It’s common place for some of today’s political sorts to speak of the present economic time as being quite horrible as compared to the past. They speak of the troubles that face young people and insist that this is the first generation that will not have the opportunities that were available in earlier times. I can’t speak for anybody else but I know that in my own case opportunity meant hard work. My first job was a summer gig in which I served as a receptionist at a medical clinic. I arrived promptly at eight thirty each morning so that I might be ready to answer the phones when they began to ring at the opening hour of nine. I generally worked until six in the evening but sometimes one of the doctors requested that I stay a bit longer to help close up after the late patients had left. For my efforts I was paid the grand salary of eighty eight dollars per month! (Yes, you read that correctly. I received twenty two dollars a week for working forty plus hours. A quick bit of math confirms that my salary was about fifty cents per hour.)
While I was busy working a “professional” job my brothers spent their summers at a roadside fruit and vegetable stand where they sat in the sweltering heat hoping to sell paper buckets of tomatoes and such. If I remember correctly they made about twenty five cents an hour which seemed like a gold mine to them because neither had yet turned sixteen years of age. My job was high living compared to theirs and I also managed to add a bit to my coffers with babysitting gigs on the weekends for which I received twenty five cents an hour. Over time my brothers and I managed to land an assortment of jobs all designed to pay for our extras like class rings, senior trips, and college. It never occurred to us that we should be outraged for having to put some sweat equity into our slow but sure progression up the socio-economic ladder.
I would be lying if I were to intimate that we were somehow different from the people with whom we grew up. In fact everyone that I knew was always busy doing this job or that. Some of the sources of employment were quite grueling. One of my friends worked in a dry cleaning establishment all summer. Bear in mind that it was in a building that was not air conditioned! Another worked the night shift at a credit company, slept a few hours after work and then went to school. Another lost his fingers in an industrial accident that killed his career as a star quarterback. I don’t remember anyone complaining. We simply took it for granted that if we wanted something we would have to work for it and pay any costs by ourselves.
This weekend at my husband’s reunion I heard many new stories of young men who had dreams that they turned into realities by sheer hard work. There was one guy whose father was an itinerant worker who recalled living in trailer parks with circus performers and wrestlers. As a child he watched a woman practice her trapeze act in the parking lot which also served as his playground. Once his dad managed to find permanent work they were actually able to rent a house with a yard but times were always a bit tough for them. It was up to him to figure out how to pay college tuition.
Another man who eventually became a medical doctor spoke of working thirty hours a week while taking twenty one hours of college coursework. He needed the employment to support his schooling, his transportation, and to help with his family’s expenses. By the time he went to medical school he was accustomed to working long hours with little sleep. He had long before mastered the grueling life of a doctor and he doesn’t recall feeling overwhelmed by the torturous schedule.
Today I watched a film clip featuring Ashton Kutcher serving up some advice to young teenagers who had honored him with an award. Of course the girls were screaming at the very sight of him but he chose to speak of the realities of life as he sees it. He pointed out that his rise to fame and fortune did not come miraculously. He told the audience that behind his seeming good luck was an intense amount of work, sometimes at jobs that were hard and even humiliating. In other words, he had slowly but surely paid his dues and done his part before ultimately making it big.
Today there is a widespread belief that without certain privileges or knowing the right people nobody gets ahead and yet we see so many example of individuals who made it big on their own. Bill Clinton was hardly from a wealthy and influential family. Like Dr. Ben Carson he lived in a home often marked by economic want and yet both men learned that the best way to stand out from the crowd is to work just a bit longer and with more dedication than the average guy.
One interesting fellow that I met at Mike’s reunion was a man who had carved out a career as a character actor in Hollywood. He had made enough money to live a fairly decent life while playing small parts here and there. He has a rather impressive resume but none of his roles ever landed him in the spotlight. He told me that acting was a very demanding business and that few ever move beyond the fringes of the work. He spoke of enduring rejection, politics, and long stretches of economic privation. He said that anyone who wants to make it in film or television must have a thick skin and a willingness to endure long days of back breaking work, not to mention criticisms that are often brutal.
I truly find myself feeling a bit mystified at the insistence that we are going down the tubes as a country and that there are no more avenues through which our youth may fulfill their dreams. I find these purveyors of gloom and doom to be quite silly. We still live in a society where anything may happen but none of it usually does without a great deal of sweat equity. I’ve certainly met people who were born into wealth but those sorts are the exception rather than the rule. The one trait that everyone who has been very successful in life shares is a willingness to put in hours and hours of hard work. They are dedicated to securing a goal and they move forward sometimes in very small steps. They often live simply, sacrificing greatly in order to achieve something in which they believe. Very little, if anything, is ever handed to them.
I would say to the young people who are just beginning their lives as adults that it is a meaningless exercise to complain about the difficulties of earning a diploma or a certification or the skills to do a particular job. The only thing that will ensure progress is a willingness to jump through all of the proverbial hoops and to take full advantage of every opportunity to learn. It’s also important to realize that only the boss’s son may have the privilege of starting at the top. The rest of us must tackle those entry level jobs with the same gusto that we would give to being in charge. Employers really do notice and reward those who put in that little bit of extra effort. Those are the chosen ones.
It’s a long climb to the mountain top but well worth the journey and the adventure. Along the way there will most definitely be disappointments and perhaps even a bit of injustice but for those who make no excuses and refuse to give up, the joys will be boundless. So my bit of advice for those anyone just beginning to consider the lifetime ahead of them is to keeping pushing forward no matter what happens. Work as intensely as possible and never stop learning. Be flexible and optimistic. Believe in yourself and make the necessary sacrifices to reach one goal at a time. Understand that the road may lead you to unexpected places, some of which are disappointing and difficult. Take advantage of those times and use them to make yourself even stronger. We still live in a remarkable world. For all of its problems it is still possible for a young person who grew up without special privileges to overcome all of the obstacles that seem to block the path. Never give up. Don’t spend too much time wallowing in self pity, that will never make you feel better and it certainly isn’t the way to get ahead. Hard work is and will always be the key to success. It’s all up to you. We still live in the best of times.