By Gina Barreca The Hartford Courant
1. Never look down on somebody who holds a job and rides the bus to the end of the line. These are the people who labor their whole lives but are never rewarded with tangible success. Not every dog has its day; some simply work their tails off. My father was one of those guys: never missed a day, never missed a beat and barely made a dime. But he taught my brother and me how to get a job done. Old Italians would grab their kids and say, “The more you have in there,” pointing to our heads, “the less you have to put on there,” pointing to our backs. My brother and I benefited from my father’s integrity, his stamina and his gratitude for having a job.
2. Most of the people actually working on Labor Day are the ones who really deserve the day off. Declared a federal holiday in 1894, it’s meant to be a day of street parades illustrating the “strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” followed by food and festivities for the workers’ families, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Not anymore — at least, not for folks selling groceries, serving food or manning the mall for the back-to-school rush. If you know how to run a register or deal non-violently with customers who bark “Whaddya mean, I might need a different size? I’m a 6. I’ve always been a 6. Get me your manager,” you’ll be required to show up for a double-shift.
3. Of course, some people take Labor Day quite literally: My friend Heidi gave birth to her daughter.
4. Just as every great job has a terrible hidden cost, every terrible job has a wonderful, if small or secret, payoff. My husband worked at a deli when he was in high school and although he hated standing on his feet seven hours a day cutting fatty meats (including slicing tongue, which unnerves him to this day), he was able to eat his body weight in cold cuts, rye bread and coleslaw. He was a lanky kid; he appreciated the fresh food and the conversations with the customers. The job changed his life.
5. Every job teaches you something apart from the skill you’re using at work. I learned one big lesson when working inventory at Barnes and Noble when it was the world’s biggest bookstore — in a real building on Fifth Avenue. This was long before online ordering: We wrote down ISBN numbers on small slips of paper and went to the warehouse to retrieve titles. It became obvious that certain old volumes had new fans every day because we were always restocking them, while some wildly hyped and well-reviewed new books never sold a copy. It was then that I learned that many slick novels had a shorter shelf life than cannoli. Let’s say it changed the focus of my literary ambitions.
6. Every young person should have had a job for an extended period of time where he or she needs to show up on time, in clean clothes, wide-awake, in a convincingly cheerful mood (faking it is fine — nobody cares what your real mood is because it’s not about you) and prepared to complete whatever task is assigned. This is not about being exploited; this is about learning how to separate your public life from your private life. The idea is to learn to slough off the whiny self that moans “I don’t feeeeeel like doing this today.”
7. You can’t “Retire Before You’re Thirty!” any more than you can “Age With Dignity Before You’re Twenty-Two!” That’s just silly talk.
8. We’re told you should follow your dreams and become financially independent, as if these two were twinned. Avoid building a future based primarily on your inner-promptings without establishing your economic security first. Figure out how to make rent and pay bills: Not even with crowd sourcing will your bliss necessarily lead directly to the bank.
9. There’s no “Major Investor’s Day” for the same reason there’s no “Men’s History Month.”
10. Without ever working or having worked, how can you take a break and feel whole? Here’s to earning our keep.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticu and a columnist for the Hartford Courant. ginabarreca.com.