Why work?

Why do we work?   Well, to make money to support ourselves and our family if we have one, and hopefully also to do something that fulfills us, or contributes to something we think is worthy.    Service to others is also a reason to work.   When I talk to Maya and Ben about what they might choose to do for when they get older, we talk about things that they would enjoy, or that would provide a worthy experience.    We also talk about what type of businesses they might want to own (this is mostly for Maya at this point), or how they might be able to contribute something worthwhile to their community or the world through their work.

Because we are in the process of hiring, I’ve been thinking about the attitude of applicants as well as employees.   The word that pops to mind is ‘entitled’.   Many, many people seem to have this idea that their mere presence in the workplace means they are entitled;  entitled to not ever work a holiday,  or to be paid for work not actually done, or to feel justified in coming in just a few minutes late, or leaving a few minutes early every day.   Talk to people about their work, and more often than not they will complain that they aren’t paid enough, don’t get enough benefits, work too many hours, don’t get enough vacation, and on and on.   Rarely do they sound thankful for their work, or inspired by it, or happy.

There may be many reasons for this, but I think the culture of reward that begins in school is a large contributor.  Kids aren’t taught that learning is its’ own reward.    They do the work because they’ll get something for it.   Many schools, in a misguided attempt to motivate, offer rewards for high scores, good grades and even perfect attendance.  You actually showed up every day this year?  Here’s a prize!    Some schools have started giving away cell phones as incentives – to be used only after school hours, of course.    But what is the lesson taught?   That anytime we do anything good, we need a cookie.   If we don’t get it, then we’re being ‘gypped’ or unappreciated.

Then these kids, who were praised every time they did anything remotely well in school, graduate and enter the workforce.    And their employers hire them to do a job, pay them a wage and expect them to do it to the best of their ability.   But lo!  Just doing their job well and being paid for it isn’t enough.   Hey man, I showed up on time for a whole month in a row.   Don’t I get something extra for that?    Where’s my gold star?   Where’s my extra day off?   You mean there isn’t any extra reward?   Well, then, I’ll just come in 15 minutes late every day.   I’m not working holidays!  Let some other schmuck do that grunt work.

Now I’ve worked in miserable jobs with employers who would be right at home running a sweatshop.   I’m not saying all jobs are wonderful or all companies run by fair, caring people.   I know there is injustice in the workplace.   But I also know that a lot of people feel that they deserve more than they’re getting, for no apparent reason.    They take no pride in a job well done just because it was well done.   They want someone to constantly praise them, or hand them some extra money, just for doing what they were hired to do.  I’m not talking about negotiating a decent wage in exchange for your work.  Everyone deserves that.  I’m talking about feeling entitled to more than that, just because.

We do children a disservice if we reward them every time they brush their teeth, or get an A, or clean their room.  They learn  that the only reason to do a task is for the reward, and not for the doing of the thing.    One of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. has to do with work.  He said, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry.   He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”     Notice he didn’t say, “But don’t do the job well if someone asks you to do it on a holiday.   Also don’t do it well if you don’t get some extra pay for it, or more vacation time.   Come to think of it, let them sweep their own streets if they don’t like you being late now and then because you partied too hard the night before!”

Work is a large part of life.  I hope that my kids will take pride in whatever they do and do it well because of that.    When they ask themselves, ‘why work?’,  I hope they’ll think, ‘because I want to’ and not, ‘because someone owes me something.’


P.S.   I came  across a great website the other day   www.headhuggers.org   If you knit or crochet and feel like contributing to a great cause, you can go on this site and find out how to knit or crochet caps for people who’ve lost their hair due to chemotherapy.   It’s a great idea and provides a bit of love and service to those going through such a difficult process.  Thanks to Sue Thompson for putting her idea into action!

About Amy

Amy Milstein was born and raised on a farm in Indiana, but after 20+ years considers herself a full-fledged New Yorker. She is married with two kids, who do not go to school but are instead life learners. This means they learn by living in the world (real life ) instead of hearing about it and simulating it in a classroom. With her family, Amy loves to travel, read, watch movies, write, sew, knit - the list is endless.
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One Response to Why work?

  1. Martha Jansen says:

    I owned my own business for about fifteen years…two real estate offices….I can so relate to your story today….and I was dealing with “independent contractors” plus employees. No matter what we did for them it was never enough! Good luck on your interviews.