Kids Don’t Know How to Work Today?

Another old file I discovered, which I’d posted on a now-defunct blog some years ago: “Things have sure changed… kids don’t know how to work today?” What do you think?

Nov 24, 2008

Today I went to pick up my final cheque from a temporary job I had for a few weeks. When I went in, the owner, who must be close to 80 years old, was in the back, shuffling around, bent over, looking so sad and lost.

I asked him, “Are you okay?”

He sadly answered, “How can people be so mean, writing letters about my business, saying everything is not fresh and all?” Then he shuffled into his little office, to get me my cheque, and he got all confused and started writing me a new cheque instead of just signing the one the book-keeper had prepared… And he was, of course, embarrassed, and his head hung even lower. “I guess I’m just getting too old,” he mumbled.

And then he signed the right cheque and stood up to see me out, and he sadly said, “I sure will miss you working here. The new girls don’t know how to work. They just stand around so much.”

I told him, “Well, they are nice girls and they will figure out how to work hard.”

And he replied, “But when I was growing up, we knew how to work hard when we were so much younger.” I answered, “Well, we did too… but it’s a different world today. Even at school, expectations aren’t as high as they used to be.” He sadly nodded his head, and then one of the young workers came up and that was the end of the conversation.


He sadly nodded my head, and then one of the young workers came up and that was the end of the conversation.

I went home, and I was thinking about this poor old man. All his life he had worked hard to make a living, and now, far past “retirement age,” he was still trying to make the business go. He recently had some pretty major back surgery and is in constant pain. He has put up his business for sale, but the economy is tough, and no one wants to buy a private bakery, when customers and sales are dwindling, and there is so much competition from the “big box” grocery chains with their huge in-store bakeries. He does have a small, faithful clientele of seniors who appreciate the hand-made quality of his baking, and some faithful restaurants who appreciate the way he will produce custom-made products. But overall, the business is dwindling, and instead of being able to retire and enjoy the benefits of his many years of hard work, he still has to get up early every morning–baking starts at 3:30 am–and stay around to help and to supervise until closing at 5 pm. I feel sad for him; he seems like a little child who is lost and confused and just needs someone to hug him and take care of him.

But back to the “young people don’t know how to work” dilemma. This is, of course, not entirely true; there are good numbers of young people out there who do know how to work hard–they are snapped up quickly by businesses that pay well or they enthusiastically start their own businesses. But it is not easy to attract workers when business is slow and one can only afford to pay minimum wage. I know for a fact that this is true for him; he has even put his house up for sale, because he can barely afford basic supplies, never mind wages. Most of those willing to work for minimum wage are either unskilled workers, or folks wanting to just pick up a few extra bucks working part-time, or perhaps desperate for a job and willing to take anything for the time being but constantly on the lookout for something better. In the end, very few of these workers have the motivation to “do their best” in the situation or to “take pride” in being part of that business.

I suppose there have always been people with those attitudes, but it seems to me that in the past, people more often took pride in their work–not just because it could get them a good recommendation for a future employer, but because there was a general feeling that one was part of a “family” almost–and that the reputation of the business was a reflection on yourself. Of course, in small communities, where everyone knew each other, this was truer than today, where people come and go in jobs, and most of the customers have no idea who the workers even are. Community has been lost; so the sense of being part of the community, and having some responsibility–and reputation–in the community, disappears also.

I was also thinking about how “my generation” learned to simply “work.” Of course, this will immediately date me, but here goes! When I was a girl, we had 4 children in our family; that was considered average or even small. We had a clothes washer but no dryer, so as the oldest child, it was not long at all before I was carrying the baskets of laundry outside–all year round, in all kinds of weather–to hang them on the line; then later bring them in and iron! There was no perma-press until at least my early teens, and so we did a lot of ironing: clothes, of course, but also towels, sheets, table cloths (yes, we still used cloth ones regularly), and so on. My dad was a teacher, and he wore white dress shirts to school every day, as well as to church on Sunday. So another of my chores was to press and starch 6 white dress shirts every Saturday.

There were restaurants, of course, in my day, but the average family rarely went to them. Fast food chains were sparse and were mostly used by teens and young adults who had their own incomes. So cooking was done at home. TV dinners had been invented, but they were expensive and tasted nasty. We learned from an early age to peel potatoes, mix cookies and cakes “from scratch,” and so on. Only the wealthiest families had dishwashers: “doing dishes” every day was expected of children from a young age. And nearly everyone, in our area at least, had a big garden and perhaps some fruit trees, and the children had to help plant, weed, and harvest.

My brothers had paper-routes from the age of about 7 or 8, with upwards of as much as 150 to 200 papers each, Monday to Friday. They also had to mow the large lawn around our house–with a “push-and-grunt” lawn-mower. Some folks had power mowers, but most folks with boys still used the old-fashioned mowers, partly because the new-fangled ones were expensive and not very reliable, but partly because it was the general consensus that boys needed some form of heavy labor to become physically strong, and to learn to do hard work. In our area, most people had electricity of course, but in some rural areas, such as where my husband grew up, boys still had to haul water from the well, chop wood for the woodstove, trim the coal-oil lamps, and so on.

And then there was school. Everyone started at age six (no public kindergarten when I started), going right into grade one, learning to read and write. It was assumed we would have already learned to play and to get along with other children simply by being part of a family, and by playing with neighborhood kids; everyone in the local area knew each other. It was also assumed we knew how to sit still and be respectful of those in authority; this was practiced in religious services, and modeled by the adults in our lives. Of course, not everyone succeeded with school, and children were pretty quickly “streamed” according to their “abilities” (which might be related to their IQ but was often an unfortunate result of social station and similar issues). There was not much understanding of learning difficulties and special needs, and children with these differences did not get much help. There was little focus on areas like the arts and technology, so children with those inclinations were not encouraged to follow them in the school system.  Thus, “academic failure” was a common experience, and many students never went past grade 7 or 8, as they would drop out as soon as they turned 15, but they could get work, generally “blue-collar” labor of some kind. This was generally considered acceptable, and with the strength of the unions, they often had earning potential not all that different from those who stayed in school to join the “white collar” workforce.

I am not defending all of this streaming; there were many unfair and sad outfalls of the system–but hard work was assumed, and for the most part, “welfare” was scorned. Of course, I grew up in the middle-class; children from definitely upper-class homes generally went to private schools, and it was only years later that I looked back and realized that certain “poor” students had simply disappeared out of the “system.” People began to be concerned about the unfairnesses inherent in the accepted system, and there followed attempts to really create a “democratic” society in which every individual would have every possible chance to reach his or her full potential. Whether this has been totally successful, of course, is a matter of debate. There is the matter of “dumbing down the curriculum” and other such schemes, which have–it seems to us older folks–led to hard work in education disappearing for most students.

Then there is the matter of technology. I was going through my old trunk the other day, and found my “slide rule.” My kids were intrigued with this antique piece of equipment, and couldn’t believe it when I told them that this was our equivalent to a calculator when I was taking senior mathematics and science courses! A very few students from wealthy homes did have calculators (which at that time cost about $250, in a time when minimum wage was $2.50 an hour or less), which could do the 4 basic functions of addition, multiplication, subtraction, and division, but they were not allowed to use them at school. We were of course expected to memorize our times tables and other number facts, as well as numerous formulas in mathematics and science, and dates, populations, capital cities and endless other facts. We were also expected to learn to spell correctly, and for difficult words, quickly and accurately locate them in large dictionaries (which of course required spelling ability to succeed). Even typing was done on big old manual typewriters, and the goal was to learn to type quickly and without errors–and to plan ahead, making good summaries and such, since errors were difficult to correct, and there was certainly no “cut and paste.” We learned to write a lot, early on, as there were no photocopiers, and mimeographed materials were not widely used in the classroom. So we copied endless reams of material off the blackboard. We had to write full sentences, and then paragraphs, and essays; fill-in-the-blank worksheets were almost unheard of.

Of course, we also didn’t have video game systems, rental videos, and all manner of other electronic gadgets. In fact, we did not even have a television in our particular home until I was 15 years old. This was not all that unusual. We learned to play table games, read, get together in the empty field at the end of the block and play softball or whatever sport, build sandbox cities, hammer and nail together forts, create our own guns or bows-and-arrows and other handmade toys, and so on. Even play was often a lot of work! And a great deal of it happened outdoors in the fresh air and entailed a lot of exercise. At Christmas, we were strongly encouraged to make gifts for each other. More work, but great joy and satisfaction in it too.

I suppose that, as part of the post-World-War-II generation, I was really on the tail-end of that old-fashioned way of life. And I have to admit I love my gadgets–especially my computer, as you can tell. But sometimes I wonder: are all these improvements really progress? Have we lost the joy and satisfaction inherent in hard work?

What do you think?

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