Most farmers are not going to read this column for several weeks. This is because right now they have something more important to do, so it will be read when the harvest is over. During this time of the year in farm country, the days are long and bringing in the harvest is the top priority. This is a reality that most of those outside of agriculture do not understand. It is something so deeply engrained into the fabric of the Midwestern work ethic that most rural people don’t give it a second thought. But, this view of work is undergoing a dramatic shift in American society and may play a key role in this year’s national elections.
An economist, speaking at the Indiana Livestock, Forage, and Grain Forum a few years ago, said what makes the US economy unique in the world is the fact that the vast majority of Americans, “Get up and go to work every day.” While this is not the case in other nations, here in the US most adults get up every day and go a job for which they are paid. They are not always happy about it, but this is what keeps the US economy going and growing. However, in recent years, there has been a shift in this perspective, brought about by government policies and cultural expectations. For a growing number of adults and young people, going to work and getting paid for it is not how they expect to spend their days.
Over the past few years, millions of adults have found themselves out of work. These men and women who previously got up every day and went to work found themselves without jobs or the prospect of getting a job. Yet, the pay check kept coming in the form of unemployment compensation. As the months turned into years, many stopped looking for employment and adjusted their lifestyles to get by on the unemployment payments.
Meanwhile, millions of young people were graduating from college with degrees but no hope of finding work in their field of study. Some decided to stay in school getting advanced degrees for which there was no work, while others moved back home with their parents and took part time work. The unemployment rate of people in the 20s and 30s is over 50%. They see the American workplace as having no place for them.
The result of this is that there is a significant segment of our society does not see getting up and going to work as something they need to do. Not having a job was once considered a sign of laziness or personal failure. Today, it is becoming an accepted norm and someone else’s fault. Big business, big banks, the government, foreign competition, NAFTA, big unions, China, and a host of other factors are blamed for people’s inability to find work.
The government’s response to this situation has fostered this change in the American work ethic. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the government instituted work programs like the CCC and WPA. Here people were paid for doing work. At its peak, the WPA employed over 3 million men and women who would have otherwise been jobless. They build infrastructure facilities we still use today. “By contrast, what will we have to show in decades to come for today’s 99-week extended unemployment benefits and other government giveaways? Not so much,” says Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee. “So why don’t we have programs in which you’d get a job, not sit home, depressed, with a check? The short answer is because key power players would rather have you sit at home, depressed, with a check.” Reynolds suggests that Unions oppose the government hiring non-union labor and that proponents of big government want to promote dependence of big government, “Working — even in a program like the WPA — enhances feelings of self-esteem and independence. But the politicians don’t want you to feel self-esteem and independence.”
The kind of self reliance and work ethic fostered by farm life is greatly lacking in many urban-raised young people today. “They have “a self-centered work ethic,” says Cam Marston, author of Motivating the ‘What’s In It For Me?’ Workforce. He says the younger generations haven’t been raised in a way “that demands them to look around and see what should be done next. Instead they ask ‘what is my job’ and go about figuring the best, fastest way to complete that task. Then they consider themselves done.” And the younger they are, “the more your employees view their jobs as something to do between the weekends.” Sonny Beck, of Beck’s Hybrids told me he looks for employees with 4-H and FFA backgrounds, “Because they make better employees.”
Perhaps if the President really wanted to get the economy moving and put people back to work, he should consider putting a farmer in charge of the labor department –someone who understands what work is, why it is important, and how to do whatever is necessary to get the job done. Of course, he will have to wait until after the election because right now the farmers are in the field working to bring in the harvest. A harvest that is the basis of a food supply that will ultimately be given free or at reduced cost to those who are not working but collecting unemployment, visiting food banks, and collecting food stamps. While these programs are not in themselves bad, they are fostering a culture of dependency that is at odds with the agrarian work ethic that has been at the heart of American society.
By the way, this column was written while I was on vacation, why? Because it had to be done.
By Gary Truitt