The old black man told me, “Lay a hand on something when the Boss Man comes around.” I was spending my summer between seventh and eighth grade stripping and waxing floors at the church my family attended, and it was my first real job. The old man, the boss who was supervising me, had come around a corner and found me idly staring into space. What may have seemed like cynical advice to offer a 12-year-old boy was actually meant as a well-intended reminder that we should stay focused on our work.
Throughout my high school years, summers were spent working construction jobs in the Louisiana swelter. I can’t say I was a towering example of the ideal worker, but both early jobs helped me build the muscle memory of an ethic that prepared me to enter into and navigate through adulthood.
It is an ethic that seems sadly out of fashion these days. As a culture, we seem to have slid into a pattern of expecting less and less from our children, both physically and intellectually, and allowing them to remain children for longer and longer. Likewise, if my observations from years in the bookstore business are any indicator, the dominant genre of books read by adults now is the category of Young Adult.
In my career and on the farm, I have worked with many young people embarking on their first job, and it is increasingly hard to find new workers (and I’ll extend that range up into their late 20s) who have ever done any type of work. Most have zero muscle memory for what is required to be responsible and productive either in the workplace or as citizens.
That undeveloped set of skills carries over into what are supposed to be the “responsible years”: how does a person learn, without having experienced work, to make independent decisions, take orders, discern truth from fiction, stay focused and busy, develop the stamina to play a constructive part in a culture over many decades? Disciplined work habits established early on affect all aspects of our culture, from school and the workplace to the arts and civic sphere. That there is a drift backwards into adolescence that pervades our culture — whether it’s reading cartoonish literature designed for an underdeveloped mind or a political sphere that is dominated by…well, let’s not go there — is extremely alarming.
Now, all this fretting may be the special preserve of a man who just this week will reach his mid-fifties, but I do worry what this downward spiral means for our culture, for our species. I continue to be haunted by a work I read recently, “Ends of the World,” a science history of deep time and the cycles of extinctions on our planet. For me, the book serves to highlight both our insignificance and the childish hubris of our species that imperils our brief reign here.
While it may not allow us to avert a crisis, it just may be time to return to the practice of “laying a hand on something.” Because the Boss Man is right around the corner and coming on fast, and he sounds pissed.
Reading this week: Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, by Paul Kingsnorth. This man can write. And, he can write well on topics of crucial interest.