Wasn't my family entitled to a break after, to paraphrase British politician Neil Kinnock, a thousand generations of employment insecurity? Wasn't college and law school supposed to confer some protection, even immunity, against job loss?
Somewhere early on, I learned that a job was basic and important - essential, really. Maybe the message was transmitted with mother's milk. More likely mother's formula, since I was born in 1950 in a Pennsylvania coal region town untouched by Dr. Spock. A job was important not just to put food on the table and pay bills. It was key to self-respect and a guardrail to avoid careening off the edge of life in a reckless or depressed moment.
A job separated adults from everyone else. The too young and too old to work were in a separate category and no one had to explain that to them or to anyone else. The too unlucky, too drunk, and too lazy were also in unspoken but well understood other categories. So were students beyond high school. If they planned to be a doctor or teacher, all right, but they damn well better finish and not take too long to do it. Studying less practical things like history, English, or the mysterious liberal arts was cause for wondering and whispering.
I'd heard the family folklore as a child. How far one grandmother walked to the factory at the edge of town through blizzards at 4 in the morning. I also heard about the two grandfathers, one who fell apart during the Depression because he lacked work but not whiskey, and the other who clung to family life through the bond of work. He likely had sufficient alcohol, too, but enough work usually trumped enough alcohol in that place and time.
Some of my early jobs were typical: I tossed folded newspapers onto porches and sold ice cream to hordes of howling kids through the window cut into an old, blue, exhaust-spewing panel truck.
Others were unique to the coal region: I worked for a local doctor who had invested well, planting scrawny seedlings on his piles of "reclaimed" strip-mine waste. The plants survived long enough to create a thin, green cosmetic Band-Aid for scarred hills before shriveling away and exposing the wound again. I gathered and sold scrap metal from windowless collapsing collieries that had been idle for decades, not considering that absentee owners, their agents, or the county might have considered my pioneering recycling efforts theft.
I remember old guys on a summer job, "working on the borough." Some of them were booze shaky, some were still wiry. Old. God knows, they must have been 40 or 50. They cleverly flattered us on how much we could lift and move and shovel and that made us work even harder. I suppose old guys have been conning young guys into doing their work since biblical and probably cave-dwelling times.
There were moments of adolescent backsliding when my friends and I schemed to avoid work. But we all knew our eventual fate: the military and/or school, then a life of steady work and the good and bad that came with it - more good than bad.
In the 1960s, I kidded myself that I would never hold a real job for long, not like my foolish old father. I was not about to waste my life. Yet somehow I always seemed to have a job. Weekends, summers, full time when school was over. Sixties sideburns crept downward, and still I was working. The mustache and the hair grew, but I was still working. God knows, I had the look of someone who got by without working. But some combination of the irritating need for money and early-childhood programming kept me on track. Not to mention two vigilant parents who led by example and, if necessary, by methods more direct and less subtle.
Now, a few decades later, as I crawl toward the finish line of work, I wonder if I am in danger of losing that glue that holds together individuals, families, communities, and societies: work.
Michael Carroll is a Philadelphia writer.