Today’s Pontificate – I always wonder who decides if a person is “hard working” or not. Or who determines if a job that falls into the category of “an honest day’s work”. More to the point, have I had any jobs like that so I can judge others who do not?
The pic at the top is more the image we might imagine of “hard working”, “Honest day’s work.” kinda guys.
This having been an election year we typically get the usual populist rhetoric told to us from any politician about how they are going to value, save, help, embrace, hold in great esteem, elevate to sainthood.. whatever… “hard working Americans”. This has been echoed in each election cycle in my entire life. When I hear that stuff I tend to wonder what happens to those apparently disenfranchised Americans.. the one’s who don’t “work hard”. I’m not talking about the unemployed and those who might seem to be languishing in the cracks of perpetual welfare. If there’s Americans working hard then there must be Americans that are employed but don’t work hard.. right? More to the greater point, who decides if a working American is actually working hard or not.. and can I apply for that position (assuming it’s also a “hard working” position, of course)?
I recently watched the movie, The Company Men, and I found it to be a great study in what can happen when a corporation is forced to downsize via layoffs. The movie plot was during an economy downturn that wasn’t in this age of covid, but downsizing has the same effect regardless the overall reason.. downsizing means people get unemployed. The vantage point of this film was from upper management; loyalties vanish, past performance means nothing, friendships are threatened… and then there’s the realization of people making six figure incomes suddenly having to find employment by any means just to survive. But in one scene of the film the dialog included a character reflection of the company’s past when employees worked “an honest day’s work”. Now, this phrase is also used quite often in politics and this having been election time it’s being used prolifically by every candidate in some form or another… along with the “hard working Americans trying to make ends meet”. I dunno.. seems working at all is a means to an end and not so much trying to make ends meet.
Pretty much with any of us who are employed, we generally perceive ourselves as being hard working. But do hard working Americans do an honest day’s work? In fact, what exactly IS “an honest day’s work”? Or, if you are working an honest day’s work are you hard working doing that? I can sense the perplexing tone in your eyes as you read this and comprehend the immense ramifications of all this <yawn>.
I guess when we try to understand the why and how these phrases are used we have to understand what it means. It’s basically populist phrases and as such it can have a range of interpretation, which is the whole idea. The listener can interpret it anyway they want since the person who said it is simply trying to inspire an emotional interpretation and align themselves to the working class. But I think I can venture one practical interpretation.
An “Honest Day’s Work” –
When it’s used politically the phrase “an honest day’s work” conjures up an image of an average Joe working in some trade… likely a production line or assembly plant or some occupation that has repetition to it; maybe even in the mines or in construction. An occupation that works up a sweat and is physically demanding. It’s a job he never dreamed of doing as a kid but probably does it because there’s not a lot of choice or it’s been the family occupation, generally with the same employer, for generations. When he goes home at the end of the day it’s to a loving and dedicated wife (who doesn’t work) and two kids who live in a sparse place just a level up from NYC bus driver, Ralph Kramden‘s (you have to be a Boomer to understand that one.. look up “The Honeymooners”). He has dirt in his fingernails and struggles to pay the bills and goes to church on Sundays.
Conversely, while we might have an image of what constitutes someone who does an honest day’s work, we might presume to guess what constitutes those people who don’t do an honest day’s work. You know the type.. those are the people who might get the feedback, “he hasn’t done an honest day’s work in his life.” I suppose one could presume to think that people who earn money doing illegal things, like mob bosses or hit men or international thieves or something like that might be included in that category. If “he” hasn’t done an honest day’s work in his life does that mean he’s only done a dishonest day’s work?
Ok.. but if the image is one of an average Joe in some hourly trade occupation where he works up a sweat, what about all us other workers in life who don’t have jobs in the trades nor work up a physical sweat? Are we suggesting that people who make a salary wage are all working a dishonest day’s work? I’m presently a security guard and likely compared to me the so called “average Joe, honest-day’s-work” guy belongs to a union and makes far more an hour than I do, but because I am not in a physically demanding trade am I making a dishonest day’s work? Am I even a “hard working American”?
I think during poor economic times there’s this idea, likely a throwback to the Depression Era days, that you take a job, any job, just to survive. That somehow it’s noble to struggle to pay whatever bills need paying because this is what everybody does. Forget about pie-in-the-sky American dreams and just work at something for the sake of saying you have a job. There’s honor in the personal sacrifice in supporting a family!
Sorry, folks.. here’s the reality. Contrary to what the politicians say or want you to believe… no one in this country is entitled to a job. What we are entitled to under the Constitution is an equal chance, or equal opportunity, to apply for the job we might want. Having a job is NOT a right but rather it’s the opportunity provided to any American as the privilege to pursue what you want to pursue based on one’s own personal desires to achieve. Now, this does not mean that everyone gets a job they want when they want it.. or need it. That’s when the government steps in with unemployment benefits and welfare and other social programs to aid low or non-existent income people to survive until their next step. Unfortunately (for some) we don’t live in a pure and perfect socialist system… by design, of course. We pat ourselves on the back for creating a strong nation built on free market capitalism and the individual personal freedoms to pursue the American dream but the fact remains.. not everyone has the same dreams nor does everyone have the same abilities, skill sets, or health outlooks for pursuing the so-called American dream (which typically is having a job that pays enough to own the home with the picket fence, two cars in the driveway, and put our kids through college).
So the next time you hear how noble it is to work “an honest day’s work” and how noble it is to struggle to pay bills… remember that it has nothing to do with Depression Era nobility, but has everything to do with ability, personal desire, choice, and achievement. If you feel the country and society owes you something then maybe you might want to consider moving to a socialist country… or run for public office to change our country. If you need help to survive, the government is there to assist, which is as it should be. But just because someone has a job that doesn’t get their fingernails dirty doesn’t mean they should be any less respected than those who do. And when some politician rambles on about how in this economy Americans only want a job so that they can work “an honest day’s work, for an honest day’s wage” to support their family, we can safely assume he really means Americans want a job that pays a lot for not doing a lot (the true American dream, per my cynicism), but for now will likely accept a lesser paying job that requires results in your work performance, to pay the bills.
What about “Hard Working Americans”?
I dunno.. on a scale of 1 to 10, with ten being the most work and 1 being the least amount of work… how do you rate your job? Now… do I then think of you as being “stupid”…. judging you… because you get low pay and work a “10”… or do I admire you for making a 6-digit income and working a “10”? Does your rate of pay indicate if you are the “hard working American” or a management person with his feet up on his desk in his walled office for 8 hours a day? (Back in the day I could only do that for about 10 minutes)
My ex-mother-in-law was a real piece of work. Being a member of that Greatest Generation bunch that beat fascism and Japanese imperialism… and believed personal sacrifice was the path to heaven.. she often provided “input” to me, wanted or not, regarding how to handle my career and how my desire to seek occupations that didn’t make my fingernails dirty was as unrealistic as being Pope. I was supposed to skip college and naturally accept my father-in-laws offer to apply his union influence to get me into the Chicago’s sheet metal workers.. for a life of good pay, security, and safety from being fired. Every male in the family had done that! Um… no… and as much as I wanted to tell her to shut the hell up… even after I married their daughter… I kept silent. In the end I won.. she died. But beyond my latent PTSD relating to my in-laws, the point of this belabored history is to illustrate that how we perceive pursuing jobs, careers, college, etc. can be a matter of generational upbringing. In my parents’/in-laws’ day one was in the least partially measured in character by the job they held and level of dirt they swam in to make a buck.
But given our human diversity, everyone has wildly diverse interests, dreams, perceptions on how to live life, and most notably different ways in which to meet their desires. There are those people who actually are very accepting toward working in Chicago’s sheet metal union for a career.. and we should be thankful for that. Their job is not super easy as they work in crazy climates and at equally crazy altitudes… performing their trade. The point is entirely that you do the occupation or simple job based on your will and not some economic duress. Yet there may be times where we accept jobs “to pay the bills”. That’s called accepting personal responsibility to better yourself… if you have the desire and ability. You go as far as you can with what you got. A variation of the old Peter Principle.
I’m tired of politicians trying to buddy-up to the working class using “hard working Americans” who perform “an honest day’s work”.. and assuming they are talking about me and not some “guy next to me” who might be not a hard working American but makes more money. The same when politicians use “a hard day’s work” as if it’s some measure of working sacrifice for my existence. On the other hand, if you forced me to declare who I thought was not “hard working Americans”… well…. there’s that group of elected officials that work in the big domed building in Washington D.C. and make a bunch more money than me for doing nearly nothing. But that’s my political bias, of course. You’ll have to pardon me now as I have to get back to getting paid for sitting on my ass for 8 hours because my Social Security alone doesn’t make it…. and I am too old to work in the career in which I was most successful. It’s “honest” work.. but not overly “hard”. I’m half there.