The Supposed ‘American Dignity Of Labor’

One family dinner a few decades ago, my brother and I made one of our usual smart aleck remarks about how it would be nice if our monthly allowance (or ‘pocket money’ as we called it in those days) were increased by our parents. My mother shot back with a quick, “Yes, and it would be nice if you boys did a honest day’s work to earn some of that pocket money!” When we responded, “But what kind of job would we do?” my mother supplied us with a list that included sweeping floors, taking out the trash, washing the family car and the like. In response, we continued along our utterly clueless path by making disparaging noises about how that kind of work was not what we wanted to do. My mother’s demeanor changed as she shot us the dirtiest of looks. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of work, and we should have been happy that we were being given a chance to earn our allowances. She suggested we were spoiled and needed to rent a clue. (Or words to that effect.) And then, she continued in an even sterner of voice, “Do you know what children in America do? They work during the summers when they are off school! They do part-time jobs, and they don’t care what kind of work it is; they don’t turn up their noses at work! It’s not like around here [in India] where everyone seems to have a high and mighty attitude about what kind of work they consider appropriate for themselves. In America, there is dignity in labor!”

My mother was hectoring us because she knew of the snobbishness of the Indian middle-class, its elitism, its unredeemable arrogance about menial professions and ‘humble, low-class’ work. She was right, of course; we were children of the middle-class and we had absorbed all of its lessons quite well. Domestic help, the sweepers and janitors, the folks who pumped gas at stations, the shopkeepers, they were all beneath us precisely because of the work they did. And here was my mother, reminding us that in that magical land called America, where things were so much better than they were here, in this chaotic land of never-ending dysfunction, one key differentiating point was that its people respected work, no matter what it was, and who did it. That’s why it was so prosperous and powerful. So she thought, and so we believed. Many American myths traveled quickly; and they endured well.

There were many disillusionments waiting for me in America. Among them was a rapid dispelling of the very notion of an American dignity of labor. Here there was shaming aplenty of those who were ‘flippin’ burgers and servin’ fries,’  pumping gas at stations, cleaning toilets, taking out the garbage, washing dishes–or just plain doing ‘minimum wage work.’ It didn’t take me long to cotton on to this fact; my first job was washing dishes in the cafeteria, and by the end of the semester, ironically, a complete reversal had taken place. I didn’t mind telling other international students–including those from India–that that was how I was making ends meet; they knew what had to be done. But I was always mortified when I told my American friends about it. I had begun to doubt they would see any ‘dignity’ in my ‘labor.’

3 thoughts on “The Supposed ‘American Dignity Of Labor’

  1. Not my experience as a native-born American kid growing up in California in the 50s. I know, times change, but maybe not so much. I always had a paper route, from 5th grade until I left for college. I mowed lawns, had a regular clientele. I babysat (yes, somewhat unusual for a male teenager, but I was good with infants, was disciplined on the job, so I could have worked every night of the week if I wished: 50¢/hr before midnight, 75¢/hr after). Later in high school I laid concrete in the Summer, putting in patios and driveways. My buddies all worked, bagging groceries, life guarding, general maintainance/handyman at the Tahoe resorts during the summer, sweeping out the neighborhood Chevron station, absolutely whatever we could find. It was ALL GOOD, and we knew it: whatever work we could find, it was GOOD.
    Maybe things were different where your family landed (? in the Northeast?), but in Sacramento that’s the way it was for all of us at La Sierra High School. Dignity, schmignity, it was all good and we knew it.

    1. George, you are right. I think the phenomena you are talking about was what my mother was tapping into–those aspects of American life were known elsewhere. I think there was a real basis to the American myth I referred to. I’m talking about how things had changed by the 1980s when working in McDonalds had become a job to be ashamed of. It’s not a coastal thing; it’s a national change. Is bagging groceries considered a ‘real job’ by teenagers today? I doubt it.

      1. In support of your view:

        When I came to US in 1970, there were only a few first class seats in the airplane, mostly for Mellons and Carnegies (I went to Carnegie-Mellon). The rest were for people of all levels. Sometime in mid 1980s Business class was introduced so the cabin is now Laziness class.
        One teen I know made in 2 hrs sitting and writing programs what his friends got in a whole day standing in stores. He never traveled in cabin. Another young person who does tax work, you have written what it mean, does the same.

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