definition: any work for which someone has a need, and is legal, is meaningful work. The workman should be paid what he has earned. Every job is not worth the same amount, and one should strive to obtain the highest paying job for which he is qualified. If that means that young people may have to clean houses for a while, or work at a McDonald's restaurant, these employers have needs, and it is legal. One of the important skills that everyone learns doing these simple  jobs is the necessity of being on time, of dressing appropriately, and of taking and following the orders of those who pay you.  McDonald's has trained a huge number of kids in the art of being marketable.

Note that I call these jobs simple, rather than menial.  Menial implies a certain meaningless to such jobs, like digging a hole and then immediately filling it in.  Busy work.  But flipping hamburgers, is not of that nature.  People in a hurry often need to eat on the run.  McDonald's, and other fast food chains provide a needed service by putting a nutritious meal in peoples hands at a reasonable price.  The logistical chain that makes it possible for someone to go into any McDonald's restaurant anywhere in the world, and get  a consistent, quality hamburger, french fries, and a drink in a clean and safe place is pretty impressive, but it all breaks down if someone thinks frying up hamburgers is not an important part of that.  Looked at like that, are there any jobs that are not meaningful? 

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