If you’d told one of my grandparents, “What I really want from a job is relevance, flexibility and autonomy,” they wouldn’t have thought, “Let’s help her get some guidance from a professional counselor or a career coach.” They’d have made a sign of the cross, then sent for a priest and demanded an exorcist.
The very words “innovation, flexibility and autonomy” weren’t in their vocabularies — not even in their native tongues — and certainly wouldn’t have applied to any requirements they had for employment.
My grandparents did shift work. Always carefully pronounced, it was usually miserable. These unpleasant jobs were, not coincidentally, the most poorly paid.
But paid they were, and that was all anybody expected. Their children, a few rungs up the social ladder, learned to expect more. Not much, but some.
Neither of my parents graduated from high school, but they had better jobs than their parents. They were literate, numerate and, in their own ways, ambitious. When they were teenagers, my mother was a switchboard operator and my father was a radio operator on a B-24 Liberator bomber. Then my dad joined his brothers in a small factory sewing bedspreads and curtains.
He had the kind of job where he showered as soon as he got home; he always hoped my brother and I would be able to have the kind of jobs where you showered before you went to work.
And both of us do — now. It took a few years. The next generation of our particular tribe seems, knock wood, to be OK. If they’re running, it’s not from the cops, but in marathons. If they’re sleeping outside, it’s in a tent and on purpose.
But I worry. I worry about kids I know who have dropped out of school and who do actually need workplace counselors because they have no clue how to be self-sufficient. They need to learn how to keep a job by showing up on time — sober — and accepting responsibility for their actions. I worry about friends in the community who, like my grandparents, have no option but to accept minimum-wage positions without benefits and are haunted by the constant threat of unemployment.
In even more practical terms, what were once called “fringe” benefits have increasingly become the very reason to get a job in the first place.
With the idea of universal health care being gutted, if you don’t have health insurance through your employers, you’ll be performing your own appendectomy with toothpicks, bendy straws and cosmetic sponges.
If you don’t have a retirement plan through your company or institution, you might end up spending your golden years playing the penny slots. After all, casinos are now America’s version of elder care.
And unthinkable, perhaps, as it would have been to my grandparents or to most human beings currently on the planet, the most privileged of us expect far more than a paycheck from our jobs.
These hopes include but are not limited to: 1. Wanting a creative job that can be worked either from home or in a space equipped with ergonomically designed furniture featuring ample light and stimulating colleagues; 2. Searching for a way to change the world for the better through the combined talents of a group of highly motivated, intellectually gifted and passionate individuals and 3. Relying on free parking, free coffee and free school supplies for everyone you’ve ever met since you have access to the supply cabinet.
But what most of us want is fair compensation and a chance to use our skills, engage our talents and develop the best of our imaginative resources.
We want to show up and be recognized. We want to be treated with dignity and offered respect for what we do, whether it’s waiting tables, selling cars or working for the FBI.
If you’ve never done the job, you probably have no idea how hard it is. I don’t care whether it’s washing floors or being Senate majority leader, the person who works hard, especially if it means cleaning up after others, deserves credit.
Work, like love, should never be taken lightly. Done well, it will involve long-term commitment, and at its best, it’s a gift. And sometimes, when you’re really lucky, there will be coffee.