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Friday, December 9, 2011

The Work Ethic Conundrum

The older I get, the less black and white things seem; the more I understand how my values, beliefs and what I have learned to call morals and ethics are shaped by my heritage, my place and point in history, the education I have received or endured, and everything from socialization to personality.  Even if I share some morals and ethics with a collective, that doesn't mean valid differences don't exist.

I am not my parents or my grandparents--while I know that I have absorbed some of the values and ethics that they had, I am also a product of where, when and how I exist in the world.  Part of the historical, cultural work ethic I was raised with is that it is better to have any job and to give that job 110% (at least) than to NOT be working; if you do your best and show up to work every day regardless, the system will reward you.  Well, my fellow Gen-Xers and I learned that was not necessarily true as we watched our elders get downsized, outsized and stood by as they saw their pensions and savings get consumed by the system they had devoted themselves to.  We saw white people and males succeed at the expense of women and people of color and we saw a lack of vision compensated by greed and irresponsible stewardship.

So, we got educated.  We read books about doing work we loved and finding the right fit for our passions, skills and intellect.  We listened to motivational experts who told us we could make our own opportunities but we would need to not only work hard, but to also work smart.  None of my grandparents graduated from high school and yet they were homeowners, business owners and were all able to retire.  My parents graduated from high school and owned their own home, but worked for companies and corporations and struggled to build up retirement savings that have been pillaged.  I have a college education and I don't even delude myself into thinking I will ever "retire" in any conventionally imagined sense.  I am far less secure than my parents or my grandparents and yet I still consider work to be a representation of character, self-sufficiency and community investment.

What I do bring into my work is an inherited sense of creating opportunity for myself, my family and my work partners through sheer effort.  I'm not willing to lay down my life, but I am willing to do quite a bit and I have benefited from having the education, privilege and health to juggle and balance work and personal, despite spending many years as a single parent and paying my own way through college (slowly.)  My work ethic is some mutated version of "the more you do do, the more you can do."  I expected to have to earn, work, prove and create in order to carve out success and advancement and I also expect that will neither be easy nor fair. Just because it is my set of values, however, doesn't mean it is the only right one.  BUT...

It is always easier to work with people who have a shared understanding of what work ethic is; a mutual commitment to team; people who speak the same language; have the same understanding of both what is said and what is not; those who are like-minded.  Easier, however, is not always best.  If we are all speaking the same language and saying and doing the same things, what languages, ideas, perspectives and voices are NOT being heard?

I have read articles about how work ethic is dead among the younger generations and I confess right here and now that there have been times that I have sat in meetings or looked across a room and thought, for a brief moment, that might actually be true.  But then, I remind myself, that some versions of work ethic might surely be dead, and some might just be different.  I can only truly know my own experience and while it might color how I can appreciate new and different versions, it does not have to impede my ability to adjust.  I have worked just as hard for $7 an hour as I have for a higher salary, but I am not really someone who is motivated by money.  Others are.  I am content to work as part of a team so that the collective can advance.  Others want to be in the spotlight.  I don't need external validation but I do need to see progress in order to feel successful.  Others are content to do tasks without the need to see results.  We are all different--with different weaknesses and motivations, and we exist in completely different contexts despite finding ourselves in the same work environments.  I tend to think in terms of surviving and overcoming, whereas another might feel victimized or at risk of being a victim.  The world doesn't owe me--but I don't appreciate having it stand in my way either.  Others feel that an education, request or implied obligation needs to be met with an immediate response.

So, the point is this is a riddle, a conundrum--there is no simple answer of right or wrong, black or white.  I am not right while someone else is wrong (or vice versa), we are just coming at things from a different place; there are different inherited ancestral voices sitting on our shoulders.   Yes, I confess I would love to work in a world where everyone did equal parts, worked equally hard and contributed at equal levels.  That will never be reality and accommodations and adjustments will be constant.  Times will change, values and belief systems will morph--ethics and morals are not static.

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