Before my step-father died earlier this year, at age 73, he told me that he had never once interviewed for a job. He was hired to dig ditches for a west coast utility at age nineteen or twenty - a high school graduate with very little college - and was employed by the same company for almost fifty years.
I don't have any data, but I do have lots of stories. So do you, I imagine. The men of earlier generations often had humble employment, but the work was intrinsically good and the pay could be quite decent. One of my barbers, who is now in his 70s, tells me that he bought a house and put his children through college cutting men's hair. He laments bitterly that this just isn't possible today. The number of men's barbers and barber schools has dwindled to almost nothing in comparison to forty years ago. I used to work with a warehouse clerk - a man who was barely literate in English - who told me much the same thing about his own employment. Today, raising a family and owning a home on the income of an ordinary warehouseman is virtually unthinkable
And so it has happened with many jobs. It used to be that men with ordinary intelligence and average skills could make a decent living if they were honest, had a strong work ethic, and had a desire to master their trade. But the blue-collar "masculine" jobs today - mechanics, construction workers, machinists, press operators, etc. - pay very little and are inherently unstable. Other jobs once staffed by men - office clerks, writers and journalists, factory workers, purchasing agents, draftsmen, contract administrators, etc. - are increasingly filled by women. Jobs which are today capable of decently supporting a family require high intelligence, extraordinary skills, and what is more often the case, unscrupulous ambition.
Apart from the lack of good paying employment for ordinary men, an even greater problem, in my opinion, is the lack of meaningful work for everyone. John Senior put it this way:
But one of the bitterest questions the majority of us must ask is whether, even if we do a good job, the work is good to begin with, that is, if it is really necessary to the common good. A large amount of work in the bureaucratic state consists in what is called management but is really manipulation of labor, supplies, and markets; some is gambling on the ups and downs of markets, and some, taking interest on loans … The whole of our semisocialist society is a vast, lopsided diseconomy in which few do necessary work and many are parasitic. It would be rash to fix any definite degree of sin on the part of those involved in parasitic work, but from the point of view of economic health, we are suffering from a plague. Economic life has become an occasion of sin in which virtue becomes morally impossible for the majority.
Strong, accusing words, these. But it is easily true that 50% of advertised employment is unsuitable for men with a conscience. One is better off, spiritually and morally, washing dishes for minimum wage than working as an advertising executive for a Fortune 500 company.
As for employment that isn't positively harmful, much of it is just meaningless busy-work. Better than nothing, to be sure, but it's painful to spend so much of one's life working at something that is nothing more than a means to a paycheck. Man is made for work, but not just any work: he is made for work that matters and contributes to the common good. Somehow, I think the crisis of meaningful work is not unrelated to our economic troubles generally.