Recently I listened in on a conversation about the negative effects of coddling those without resources. The participants were all personal friends. One runs a successful small business. He works hard at his job. He is devoted to his family, and volunteers his time freely to worthy causes.
He expressed frustration towards people who expect to be reasonably comfortable without working hard in return. I agree with him, mostly.
Take the current debate over whether to increase the minimum wage. The current federal minimum is $7.25 (per hour), and that’s the minimum rate in eighteen states, including Idaho. But 34 states pay more. Washington has the nation’s highest state minimum wage at $13.50.
A full-time job paying $13.50 per hour would mean an annual income of just over $28,000 per year, which sounds pretty good if you’re working for an Arctic Circle in Spokane.
My friend points out—I think correctly—that the fallacy in these numbers is that burger assembly jobs at fast food joints simply aren’t designed to create middle class income. The DQ, etc., is where kids go to learn useful real-world skills like hard work, reliability, courtesy, getting along with different types of people, and taking responsibility for your actions.
Get all those youthful lessons learned, then combine it with some advanced education, and, so the theory goes, you’re on your way to success.
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And besides, my friend also points out—again correctly—that as the minimum wage climbs, so does the cost of doing business, which causes prices to go up, and the effect of the high hourly rate fades away.
So, yeah, I get all of that. I also understand that well-meant welfare payments to jobless, handicapped, or extremely low-income people may encourage a small percentage of them to sit tight and enjoy the free cash on my tax dime.
But what concerns me most in our modern financial blender is the steadily dwindling number of next-step-up jobs that can provide a way out of the minimum-wage rut. As the middle class continues to shrink due to vanishing factory jobs and the “operational efficiencies” provided by the digital revolution that allow managers to maximize profits by cutting employees (and the benefits of those who remain), there are far fewer next-step-up jobs than there used to be.
Combine this lack of mid-range jobs with the dwindling number of full-time jobs in general, then kick in the high costs of college, and the current average student loan debt of $32,000 per student, and I think today’s workers face generationally unique problems that we simply haven’t seen before.
Where will it all lead? I can’t say. It’s true that trade and construction jobs are going begging, and offer great salaries with far fewer years of specialty education required. But admittedly they aren’t the glamorous tech jobs our youth grow up seeing in the movies.
To the young I’d say this: No matter what your favorite YouTube channels and podcasts suggest, there is no alternative to hard work. High-paying jobs that consist of sitting in front of a computer screen doing vague but fantastically entertaining work, with plenty of time left over for gossiping in the office with people just as hip as you, don’t really exist. Discovering your passion, getting educated, working like a beast, and then moving up through the ranks is still the only reliable way to succeed. You have as much chance of stumbling into tech-provided riches as you do of playing in the NBA.
But to those who are older, I think we need to understand that these days there are newly-widened gaps between the rungs on the ladder of success that make climbing it more difficult than ever. And there may be many young people willing to put in the work and get the education, only to find that the costs are unmanageable, and the opportunities within reach too few. The social costs of such discouragement may be very steep.
In the end, it seems likely to me that for the first time in a century, the next generation will not be living as well as the generation preceding it. One thing’s certain: it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Chris Huston is an author and award-winning columnist living in the Magic Valley. Connect with Chris on Facebook and Instagram at Chris Huston-Finding My Way and at chrishustonauthor.com.