Work makes life sweet

John Langhorne/Tree Full of Owls

Some time ago I was teaching at a small residential college and noticed that high school students would enroll in the autumn and at Thanksgiving we would send home young adults.

This enormous change had little to do with what happened in the classroom, dramatically demonstrated rapid behavior change and explicitly illustrated the difference between two jobs:  high school student and college student. Anyone who has experienced this transition can testify to its joys and vicissitudes.

Last summer, I hired a high school student to work with me in the yard. He played football and soccer and is courteous, thoughtful and a hard worker. This spring, he is again working with me and I have noticed a big improvement in his confidence, ability to work without detailed direction, timeliness and communication skills. What could have happened?

He got a wage-paying job, a part-time job at a pizza place where he delivers pizza on the weekend and works in the restaurant on weeknights. Not only does he have a job but he also has a company car – a big jump in responsibility.

A client once mentioned that one of the best things that had ever happened to his teen-ager was to get a job at McDonald’s, where s/he learned how to work. Perhaps high schools should place less emphasis on sports and more on helping young people get wage-paying jobs.  Ask yourself, which has more relevance to a person’s future?

One on the most important economic measures of our economy is the unemployment rate, a measure of the change in the number of jobs in our economy. Why are jobs so important? I once heard an anthropologist say that we build cultures with families. We build companies with jobs. The jobs an organization creates impact not only the overall health of the company and country but have an enormous impact on the individuals who hold these jobs. What are the benefits of a job?

The job provides an income with all the resulting benefits, such as paying taxes. Mae West said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor – rich is better.” Income is positively correlated with happiness until about $70,000, after that level there seems to be no relationship. Income does not bring happiness, but it’s much more difficult to be personally satisfied when you are struggling to live at some minimal level. However, each individual or family has a personal standard of how much is enough for them.

A job that you are good at and derive satisfaction from has an enormous positive impact on your well-being. The job gives a person an identity. Usually if you inquire, “Who are you?” people answer with a title or description of the job they inhabit or the company. One of the most difficult aspects of being “separated” from a job is learning how to value oneself, one’s identity, without such a self-description.

Today, if you drive through a typical middle class residential area, the most striking aspect is that it is mostly empty. The children are at school, their jobs, and mom and/or parents are at work. Decades ago, these areas were filled during the day with women. This means that the social environment has migrated to the job and the school. Much of what once happened in the neighborhood now happens at the workplace. I sometimes wonder if the over-scheduling of our children is a method to create a new social environment. In addition, consider the number of friends you have met through work.

A job that you are good at and derive satisfaction from has an enormous positive impact on your well-being. I recently had lunch with a very talented person who is departing from a very poor boss. When I suggested she is talented and experienced enough to interview for a good boss, she was able to re-frame her search in a more positive manner. Having a great boss can markedly improve the quality of our lives. Jobs not only affect how we esteem ourselves but also our physical health. Bad jobs can make us physically and mentally ill. In fact, the Japanese have a term that translates roughly into “work-death.”

Some years ago, an extraordinary colleague from New York City mentioned a Yiddish aphorism: “work makes life sweet.”  For many of us, this is certainly the case.