SAN DIEGO – This Labor Day, instead of once again whining about how immigrants supposedly hurt U.S. workers by lowering wages, let’s consider the possibility that many U.S. workers have hurt themselves by overestimating the value of their labor.
We talk a lot about jobs in this country. Politicians run for office promising to create jobs, save jobs or keep jobs from being outsourced. Many workers act as if they’re entitled to a job, and some go further and think they’re due the perfect job – one that pays the maximum amount for the minimum amount of work, with time left over for leisure and family activities. And when a company lays them off with a swift kick in lieu of a gold watch, they’re angry and resentful instead of asking what they could have done differently to make themselves indispensable.
It’s not just jobs that we have to worry about. What we really should be talking about is wages. And not in the way we normally approach the subject, not in terms of political debates over income inequality, equal pay for women, or raising the minimum wage. And not as if we’re always looking for someone to blame for wages that flatline or even drop – well-paid CEOs, immigrants, stockholders, globalization, political parties, etc.
Just once, let’s look inward and ask if we aren’t doing something wrong. It’s time to ask: Is the American worker undermining his own success by pricing himself out of the job market? If so, one reason it’s happening is because somewhere along the line – the 1990s, 1980s, pick your decade – we came to overvalue our self-worth and undervalue the concept of a job well done. Current generations have lost the work ethic that helped their grandparents build prosperous lives while building this country. In fact, it may be that was the goal all along. Americans have worked hard to get this soft.
Several years ago, I got an email from a reader who was fuming over my insistence that immigrants do jobs that Americans won’t do – at any price. He took up the challenge and said that he’d gladly leave his air-conditioned office and pick lettuce in California’s Salinas Valley – if he could be paid $1,000 per week. Mind you, this was with no experience picking lettuce.
Sometime after that, I was listening to a radio show in San Diego during which a guest – who owned a landscaping company – said she was willing to pay as much as $150 per day for a good landscaper. People started calling in to take her up on the offer, but they had no experience or passion for landscaping. All they were passionate about was the salary. The owner passed.
Ask any homeowner what it costs to get work done around the house. You may be shocked. In the last few years, I’ve had U.S.-born workers offer to stain a fence for $75 per hour, clean windows for $80 per hour, and hang Christmas lights for $100 per hour. In many medium-sized cities in the U.S., a dependable baby sitter will cost anywhere from $12 to $20 per hour. It seems pretty clear that people value their time more than ever.
A worker is not concerned with the task he is completing as much as the time needed to complete it. So whether he’s doing a dangerous job, or performing complicated electrical work, or baby-sitting a 3-year-old, he is likely to demand the same fee. This turns upside down traditional assumptions that those with the most education and sharpest skills can command the highest compensation. Now that so many of us have busier schedules and there is a greater demand on the hours in the day, we’re more protective than ever of the time we spend on the job.
There is nothing wrong with valuing one’s time, especially since it often represents time spent away from family or on other pursuits. But we have taken this concept too far, and now we need to go back and reconnect with the value of hard work and the satisfaction that comes from providing a service that is needed, appreciated and beneficial. And if we do good work, and provide a unique service, we’ll be fairly compensated.
Americans don’t need to get rid of foreign workers. What they need to get rid of is the sense of entitlement that dictates that their time is too valuable to be frittered away on something as meaningless as work.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.