Talk to business owners about “kids these days” and you will get a wicked earful of epithets. Whatever happened to the work ethic?
The answer to that question is not found in some strange corruption of the soul that has taken place in recent years, though that might be the result. The real issue has very practical roots.
No Prior Experience
Young people often enter the workforce following school with no previous job experience in a commercial space. There are high costs to this reality. They lack essential formation in what it means to be truly valuable to others. You can’t learn this from sitting in a desk and taking notes for 16 years. It’s a habit of mind that connects directly to habits of time and action.
The old bourgeois sentiment said that work is as good, or better, a teacher as school. It believed that it was essential for all young people to have jobs so that they could develop a work ethic before they became full-time professionals.
Today it’s not so easy for young people to get a job. Strictly enforced laws prohibit remunerative work before the age of 16. A serious job is not viable until the age of 18, at which point college beckons and student loans make possible a work-free life. Wage floors discourage employers from taking risks with inexperienced employees. And the tight job market since 2008 has limited opportunities for even those who might want to work.
The work ethic is the casualty. This is sad and ridiculous because having a work ethic is not actually difficult. It requires very little other than focus and a handful of rules. They can be summarized: punctuality, the willingness to do what is asked of you, the discipline to stay on task, the drive for excellence, the capacity to be creative, the passion for discovery of unmet needs, and the adoption of a service-oriented mindset.
All these traits make up the work ethic. It can’t always be taught. It is best cultivated through experience. So let me begin with one of my own experiences.
“This new Tucker kid is pretty useless,” said my boss to another manager.
They didn’t know I was listening because I was around the corner. I was 15 years old and working for a catering company.
“He never does anything,” he went on.
I was devastated to overhear this. But I was lucky at the same time.
I had just been hired from a busboy position at another restaurant. The new company was a scrappy outfit, not some well-organized franchise. Dirty tables, old food, stained pans, stacked plates, sticky chairs, grimy sinks, stinky napkins, piles of rolls, cups, and cooking stuff were strewn everywhere. The place was a dump. It was a like kitchen jungle of chaos and I had no clue what was what. It seemed like one big catastrophe.
I recall a sense of fear about the job because I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t know this business. So I defaulted to extreme caution. I did what I was told to do. I washed some stuff and put away a few things, and then I was at a loss as to what to do next.
No one had time to “train” me. Everyone was too busy. I had no mentors. After I finished my tasks, I kind of just watched the clock. I felt anxious about it but I was too lost and confused to know the next step. So it’s true. I was kind of useless.
But this comment — I’m so glad I overheard it! — seared into my heart and then brain. Useless! What he meant was that I was costing the company more than I was being paid. Every hour I was there I was causing them to lose money. I had negative value as a human being.
I could have quit. But I was grateful for the job, and didn’t know where else to look. I could have hated on the boss and the manager. But what’s the point?
I had to change, had to do something different than I was. I had to become useful. That is to say, I had to contribute more value to the enterprise than I took out in wages. I had to become the kind of person that they wanted there because I made the business more successful. I had to become a person of positive value.
To have a work ethic means to have an insatiable inner drive, to adopt the right values to bring about productivity as extension of the choices you make in your career.What to do? I blinked my eyes, blinked again, and looked around. Oh my, suddenly, the place looked completely different. Where I had previously seen an unfixable mess, a regrettable dump to which I had been assigned, I suddenly saw work undone. Things to do! Plates needed stacking, butter needed to be put in the fridge, the ovens needed cleaning, the floor was filthy, the hallway was a junk heap, the light bulbs needed changing.
No one else seemed to be doing these things. I went nuts and started working my tail off. No one told me what to do. No one said I was doing the right or wrong thing. Many things I didn’t really know how to do. Still, I figured it out. In the course of a few days, I had transformed the place. I felt a sense of pride and even ownership.
I got curious about our next catered dinner. Where was it? What prep work needed to be done? What chairs and tables need to be cleaned to prepare? I asked these questions and jumped on tasks as soon as I heard the answers. I got ever better at finding things to do because I got to know the business better.
Within a few days, I was suddenly valuable, and the boss said so. Sure, I made mistakes. I put towels away in the wrong place and put some too-old food back in the refrigerator. Still, they liked that I had tried. I liked me. I kept the job and, after a month, I got a raise.
The Work Ethic
I didn’t know it then, but this was the cultivation in my own mind of a work ethic. This ethic is not so much about right and wrong. After all, leisure is a wonderful thing, even a goal, something fabulous and worth shooting for. Work is, to some extent, regrettable, or, as economists would say, carries with it a certain “disutility.” We do it in hopes of a higher standard of living, which is to say a better life.
To have a work ethic means to have an insatiable inner drive, to adopt the right values to bring about productivity as extension of the choices you make in your career. In a practical sense, it is a habit of doing what must be done, doing it with a relentless attention to excellence, and then developing a strong desire to do more than you are asked to do.
That means finding things that are undone and discovering ways to do them. The goal is to let these traits define