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Column: Has America lost its work ethic?

“There are some jobs Americans just will not do.” - President George W. Bush.

I don’t know about most folks but I find that statement disturbing. And it’s not because I disagree with it or even take umbrage with the president for saying it. What I find unsettling is that it is most likely true.

President Bush made that startling revelation a week or so ago in remarks concerning illegal aliens, mostly from Mexico, coming into the United States to perform whatever manual labor they can find. That includes a lot of crop work, hoeing, picking and packing all manner of commodities. Illegal aliens and some with proper papers also tackle a lot of landscape and construction work that, apparently, most Americans are too good to perform.

I don’t begrudge them the work. I don’t begrudge them the mostly minimum wages they collect for doing it and I certainly don’t begrudge them the opportunity to send a good chunk of that money back to Mexico (or wherever) to families that desperately need it. I’ve witnessed many of them at work and I’ve never seen anyone work harder, longer and with less complaints. They realize the value of sweat and muscle and are not ashamed to display either.

And that’s what disturbs me: Has America lost its work ethic?

That’s an easy question for me to pose, sitting here in a comfortable, air conditioned office, about 14 steps away from a coffee pot and a refrigerator stocked with food, soft drinks and bottled water. I’m not admitting that writing is easy work. Sometimes the words come through only after much anguish and wrinkled-brow efforts to construct a sentence that says exactly what I mean. (This one was particularly difficult, for some reason.)

But, even on the most stressful, deadline-looming, brain-muddled day, I’m not in the bottom of a 10-foot ditch, in 95-degree heat, shoveling and flinging hard-packed clay up to the ditch surface, wondering if the walls are going to cave in before I expire of heat stress. And I’m not stooping for 12 hours a day in a South Texas vegetable field, cutting, packing and loading crate after crate for less money than a lot folks make in a half hour.

But I would. And I have. Never spent that much time all at once in a vegetable patch, but that ditch image comes straight out of my summer job resume, along with 12-hour days hauling and stacking hay in a barn loft in the humid August environment of upstate South Carolina.

I’m not trying to brag about that. The point is, I needed those jobs to pay my way through school. I’d do that work again, had I the stamina left, before I’d allow anyone in my family to go hungry. When I was growing up work was assumed. It had to be done before we could go fishing, run off to the swimming hole or lie around under the shade reading about pirates, adventurers and detectives. My parents insisted on that.

We got no allowance. We earned our spending money, even when we were small. There were always peas to be picked, grass to be mowed, watermelons to be weeded.

I’m afraid that my generation, which didn’t work nearly as hard as my parents’ generation did, may be the last to have a strong work ethic ingrained into our psyches. I’ve tried to instill some of that in my children, with limited success.

Apparently, we, as a country, have had even less success in holding up honest, sweaty, hard work as something to be proud of instead of to be avoided at all costs. And that, I think, as much as anything going on in this country, indicates what kind of society we’re becoming. We’re degenerating into a people content to sluff our hard work onto those we assume, erroneously, to be of less value. But that gives us time to go to the gym, run marathons, and ride impotent bicycles in the comfort of our family rooms while we watch Desperate Housewives portray the lifestyles we covet.

We should be ashamed. And we should realize that there is no shame in hard work unless it is done badly.


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