Family,  Food for thought,  Social Issues

Why work? What my manual labourer father taught me

A conversation with her father helped Mary Ann Macdonald appreciate that you need to work for deeper motives than money or social prestige.

I have been thinking a lot recently about the factors which contribute to making work fulfilling. My musing in part arises from me and many of my friends having our first experiences of being in the workplace, but a conversation with my dad was ultimately the trigger for my reflection.

I am always grateful for our in-depth chats over tea each evening, and this time we were talking about the different jobs that people can have. My father used to be a manual labourer, and has worked all around the UK on many landmarks, underground railway stations and other projects.

He enjoyed his work, made good friends, but said he struggled to see the importance of it in and of itself, compared to the more socially respected professions – lawyers, bankers, accountants and such.

This really surprised me. As a child, I had always been incredibly proud of my dad’s work.

Anytime we went somewhere, wherever we were, he would always be able to point out what he had helped build. And I in my turn would show these buildings to my friends and exclaim, “My dad built that!” I still do this now. 

The effects of his work are apparent and leave a physical legacy long after the project finished. Without in any way wanting to discredit office workers, they are certainly not able to point out the effects of their work in such a tangible way. 

Indeed, without construction workers, there would be no offices for the more socially respected bankers, lawyers or accountants even to work in. 

My father also used to help build and maintain train track lines, where the shifts are mostly at night when the underground is not running. 

By sunrise, the labourers would have gone, and the office workers could then pile on to the tubes none the wiser for all the hard work carried out during the night which was enabling them to get to their offices. In this way, my father quite literally helped keep various cities moving.

Perhaps the problem of dissatisfaction stems not necessarily from the type of work itself, but from an unbalanced perspective of it. My father had not fully realised the importance of his toil, and had framed his narrative of it to reflect the eyes of the world. 

But from my frame of mind, my dad’s work was incredibly important. Not least for the direct effects of it, but also for the impact it had for my life. 

His work kept a roof over our heads, food on the table and meant I had an incredibly happy childhood. The eyes of the world would see ‘unskilled work’, but that was the work which sustained my life as I grew up.

What I remember most about my childhood is not what job title my dad had, but how I was safe and happy.

And, ultimately, job titles, no matter how prestigious they are, are all temporary. 

Many university students, like the author, seek to build up work experience through internships. And interns tend to come out of their experience dissatisfied with the tasks they were given. Many go in with great expectations and are disappointed to find themselves doing a lot of cold calls, document shredding, printing, data-input, and others jobs that seem trivial.

But all these tasks, however mundane, are necessary. Somebody has to do it. And, if it is voluntary work, it is an important role that reduces the workload of staff who can then concentrate on the bigger tasks. 

For charities particularly, volunteers keep donations from going on administration, so more money can go towards those whom the charity seeks to support. This is a sentiment embodied by Dorothy Day’s infamous quote, “Everybody wants a revolution, but nobody wants to do the dishes.”

These seemingly unimportant jobs are the dishes. And they need to be done to have a fully functioning workplace and society. 

Every role has to be filled. If we were all manual labourers, or all lawyers, society would cease to operate properly. The diversity of the job market is valuable, and the role that each person has in it. 

An important way to appreciate everyone’s value is to ensure people receive a fair living wage and have safe working conditions.

And also by our day-to-day gratitude for the unsung heroes, like cleaners, bus drivers, kitchen, health, shop and factory workers, and, of course, labourers like my dad. 

Yet genuine work fulfilment comes not only from appreciating the necessity of one’s task but also from a sense of who one is working for.

Is it just for our employers? Eventually, one comes to realise that this mindset is not sustainable for happiness. When I was in primary school, I remember how my dad had spent many years at a particular construction company, and with a change of manager he was laid off overnight and had to find another place to work. 

For me, the process of applying for various job opportunities and getting rejected for some and accepted by others led me to further realise that people’s opinions of me and others are highly subjective.

The job market can be incredibly competitive, and for university graduates especially so. Young people can place so much emphasis on chasing that post in the top five of an industry. The result is often burnout, dissatisfaction and regret.

One of my friends had landed a role at a major banking firm. The employees faced unrealistic (and unexciting) workloads and a high staff turnover, with the only motivation being that this looks good on CVs.

She told me how staff even scheduled in time to cry during the day.

My friend soon left. After all, it makes no sense to kill yourself for a job that could and would replace you in a week.

This isn’t to say do not work hard. There is an emerging trend of ‘quiet quitting’ that has a danger of stagnating progress in the community. Working life can be hard and we need a bit of resilience to face up to its demands.

What I am saying is that it is pointless to work so hard solely for an employer’s approval, or in the hope of a promotion.

Whilst going through my own interviews, I suddenly recalled the wise advice my Year 6 teacher gave us all before our SATs all those years ago. 

She encouraged us to try our best in the exams, but also reminded us there were loads of things we were good at that the SATs would not show. Like how we could be incredibly creative, have great music or athletic ability, be kind friends, etc. 

Similarly, a 30-minute interview could never encompass one’s whole being – and so rejections should not be taken personally. For our long-term happiness, it is crucial not to equate successful job offers with our self-worth.

And for those of who us know ourselves to be created by God, then no amount of approval, even an offer to be CEO of a big company, can outtrump the fact that the Creator of the Universe knows everything about and has unending love for us.

For religious believers, what ultimately gives value to our work is to know we are performing a task given to us by God as our personal contribution to his plan for creation.

It seems like the only sustainable outlook is to work hard for the ones who know you far better than your employer ever could, and whose loyalty could never die or leave you redundant. 

By these I mean your family, loved ones and the people who depend on you. With this in mind, any opportunity or job, no matter how seemingly unimportant, can be transformed into a service of love for them. This also makes it easier to rise above any rejections we face in the workplace. 

And, whatever our job is, the only way for it to be truly fulfilling is if it allows us to give love to our community and family. Solely chasing further promotions and that fancy job title is not going to cut it. 

Of course, having ambitions and goals is important too. But always keep the bigger picture in mind. The only thing that lasts for a lifetime is our love for others. This is what we take to our deathbeds.

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Mary Ann Macdonald is studying history and international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is half-Filipina, half Irish, and is from London.

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