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.
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 a 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 doing. 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.
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 need 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.
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 who you are as a worker, and then come to love and embrace that identity.
Mastering this ethic is the best possible thing you can do for your own life. It doesn’t matter what the job is. The lesson applies to them all.
It is not about doing what you are told, though getting that much right is a pretty wonderful thing. Truly, we all need to be reminded of this point. When the boss suggests something to do, it is absolutely incontrovertibly true that it must be done. Other priorities need to be moved down the list. The task must be completed.
There is nothing in this world that annoys a supervisor or boss or owner than to have to remember and follow up on a task after it has been assigned, to return to the person to whom it is assigned in order to follow up to make sure it is done, only to find that it had slipped through the cracks. No one has time for that.
If you never fail to do what you are asked to do, and your boss gains a sense that you will always and everywhere do the thing you are asked to do, you can shine like a diamond.
If you do this, you are more than halfway toward being amazing. Already you are way ahead of your peers. Also, accomplishing the tasks doesn’t always have to be about pleasing the boss. Doing things that other people in the know suggest is also a valuable thing. Being a great colleague and friend to others besides your direct supervisor pays huge returns.
Another way to think about this subject is to contrast the great employee with six types of problem employees.
The Braggart. This is the person who never fails to trumpet to everyone even the slightest evidence of productivity. This usually backfires and ends up highlighting just how little the braggart actually does. The work ethic means not to brag or seek praise for your work. Your productivity will be noticed regardless. If anything, giving credit to others who help you makes others feel wonderful. This helps your karma, and you get the benefit eventually.
The Complainer. This person considers every task to be an dreadful imposition. Nothing is right, and everyone else is to blame if the task remains undone. He or she encourages others to complain also, spreading discontent and whininess far and wide. In contrast, the great worker joyfully embraces all opportunities to add value. It means to go beyond what needs to be done to develop that rare capacity to see the unseen work that could be done. Once you see this, you never run out of value to contribute. Then you become a source of real progress, which is defined by that which goes outside the assigned routine to discover what is new, all in service of others.
The Hoarder. This person deals with fears of job security by accumulating ever more responsibilities, refusing to ask others for help, publicly heaving with a sense of burden and suffering, and then never quite getting it all done while invoking the excuse of being overworked. The hoarder’s goal is to broadcast an impression of his or her own unique talents that no one else can possibly replicate. In contrast, a great worker is happy to share knowledge, allocate tasks, cooperate, learn from others and train others to be wonderful too, freeing more time for creativity.
The Offloader. This person is the inverse of the hoarder, but just as much a problem. The unteachable offloader imagines that he or she has been hired for a certain skill set and can learn no more. “I don’t do” and “I won’t do” and “I don’t like to do”…fill in the blank. It’s all about using a lack of skill as an excuse for laziness and fobbing work off on everyone else.
In contrast, having a work ethic means a willingness to do that which is not fun, to learn new skills, to try new applications, to venture into unknown territory, and to add to one’s intellectual capital every day.
The Gossip. This person proves the adage that “idle hands do the devil’s work.” The gossip is consumed by internal matters of personnel and can’t resist dripping poison in others’ ears. He or she fosters division, suspicion, paranoia, and discontent. The workplace becomes a game of thrones. In contrast, people with a work ethic do not wallow in office politics. They ignore gossip, backstabbing, and trash talk. They do not organize into factions. If you can stay above it all, and just be amazing in every aspect of your career, you will come out on top.
The Sneak. This is the person who looks for any opportunity to appear to be working but not actually working. It becomes a game: get away early for lunch, return late, or leave the office when everyone is in a meeting. He or she uses work hours to goof off online while neglecting essential tasks, and has developed many ways to hide it with quick browsing tricks to switch screens. Every word becomes a little fib, and work life becomes an vast effort in subterfuge.
In contrast, a good employee doesn’t fear being found out because he or she nothing to hide and can browse Facebook with confidence because all other work is done.
The “work ethic” isn’t just about the sweat of your brow and saving your soul. It is really about your own individual interest. The reason you are hired is to contribute more value than you take out. If you do that, you ascend. If you do not do that, you are not long for this job, and you become just another one of the “kids these days.” It’s the most simple and the most profound application of economics as it directly affects your life.
All of these traits are difficult to adopt without real-world experience. But sadly, for young people, the world is conspiring to deny them the chance to gain such experience. The necessary work ethic needs to be a personal commitment, something adopted with conscious deliberation and applied in every aspect of your professional life.
The more valuable you can be to others in a marketplace, the better and more wonderful life you can have. And therein lies the beauty of the market. It calls us all to excellence and creativity in the service of others, and enables all of us to assist in making the world more wonderful. That’s not only good for prosperity. It’s also good for the human spirit itself.
To be sure, bosses have their own issues of a different sort. A great boss can energize an entire enterprise while a bad boss can disable and de-motivate even the best workers. But that’s a subject of a different article.
As I look back over what I’ve written here, one big supposition underlies my point: the existence of a functioning market economy with a vibrant commercial sector. If the labor market is bogged down, if there are no consumers to serve, if people aren’t rewarded for productivity, if there is no space for the exercise of creativity, none of this applies.
Therefore, one final caveat: it is probably the case that none of this applies to government work. Here productivity, creativity, and consumer service are punished. How to survive such a setting? My only suggestion is to walk away. Go somewhere where the work ethic can indeed save your soul.