Nobody wants to work hard in the trades anymore?

Several prominent people and well, most of Generations X and Baby Boom have lamented the reluctance of young people to work. In another ten years or so, Millenials will enjoy the same privilege. This is largely a generalization across all fields, but gets particular resonance in reference to the trades.  (I’ll note here that it is bullshit…I know plenty of young millenials killin it in the trades and in the cubicles. Similarly, I know lots of lazy older people).

I was born in 1979. So, depending on your definition, I’m either a young Gen Xer (which is how I would self-identify) or an old Millenial (whose iconoclastic tendencies and entrepreneurial spirit I admire…also, avocados). When it comes to work ethic and the discussion above, my view (I think) is cross-generational: work your ass off, every day. 

I grew up in a very rural area. My dad was a heavy equipment mechanic, my mom worked in a canning factory. Dad left every day at 645ish and worked at his day job until about 4. Then, he typically did work for a farmer, a volunteer firehouse, or some other side gig, before getting home around 6 or 630. Most Saturday mornings he was working for someone else or around the house. During cherry “season” (most of the summer), Mom would work from 530am to 530pm every day, 7 days a week, 21 days in a row. Then, she would get one day off (by law, she had to) and do another round. 

Being a good worker was about the highest compliment you could be given. I recall here the old Garrison Keillor trope about how in Lake Wobegon you could be a drunk, gambling, foolish spendthrift, but if you were a good worker, all those faults were overlooked. Victory, NY, my hometown, is much different (and even smaller) than Keillor’s fictional village, but the same norms applied. If you were the kind of person who showed up late to work, let other people do your job, or slacked off in anyway, you were the source of derision. If you were a good worker with a lot of issues, those issues were typically forgiven. (“I mean, he isa good worker”).

Recognizing these norms before I knew what norms were, I got work as soon as possible. There, it meant farm work. Primarily, taking hay off a wagon and putting it into a barn. I got paid $5/hour. I loved it. Later, I did other stuff like mow a cemetery, picked up trash at a Renaissance Festival, and trimmed Christmas trees. Odd jobs in more ways than one.

I was praised for doing this, but I was only following the example of my parents (and most other people whom I admired). I was expected to work as teenager. To not work was not acceptable. When at work, I was expected to work hard and when you’re doing things like picking rocks out of field with a group of people, it’s immediately apparent to everyone who is working hard and who is not. This was an adjustment for me when I began working in offices (more on that in another post).

But working at a young age isn’t necessary to have an admiration for work or a good work ethic. My wife’s family had a different approach. She and her sister were instructed that they would be working for the rest of their lives and that they should enjoy being young. However, they are two of the hardest working people I know and take their careers very, very seriously. 

Yes, at some point in there, we were all encouraged to go to college. My father once told me he didn’t really care what I did for work, but that I should try to find a job where I didn’t have to get dirty every day. Our generation of parents saw this as the next step in the “evolution” of the middle class.  And yes, imagining your kid sitting in a nice chair in an air-conditioned space where the biggest work place hazard is tripping on your headphone cord is probably a natural instinct. But when your parents and/or neighbors were tradespeople, or worked in factories, or simply valued good work, encouragement of going to college did not undermine value of the trades. 

What am I getting at? I value the trades and hard work because I was taught to value the trades and hard work. Our values are taught to us, implicitly, by those around us. We are now that adult generation and if we want the trades and hard work to be respected, we need to teach the younger generation to respect it—not tell them to. At least as much as they respect and admire people making a living by playing video games on YouTube. Unfortunately, what I hear from people in the trades is the continued refrain of “no one respects people in the trades”, “no one wants to learn my trade” , “kids don’t want to work hard.” I think these laments inadvertently undermine the cause. It reinforces the view we’re trying to overturn.

While you should certainly be honest about how hard it is to make a living in some trades (either because of pay or the physical labor, or both), lets talk about how awesome it is that people invite us into their homes to improve them? Maybe talk about how we go into a job and build not only a new cabinet, but a new friendship. Or how, unlike an office job where one’s success depends largely on his/her ability to convince others of their perspective and value, the trades offer a no-bullshit display of knowledge and skill. The work is done well, or it isn’t. The drain leaks, the cabinet door sags, the breaker trips when the coffee pot is turned on? That’s on you. You can fix any of those things? That’s a superpower. 

Put differently, instead of the “woe is me” attitude, or the preciousness of “no one else can do this, it is so hard” attitude, how about some honest, but encouraging perspective from the best among us? Mike Rowe has done this wonderfully with his show. But you don’t need to be on TV to discuss the better parts of the life you chose.