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E m br ace Wor k Pa i n


game to get these pleasant but stoic Germans to tell me tales of their
hard-fought youth in the Depression and then the war: tell me about
the tornado that destroyed the barns; about having two grandparents,
two parents, nine siblings, and sometimes a spouse and someones new
baby in that three-bedroom farm house; about Grandpas duties during
the war; about the men he met on the boat across the Atlantic; about the
guy from New Jersey who got shot at the checkpoint; about the time my
dad fell out of the car on Highway 15 when he was 8; and so on. Along
the way, I learned about Grandmas trial-and-error farmingand about
her makeshift bassinet sidecar for the tractor.
Stunning though this ingenuity and seeming danger were, what
made an even deeper impression on me as a 10- or 12-year-old in the
early 1980s was the fact that the two of them were always genuinely per-
plexed that I thought their problem-solving perseverance was extraordi-
nary. They did not regard it as extraordinary. Why did I want to hear
the story again and again? To them, it was no big deal; there was work
that needed to be done, nobody else was going to do it, and that was
that. It was just who they were. The aw-shucks demeanor echoes the
resolve of the I will work harder pledges of Boxer in Orwells Animal
Farm. There was a matter-of-factness about them that, in fact, wasnt ex-
traordinary for much of their generation. This nose-to-the-grindstone,
get-it-done attitude can still be heard today in conversations about work
and callings with many aging members of the Greatest Generation I

A Wor k E t hic Isn t Inev ita ble

When I was little, mom would leave detailed lists of chores on the
kitchen counter each summer morning for my siblings and me to
complete before we could play baseball, ride bikes, or go swimming.
And when I arrived at college, basically everyone with whom I became
friends, a group from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, had
also done real work growing up. Not everyone had worked in the field
like I hadmost had spent summers in retail or taking orders at a fast-
food place or sorting the mail or doing some other kind of grunt work
at a local officebut it was at least a job with certain expectations and
set hours. Because these new friends were from all regions of the country

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122 T h e Va n i sh i ng A m e r ica n A d u lt

and because they confirmed my own childhood experiences of regular

toil, I arrived at young adulthood in the early 1990s assuming that work
was a near-universal component of American upbringing and matura-
tion. I didnt presume everyone was as gritty as Elda Sasse, but I knew
that my siblings and I hoped we would one day prove as perseverant as
she wasand I honestly believed that this was a universal aspiration.
Without deliberate reflection, I assumed that basically all young people
everywhere had similar placeholder role models in their minds, and thus
that the transmission of a work ethic to each next generation was more
or less inevitable.
This chapter is about how painfully wrong I was in that assump-
tion. Its also about why failing to transmit an ethic that productivity is
essential to human flourishing will leave us at odds with how America
and Americans came to be. Finally, this chapter aims to persuade you
that there is almost nothing more important we can do for our young
than convince them that production is more satisfying than consump-
tion. Indeed, a hallmark of virtuous adulthood is learning to find free-
dom in your work, rather than freedom from your work, even when
work hurts.
My passive assumption that all kids have some meaningful work ex-
periences as teens was shattered in late 2009 when I arrived as president
of Midland University. The universitys board of directors had hired me,
as a 37-year-old, not because I had any special insight into shaping 18- to
22-year-olds, but because I was a turnaround guy who specialized in
helping troubled companies become solvent. This liberal arts institution
was in big trouble, in terms of both finances and enrollment, the latter
at its lowest point in a century. My job was to tackle the colleges unsus-
tainable deficits, skyrocketing debt, enrollment shortfalls, and flagging
morale among faculty and staff.
None of my initial charter had anything to do with current stu-
dents and their emotional health. Immediately upon arrival, however,
it became apparent that in addition to dealing with other so-called big
picture concerns of a university in crisis, I would also have to reshape
the student affairs leadership and structure. Its an odd experience ar-
riving at a college as president in your thirties. In the first year I was
regularly mistaken for a student, and not just by other students. Two
visiting professors once asked me if I thought I had made the right

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E m br ace Wor k Pa i n 123

choiceto enroll at Midland as a current undergraduate, they thought

they were asking me. For many reasons, I didnt have a conception of
myself as an old guy, but I soon discovered that my experiences ma-
triculating into college half a life ago, at age 18, were vastly different
from those of our students.
When my team and I arrived at Midland, the school had been on
the verge of missing payroll four months in a row, which would mean
that families would miss mortgage payments. Thats a pretty urgent cri-
sis. Yet finances might not have been the biggest problem at the school.
More stunning to me was that it was an atypical experience for an in-
coming freshman to have done really hard work, not even the sorts of
elementary farm tasks common to Nebraska kids from the homesteaders
of the 1860s until just a few years ago. Teenage life, I soon learned, had
been stunningly remade in the two decades since Id gone off to college.
Eldas and Elmers childhoods were far removed from these kids experi-
ences and understanding.
Lets be clear that there were many wonderful human beings and
delightful students at Midland, but many of the teens I met upon ar-
riving on campus also had an outsized sense of entitlement without any
corresponding notion of accountability. For example, a student staged a
sit-in in my office one day, announcing that he would not leave until I
resolved a scheduling problem for him. He was upset that the registrar
wouldnt be offering a particular course he needed the following semes-
ter. Obviously, college presidents dont usually solve the Rubiks cube
of course scheduling. The student was emphatic that he wasnt leaving,
and while I was clear that the course registrar had a job to do and that
she did it well, I realized it might be a teachable moment, a chance for
the student and me to have a conversation. At one point he proclaimed,
You need to figure this out. I pay tuition to go to this school, which
means I pay your salary. So you work for me.
Well, ummm... no. That isnt how it works at all. My job did in-
clude serving him, but in a defined way. It was not my job, for instance,
to wash his car or fetch him pizza on Friday night. I patiently explained
that Midland exists for many people and many purposes; the board of
directors hired me; and I serve at their pleasurebut that my leadership
of the institution as a whole relies on my empowering a team of people to
fulfill their specialized vocations. (Parenthetically, the registrar was right

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124 T h e Va n i sh i ng A m e r ica n A d u lt

and the student wrongthe course in question was to be scheduled only

every other year.) I then gently pointed out to the student that he was at-
tending the university on scholarship. In truth then, he worked foror
had a debt tothe generous donors who made his scholarship possible.
But even if hed been paying for his education himself, the college is a
living institution of partners, with thought-out, intentional divisions of
labor. He was approaching the situation and this whole living-learning-
working community only as a consumer. He was not thinking or talk-
ing or acting like a maturing young man aware of the dignity of the
work of the many other people in the equation.
During the five years I was president, we conducted surveys annu-
ally about the highs and lows of students university experience. The
survey takeaway that repeatedly woke me in the middle of the night
was the aching sense not just that the students lacked a work ethic, but
more fundamentally that they lacked an experiential understanding of
the difference between production and consumption. Dispiritingly, stu-
dents overwhelmingly highlighted their desire for freedom from respon-
sibilities. The activities they most enjoyed, they reported, were sleeping
in, skipping class, and partying. A few mentioned canceled classes as
the best part of their four years. I too love a good Midwestern bliz-
zard, but I loved them in college so that we could explore the beauty,
or ski, or snowmobilerather than merely be free from class. Almost
nowhere did the student surveys reveal that they had the eyes to see
freedom to categoriesto read, to learn, to be coached, to be mentored
in an internship.
If you have done any real work, you begin to see a broad range
of work differently. And if youve been reflective about your and other
peoples work, you start to ask questions about where goods and services
come from. Who did the work that got these non-Nebraska items to
this store in this Nebraska small town? As hard work is baked into your
bones, you begin to feel great gratitude for the other workers who built
the stuff and plotted the distribution system that got these toasters and
sneakers and books to this place. On the other hand, if youve never
worked, you are more likely blind to the fundamental distinction be-
tween production and consumption. And these students, I learned from
interviewing many of them, had mostly not done any hard work prior
to arriving in college.

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E m br ace Wor k Pa i n 125

Although it is not universally fair, millennials have acquired a col-

lective reputation as needy, undisciplined, coddled, presumptuous, and
lacking much of a filter between their public personas and their inner
lives. As one New York Times story about millennials in the workplace
put it, managers struggle with their young employees sense of entitle-
ment, a tendency to overshare on social media, and frankness verging
on insubordination.
Well, whats the alternative? Are you asking us to be fake? one
young woman asked me after a speech in which Id made a passing com-
ment about the virtues of deferred gratification. No, of course not. Of
course we all struggle with selfishness, and of course there are times to
simply have fun, avoid responsibility, and seek escapeor perhaps, as
noted in the last chapter, to pause the daily churn to reflect. But growing
up involves coming to recognize the distinction between who we still are
today and who we seek to become. Our hope is that our young people
will begin to own the Augustinian awareness described in chapter 1
that not everything we long or lust for is something we should really
want. Healthy people can admit that there are unhealthy yearnings. It
is not fake to aim to mature. And it is not fake to begin modeling the
desired behavior even before it is a full and fair representation of who
you are in the moment. I remain selfish and impatient today, but it is
surely not fake or wrong to seek to sublimate these traits. I want to grow
beyond who I am today, and I aim to begin better modeling that ideal-
ized future right now.

Lots of Hour s, Lots of

Str ess, Ba d Citrus... a nd I
J u mped at t he Ch a nce
Our students coming-of-age crisis is not limited to lacking self-restraint,
but more broadly reflects that they do not understand what self-restraint
is, why its necessary for them individually, and why they should be
frightened at our lack of it collectively. They dont know and we arent
telling them that working on ittoday, tomorrow, and until deathis
just part of being a thoughtful, moral adult.
At Midland, we once hired a talented young woman for a critically
important position that involved interacting with the public. She had

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