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OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Our work ethic

by Mike Masterson | September 18, 2022 at 1:46 a.m.


I never knew during the summer of my 15th year whether the crawlspace I was about to enter to attach ventilation ducts would contain more centipedes or spiders.

But like it or not, the $1.75 an hour that Lee Daniel at his sheet metal and guttering business in Harrison was paying me for 40 hours of my labor weekly made it worthwhile. And I felt fortunate to earn it.

Certainly nothing in 1963 for adults to survive on. But more than enough to keep a teenager with a summer job satisfied with burgers, drive-in movies, pinball machines and those cherry phosphates at Kirby Drug Store.

Daniel's company and the drugstore are gone now. What remains are my memories of how that job helped affirm a work ethic in me that has endured across the decades.

A career military father also played a fundamental role in explaining how we live in a nation where people are free to choose their jobs and the lives they want. But it was never acceptable to become lazy or a shirker.

Short of a handicap or dysfunction, one was expected to make their own way through skills they developed, thereby contributing to the good of our free society and their own vital sense of self-worth and respect.

Simply put, I was expected to become self-sufficient and establish realistic goals toward that end, whether it be education through a trade school, college or perhaps establishing my own business one day. Making a living to support myself and a family was a necessity.

So for that summer I took a flashlight and crawled into the dark and dankness beneath houses and climbed high ladders to hang gutters on homes in and around Harrison.

Little did I know that in six more years I'd spend another summer pacing back and forth as a parts inspector inside the stifling and sweaty Timex watch factory in Little Rock. There I regularly expressed empathy for the women on the boring and repetitive metal-punching machines who in careless moments sometimes removed parts of their fingers.

Yet here we were, day after day, brown lunch bags in hand, earning our hourly wages as part of America's critical labor force.

So, did any of you look around as Labor Day came and went at all the factories, manufacturers and businesses of all forms desperate for someone (at this point, perhaps anyone breathing who will show up to work), even for jobs often paying as much as $15 an hour?

What the heck happened to us since I was 15? Of course, we've had the covid pandemic and all the resulting government assistance, but the ethic with what was such a vital part of our nation's success clearly has changed.

Where and when did we make such a radical turn from an upward-bound, hardworking society with an ingrained work ethic to this?

There seems to be a feeling across America (you must sense it, too) that we have willingly exchanged the enormous benefits that self-sufficiency brings for the expectation that others are somehow now responsible for our financial well-being.

Societies worldwide show all too well that only works out well for those at the top.

I have a single, admittedly limited, view. Yet I can tell you with certainty the prevailing thought about labor in America as a teenager 55 years ago is a far cry from what we've allowed ourselves to embrace in 2022.

Not that long ago it was unheard of for Americans to shun $15-an-hour jobs ... to do what with their idling lives? All the while they're building nothing of value for themselves or, equally critical, our nation's future.

Apparently we are not alone. The scourge of sloth is reported to be pretty much worldwide today.

We all can clearly see all the American employers desperate to acquire enough workforce to even conduct business. The signs are everywhere in Harrison.

Pierre Cléroux, the Chief Economist at the Business Development Bank of Canada, a financial institution devoted to entrepreneurship, says the widespread labor shortage isn't primarily about the pandemic. "The main reason why we have difficulties [recruiting] is because we have an aging population," he said.

To me that says too many youths in today's work-eligible culture aren't willing to.

Experts at the Center for Work Ethic Development have been quoted saying one reason for some workers' poor work ethic is a bad attitude about themselves professionally, as well as their work and company.

While I don't doubt there are many with jobs who are unhappy, those also are the ones who are or have been working.

My concern is the lack of motivation among many today to want to accept work even when a company is willing to offer higher wages. If that's the case, where do we possibly go from here, America?

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.


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