Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"At Least I have a Job"

I was out and about when I heard someone use a common phrase to respond to someone in a job they hated: "At least you have a job." The person smiled and said, "yeah, that's true." I have seen people interact like that hundreds of times in my life, but for some reason, it really hit me today. That may be one of the most disempowering interactions that one can have.

I don't know when it happened, but at some point, Americans got into the mentality that they should simply be thankful to have a job. I don't know if it was from the civil rights movement that was fighting for equal rights for blacks in America's business culture; or if it was from women's rights movements fighting for equal pay in the workplace; or if it is from the conservative mentality to protect business and corporations praying for money to trickle down to the rest of us from trickle down economics; or if it is from liberals fighting for workers rights, treating employers as if they are some great evil; or some other source, but we have apparently become a nation of people begging for jobs.

People seem to forget that it is out of desperation that opportunities arise. It is out of the great oppression of slaves that the civil war happened; and out of great oppression that the civil rights movement found success; and out of great threat that Americans rose up to become great power in World War II. I forget who said it, but it rings true: Out of desperation comes inspiration.

When people have great jobs, with great benefits, and great lives; they don't have a need to start a business, to take ownership of their lives, to design their world, to change their destiny. It is only out of dissatisfaction, out of desperation that people find the need to take action, to drive themselves to find a better future, to create a life where they are in control, and to turn their dreams into reality.

So to say, "at least you have a job" is to say "this is the best you can do." Yet, we can do so much better than working at poor jobs that are underpaid, that don't create great opportunities to reach our potential, that don't leave us excited and energized to go to work, and that don't make us feel rewarded for our efforts.

What we can do is amazing. America is the nation that brought the world the airplane, the jet, the microwave, the automobile, the modern computer, and even the foundations of alternative energies. Yet, we are falling behind the world and it isn't because we lack the people or we lack the thought or we lack the skill. It seems that we lack the will to take the risks to build our lives, to design our lives, to innovate and dedicate ourselves to those innovations in favor of jobs at Wal-mart and the service sector.

As America's way of life is being exported to the world around us; as China and India rise up; as jobs leave the country for third world cheaper labor, some can say "at least I have a job." What we should be saying is "How can I control my destiny by starting my own business?" or "What great idea do I have to do my part in moving America forward?" or "How can I create more stability and benefits for my family so I don't have to beg for a job to pay the bills?"

In fairness, there are a ton of small businesses in America. Unfortunately, I hear the crux of too many small businesses everyday, "If you create a business, you can write that off on your taxes." Business isn't about writing off your normal home computer on your taxes, it is about creating income, creating wealth, creating something you can pass on to your children, creating something that can provide the life you want. Focusing on the tax write offs is the wrong approach and isn't the path to success, and it isn't how you replace your job with a life.

Facing life with the attitude of "at least I have a job" and "it is a tax write off" is the downfall of America, not the lifting up of America. We have to get past wanting a job and move towards designing a life. We have to get past avoiding taxes, in favor of making something that will etch our lives into the history of America.

It is what we focus on that determines our future. Focusing on having a bad job as a positive thing creates a world where a bad job is all we achieve. Focusing on avoiding taxes as the primary purpose for a small business insures failure in business without any real purpose for the business. We must focus ourselves on striving for excellence, not simply getting by.

Or we can simply say, "at least I have a job."


Bella R. said...

I absolutely hate the saying "At least I have a job." In the current job market (which is probably the context in which this conversation arose) with such a large number of people being out of work we are suppose to be grateful that we have an income. Unfortunately, it depends on how grateful you should be for a job where you work 60 hours a week, you are sexually harassed by your boss, your coworker works to undermine you every chance he has, and in general you are under-appreciated and your paycheck bounced last month (not speaking from personal experience or anything).

I agree with you about all the opportunities that discontentment about current jobs create. However, is it really reasonable for everyone who is unsatisfied to create new businesses? I mean didn't poor investments and defaulted loans by banks bring us to our current financial state?

Omar said...

It's so true. And yet, so much easier said than done.

I argue for universal health care precisely because it would enable people to start their own businesses without worrying about one significant capital expense. We're given so little in this country that we fall into an abuse mentality - or at least a "use" mentality - that makes us suck up what we can find for all it's worth, be it tax write-offs or employer health benefits. This mentality is why people - especially conservatives - are suspicious of government services as being prone to abuse.

I say let's create a new floor, a new minimum standard of living (as Nixon was pondering in the '70s) to break the cycle of abuse and inspire Americans to reach even higher. It's the only way - because while desperation is a great motivator, it also keeps people too fearful to leave that benefit-filled job they hate so much.

Steven said...

Tony: I essentially agree with you. I was raised with the mentality of "be thankful for what you've got." It's not a terrible notion, but it also breeds complacency. You do not feel like an autonomous individual, but rather a pawn. Right now, the larger culture is promoting this attitude. (On a side note, I'm not sure if a media industry in collapse produces the most objective reporting. Misery does love company.)

This is why I believe health care reform should remove the link between full-time employment and affordable health care. I've known many people who gave up on their ambitions because they could only find part-time contract work. Instead, they land a full-time job that utilizes a small portion of their skill set, and satisfies a much smaller portion of their lifestyle desires.

As move toward just-in-time employment, the link between employment and health makes even less sense. Most people will not be able to start their own businesses, but they can prevent businesses from owning their lives.

Nat-Wu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nat-Wu said...

Looked at another way, if "at least you have a job" is taken to mean that in modern-day American not all Americans can automatically get a job, the floor has collapsed under us. "At least you have a job" means I probably didn't get the job I wanted. "At least you have a job" is an indictment of our whole system which is based on the freedom that comes with having an income that does more than put food on the table and a roof over your head. "At least you have a job" means you can't quit just because they use and abuse you at work, which means employees exert little to no pressure on the workplace, which means wages are kept low and hours are kept long. "At least you have a job" is as depressing as "I have a dream" is inspiring. Let's not casually accept people saying it anymore.