Do You Know How To Work?

Ben Stein has written a very thought-provoking article that for Yahoo! Finance called “All Play and No Work Makes for a Poor Life.”

I realized while reading it that Ben might as well be talking to me. And I think his points are pertinant to the goals and attitudes of millions in my generation.

New Cultural Phenomenon: Aversion to Work

Ben’s basic message is that “while almost everyone I know went to college, very few learned how to actually work — i.e., how to give an honest day’s labor for a paycheck.” He mentions various friends of his who have never held a steady job, “creative” types who live one paycheck away from homelessness because they can’t IMAGINE working a 9 – 5 job, women who spend their attractive youths “working” for various rich boyfriends, and other examples.

I have observed this reality quite a bit, now that I think about it. Many people quit working (or never start) at the first opportunity. Females upon marraige or pregnancy; males upon inheriting or accumulating a modest sum. More than a few of my peers chose one of the following alternatives to work shortly after graduation or after only a year or two in the work force:

  • “I got married and/or got pregnant!”
  • “I’ve decided to start my own businesses!”
  • “I volunteer” or “I work for X foundation/museum/non-profit”
  • “I am traveling abroad to experience the world and find myself”
  • “I’m going to work for my family’s company”

Oh, and lets not forget the ubiquitous

  • “I’m going back to school.”

All of these are theoretically wonderful choices, but they are all to often code for “I don’t know how to and/or I refuse to actually work.”

The Benefit of a Hard Day’s Work:

The problem with this is that people who never experience working hard to earn a paycheck also never develop the pride, empowerment, and work ethic that comes along with it. “Work elevates the spirit, disciplines the mind, conveys self worth — redeems life itself.” Ben points out that people who develop the habit of hard work don’t become bums, criminals, or drug addicts, and they don’t wind up in middle age with suicidal self-loathing.

Even those who “work” can fall prey to work-aversion techniques and end up tempted towards addictions and the self-loathing Ben warns against. There’s a difference between earning good money and hard work. Lots of people earn great livings, and many would insist that they “work hard”–movie stars come to mind. But literally working hard for hours on end in order to earn your dinner money–without the option to leave for an appointment, surf the internet, or make a phone call–is a very different thing than what many of us experience at work.

Studies show that most Americans only contribue 2 solid hours of productivity to their employers during a typical 8-9 hour workday. Email, internet, computer games, phone calls, chatting, work-gossip, and meals are what we really spend our time, attention, and energy on.

The Ruining of Our Generation?

Like many of you, I have a steady job, I get up every morning and work 9 hours a day, I am moving up in my company and developing a career. But…I’m not actually working very hard. The truth is I’ve never had to work that hard to earn my grades, resume, and promotions at work. And the truth is, if I didn’t happen to have a well-paying job that I like, I’d probably quit and choose one of the other alternatives to work I mentioned above.

I, like most in my generation, grew up being told “You’re Special!” and “You Can Do Anything You Dream!” Every student got a gold star and every athlete got a trophy. My generation spent its childhood learning how to be totally self-indulgent–travel, music lessons, sports, camps, shopping, TV, study abroad, eating out, allowances, etc. Those things all have their place, but perhaps good old-fashioned hard work should be added to the list as well.

More from Meg at The World of Wealth

26 thoughts on “Do You Know How To Work?”

  1. Ummm… it’s actually a bit insulting to quite a few people, myself included, to include starting you own business and working for your family’s company in a list described as: theoretically wonderful choices, but they are all to often code for “I don’t know how to and/or I refuse to actually work.”

    There is a very big difference between starting your own business or working for your family’s business, and traveling the world to find yourself. The difference… the latter doesn’t pay the bills. A job is a job. If it pays the bills, why should one be talked about in a negative connotation simply because it bucks the “9-5” standard?

    I can’t stand the absolute laziness that seems to be rather prevalent in today’s generations, but this particular posts seems more to target a lack of conformity rather than laziness.

  2. To the last paragraph- I have no doubt that the ‘self-esteem’ generation is going to be in trouble when they hit the real world. That being said, why does work have to be ‘hard’?

    Getting through college while working full time and living on my own was hard work. That allowed me to get a better paying job and while I may not be out digging ditches (certainly ‘hard’ work) I have deadlines to meet and clients to satisfy. If I don’t, I’ll be trying to sign up with the ditch digging folks.

  3. Adam,

    I completely agree that working for your family or starting your own business can be a very tough, important, and noble thing to do. I’m talking about the people of my entitled generation who are using inheritances to start companies and/or getting lucrative salaries from their parents’ companies without ever having to really earn their standard of living. That’s the important difference. Granted, it may pay the bills, which is important, but it leaves many people insecure, dis-empowered, and with little self-esteem.

    But even many of us “normal” people without huge trust funds or parents with companies have managed to coast through life without ever having to work really hard to earn our standards of living. This is because our parents are wealthier than ever, we’ve never seen a big war or even a recession, and the job market’s been great for years. This is great in some ways, but I think there are negative implications on our mental health, our ability to deal with tragedy and uncertainty, and the economy that we’re creating.

  4. Is anyone else getting tired of the link spam in the comments? It’s nice and all that other blogs are linking to yours, but the noise to signal is really getting up there. And it all just feels like Google whoring.

  5. Every generation thinks the next is “lazy”. I doubt there is any data to back this up.

    Anecdotal evidence:
    I am still in college, and everyone I know works 10-30 hours/week while taking a full course load.

  6. One note I’d make is that quitting “work” to be a full-time mom is not for those with work-aversion. They’d do much better with 9-5 job and only 2 hours of productivity rather than being on call 24 hours a day, etc. I know what you mean, but I think being a mom is actually the opposite of the work aversion you’re talking about. Maybe they don’t realize it is, though.

  7. To say starting your own business isn’t hard is just stupid. To say being a stay at home parent is not hard is just plain dumb and to say its an excuse for not knowing what they want to do is disrespectful and ignorant. Just because somones goals are different that yours doesn’t make them less valid.

    I’m 22. I work 70-100 hours a week between my full time jobs (yes I have 2) and my freelance business. I am also finishing my degree. My job is not physically “hard” but it is certainly demanding, and most people I know could not handle the work load I do. Do I have to work this much? no, I could easily mooch off my parents, or go work for the construction company my family owns. I could work just one job and move into a crappy little apartment instead of my nice little apartment. I enjoy working so I work a lot. People who don’t enjoy working and would rather do other things should work only enough to support what they would rather be doing.

    Do what makes you happy, this post is just wrong.

  8. Huh. Harsh! I’m in the “got pregnant” category so no, I haven’t worked an honest day’s work in my field of study. I don’t earn a paycheck. This is not to say though that as a mother of soon-to-be 3 boys and the CEO of the household that I won’t *work* and work hard. It’s not like I sit around doing my nails and investing in myself. Nor do we live even a few paychecks from poverty. Before I had kids I worked 1-3 jobs at a time to get through college, and now my husband works hard – and we work hard as a family to save about 30% of our income.

    I DON’T know what I want to “be when I grow up” but I find it insulting to insinuate that means I don’t know the value of a hard day’s work. I happen to think that raising my kids is really important (and hard…) work.

  9. To all you Moms and Entrepreneurs (and volunteers and travelers), I am NOT saying that what you do isn’t hard or that it’s a bad choice to make! My mom was a SAHM of 4 girls and my dad worked for his family company when I was young–and they both worked very hard and provided well for me and my sisters.

    My point was just that it’s easier for our generation to avoid hard work (especially compared to what “hard work” has always meant in the past) whether you have a 9-5 job, your own business, or a couple of kids and a household you’re taking care of. Our lifestyles are so above and beyond what even “rich” people’s were a generation ago, and yet we really don’t have to work as hard for them.

    This isn’t all bad! Thank goodness most of us don’t have to dig ditches and live off beans and rice and struggle to make ends meet for years like many of our ancestors! But it’s disconcerting to me how different our lives are in that way from our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. I worry about negative and unanticipated implications.

  10. Also, I agree that the link-comments are annoying. I need to talk to JLP about how to control that. I’m still getting used to this blog format and administration.

  11. Just to play devil’s advocate…many people have a different attitude towards the 9-5 because they see that the social contract has broken down. More and more companies expect you to give your life to them–work really long hours, work weekends, don’t take a vacation, do the job of the other people they laid off, etc.–and for your dedication you’ll often get no dedication in return. If the shareholders aren’t making enough then you’re laid off without a second thought. In real dollars workers now make less than they did in the 60’s while CEO’s make 600x more. That’s part of the reason why many people aren’t willing to work hard–because they realize that they’re just a cog in the machine and can be outsourced at any day without a second thought.

  12. @Meg

    I think what you might be trying to say is our jobs are not as physically demanding as they have been in the past.

    “Hard” is a totally objective word, and that is drawing a lot of fire to your post. I find taking care of children to be extremely “hard” and at this point in my life would rather work 10 jobs than stay at home all day with a kid, I just don’t have the patience. The inverse of that is someone who loves kids and loves to be around them would probably find it “hard” to maintain a computer network spanning 25 locations across a state with 300+ workers 200+ computers, cell phones, smart phones, printers, etc.

    the requirements are different now than they were 40 years ago, we have machines that do a lot of the “hard” work (digging a ditch isn’t all that hard anymore since we use backhoes and excavators). But to say we don’t work hard, and especially saying my generation is “lazy” is just ignorant. My generation “the millennials” are the most productive generation of all time. We work less and produce more, if anything we should be praised for our efficiency, not bashed for being “lazy”

  13. Jordan,

    I agree that I should have defined my use of the word “hard.” Part of what I was saying does relate to the physicality of “hard” work, but I am also referring to having to submit to authority, lacking flexibility and pampering on the job, and desperately needing the money you’re working for. I think all of our characters would benefit from having to work, even for a short time, under such conditions. It’s a matter of “traditional values” I suppose. It seems like we’re all a bit spoiled.

    But I never used the word “lazy” in my post. I do NOT think our generation is lazy; I simply think we are much better off and simultaneously we don’t have to work as “hard”–while that seems great, it’s just disconcerting to me. Maybe I’m just paranoid.


    You’re right that monetarily (due to inflation) we might not be making that much more, but because of technology the luxuries and lifestyles of even the lower middle class have far superceded what wealthy people enjoyed just a generation or two ago.

    And I’m not advocating a traditional 9-5 job so much as I am advocating having to work–hard–for money at one point in your life. It’s like living alone–you may never have to do it, but it’s really good for you if you learn how at some point.

  14. After thinking about it a bit, I get what Meg was trying to say. However I just think it came across a bit disconnected. It basically comes down to survival. In this case she is talking about jobs, but it could also apply to food and any other aspect of life. These days we don’t have to milk our own cows and kill our own chickens. Not because we’re lazy, but simply because the world has changed. It’s the same way with the job market and work ethics. I think the work environment these days is more conducive to youth making lazy decisions and forming lazy habits, but not intrinsically lazy itself. Sure you could make the argument that we lack the “experience” of an economic depression or major war or what not. But how in the world is anyone supposed to prepare for that? You could take it to the extreme and learn how to survive in a complete breakdown of the system, such as hunting and killing your own food, making your own shelter, etc… But really, beyond being as prepared as possible, it only matters that we each make the most of the situation we have.

  15. I took a class about bridging generations recently. It was a real eye opener. It made me understand why I think the way I do, and why people in other generations view our creativeness as laziness! If you ever get the opportunity, take one like it.

  16. Adam – Thank you. I was not as clear or specific as I should have been, in hindsight, and you picked up on exactly what I was trying to say. The world has changed. And mostly for the better in my opinion!

    Thank God (literally) that I don’t have to “work hard” like my grandparents and parents did–they all grew up in poverty, working hard to get every dime they ever accumulated and for every luxury they ever indulged. And they succeeded so that as hard as I might work-whether as a SAHM, entrepreneur, volunteer, or 9-5er–I’m not going to go hungry if I miss work for a week. And as great as that is, I also feel like that part of my parents’ characters that were shaped by that hard, necessary work will never develop the same way in me.

    That’s all I was trying to say; I certainly wasn’t as clear and specific as I should have been, and I apologize for any offense. And I appreciate those of you who read the whole post (and the linked article) and attempted to understand my muddled insights.

    By the way, as far as a solution: of course there is none. We have been simultaneously blessed and cursed by our booming economy, just as our ancestors were blessed and cursed by their struggling one.

  17. Carpenters’ adage: Measure twice and cut once.

    Perhaps there should be a financial bloggers’ adage as well: “don’t generalize about people” or perhaps “sleep on a blog before posting it.” Most folks know that there are dozens of reasons parents “stay home” to raise their children. Fortunately, laziness is not one of them.

  18. Ben points out that people who develop the habit of hard work don’t become bums, criminals, or drug addicts, and they don’t wind up in middle age with suicidal self-loathing.

    I partially disagree with this. I started out working hard at ten, shoveling driveways and sidewalks to make money. At twelve I had my first paper route. I’ve delivered pizzas and was very good at it, and worked hard at it. I’ve also had jobs I hated intensely; fortunately these generally had very flexible schedules so I could work two or four hours at a time, take an extended break, and return to work some more.

    I’ve put in a lot of hard work over many years, and seeing what little I have had to show for it has led at times (not currently) to suicidal self-loathing. Why would Ben – or anyone else – expect a dead-end hard worker to be exempt from suicidal self-loathing?

    Having had jobs I liked (pizzas) and jobs I’ve detested, I can say it’s a lot easier to work hard when you don’t hate your job. So I suspect a lot of “slackers” are people who don’t know (or can’t get) what they want to do, and are stuck putting in time at jobs they hate.

  19. Hah — what I’d really like to see is that this latest generation get over having to try to explain what their generation is all about — why they are privileged or disadvantaged like no other before it.

    Oh, just get over yourselves and get on with the business of growing up. Every generation before you went through this same sort of self-justification before you. You really aren’t that different.

  20. Oh — and one other thing — other generations before you have had booming economies as well. It is not like you are the first generation to ever grow up with an excess of wealth.

  21. Plenty of hard-working people become drug addicts. I’m sure Rush Limbaugh works very hard. He’s obnoxious, yes, but I’m sure he works hard at it. Hard-working people are no exception from temptation and addiction.

  22. I didn’t much appreciate Ben’s column, and since Meg’s post is tied to what was already a flawed concept, its perhaps not reading as well as it could.

    That said, my take is that these days more people have the luxury of CHOICE, in contrast to previous generations where the norm may have been to basically accept whatever [hard] work was available and make the best of it.

    Chosing to start your own business or work for a family business is a choice. Becoming a SAHM is a choice. Retiring to a life of leisure is a choice for some. Many of us are fortunate to live in a world of many options. And if you have the option to maximize enjoyment and fullment (over hard and unfulfilling work), then of course, that is what most of us would do.

    Perhaps what Ben was so fussed about is that this generation of young adults seems to have more options that our generation – especially options that include study abroad, volunteer work, living off mommy and daddy while they find themselves, etc. I know its a gross generalization, but I don’t know too many teens these days holding down after-school jobs. And summers are more likely to be spent in travel, sports camps, or “internships”, not working behind a counter at 7-Eleven.

    But, the problem with Ben’s view, as well as my own, is we are very skewed by the population we’re around – namely upper-middle and wealthy families. What might be true in affluent suburbs of LA or NYC, might not hold water in Oklahoma. So, again, I’m not so sure all the generalizations really say much, accept to express our own very limited personal observations.

  23. I suppose you also miss the quandary of some of us who must volunteer because without experience in a field you have no hope of getting hired in the same field, which is a catch-22 that far too many people face. Or, in lieu of experience you need an advanced degree, part of which often involves some sort of practicum which is probably, you guessed it, unpaid. It’s a big problem in the fields of counseling and social work, that in order to be qualified you must have experience, but no one will pay you to get that experience, as you are not qualified. So you end up working for free, for a probationary period, anyway.

  24. I’m still in school and I’m working. I get paid to do research and it’s peanuts for my work. I’m paid nothing for my “stipend”. Ever heard of cheap graduate student and post-doctoral labor? Well this is it. I don’t think going to school is fun or easy.

    Also it sucks being a mom. I have no kids, but a stay at home parent does it all. Sure no pay, but geez a lou! It takes a lot of patience to sit and home and care for a kid. I think it does involve “work”.

    And Meg don’t you have inherited money in the bank? To the tune of $200k or something? From college money?

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