Don’t Sweat It: America’s Work Ethic and the Millennial Generation

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When asked about how I’ve been spending my summer, my response is, “I work in a factory.” Then come the clarifying questions: Are you programming machines? Are you doing product engineering? The answer is: No. I’m simply working in a factory. What I did this summer will, hopefully, have nothing to do with my future career. Although my responsibilities vary, I mostly machine parts. I place pieces of plastic  onto a mold, press a button, watch them transform into usable shapes, peel them off, and repeat. It’s menial, redundant, physically exhausting labor I cannot say that I love, however, the hesitation I feel when answering these questions both surprises and troubles me.

I am proud of the little business my family has grown. For twenty years, my step-dad and uncle have poured a great deal of themselves into our orthopedic factory. All of my siblings and cousins have spent a summer or two sweltering in the warehouse, turned oven by the Florida sun. When I was too young to work, my older brothers would come home grimy and tired, discussing the day’s work, almost in a sort of code, before passing out on the couch. When I was finally old enough to join the ranks, I viewed my job as a right of passage.

I am not proud of my reluctance to talk about my summer work. I feel it stems largely from external pressures to partake in something more “meaningful.” Something that may benefit my future career. Something not so…sweaty. I am led to ask the question, is the American work ethic changing?

Now, I’m not suggesting that our generation is apathetic about working. Society’s emphasis on working towards a college degree and a pursuing dream career has never been stronger. We’re churning out more lawyers and doctors than we ever have. Intellectual “hard work” is also an important part of America’s work ethic. However, our view of what constitutes valuable work has been warping for years. As a result, record numbers of young Americans are choosing to live at home for longer. A recent Pew Research study shows 36% of America’s 18-31 year olds to have been living with their parents in 2012. While our suffering economy takes some of the blame, I fear the real issue arises from the millennial generation’s reluctance to settle for anything less than the best. We have become a generation motivated by our dreams, but hindered by a sense of entitlement that prevents us from finding meaning in anything deemed “beneath us.” Consequently, the value found in being productive for the sake of simply producing something, has been lost. While people should be encouraged to shoot for their ideal career, if an entitled mentality persists, America will boast a population that has lost sight of the beauty in playing, even a small role, in prosperity.

I don’t feel intellectually stimulated or enlightened at the end of my day. I haven’t had lunch with a senator, delivered life-saving vaccines to a baby, or helped to revolutionize Malawi’s farming industry. I end my day feeling tired, my socks are filled with prickly shards of plastic, and my ankles are swollen from standing for eight straight hours. It’s tough work, but it’s certainly not beneath me or anyone else.

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