SAN DIEGO – This Labor Day, I skipped the barbecue and instead forced myself to digest a morsel of truth that is unappetizing but undeniable: Americans are facing a work crisis.
By this, I mean that – for all the complaints about globalization, corporate greed, closed factories, lost jobs, immigrants and falling wages – the fact of the matter is that many Americans just don’t want to work anymore.
Or maybe, it’s more accurate to say that a lot of Americans have – in the era of the welfare state and unionized labor – become comfortable with the idea of not working. The romantic notion – so prevalent in the 20th century – of putting in a good day’s work for a good day’s wage is passe.
Today, when people negotiate contracts with employers, their goal is to get as much money and vacation time as possible. That is, to reap the maximum amount of benefit from the minimum amount of effort.
Of course, most of us have to work. But while our grandparents lived to work, many of us now work to live. While immigrants might open a restaurant and then make plans to launch 10 more, the native-born increasingly define success as being able to sell the restaurant and retire at 40.
Still, Americans are a proud people. And so it’s not easy for us to admit that – when it comes to drive, determination and work ethic – we can’t hold a candle to our grandparents. Many of us have soft hands, and we spend our days in air-conditioned offices looking at spreadsheets and pecking at keyboards.
Thus, rather than admit the truth, we make up excuses to avoid competing for high-tech jobs we can’t do and low-skilled jobs we don’t want to do.
We insist that foreign workers get jobs that we think should go to Americans not because there is anything wrong with us but because there is something wrong with foreign workers. Namely, that they’ll work cheap and they’re easier to exploit.
That’s what a caller told me recently during a radio show I was hosting. Identifying himself as a Republican and a supporter of the notion of a global economy, he nonetheless claimed that Americans couldn’t be expected to compete with legal immigrants for jobs in the technology sector because “the playing field isn’t level.” After all, he said, programmers from India and China will work for lower salaries.
I thought he was kidding. Tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Intel are not exactly known for underpaying their workers. In fact, many of their employees go on to become millionaires. It’s no wonder that there are long lines of applicants vying for the chance to be exploited by the titans of Silicon Valley.
That call was running through my mind Tuesday as Attorney General Jeff Sessions stepped to the podium and announced a major policy change regarding undocumented youth that will, among other things, supposedly help save the beleaguered American worker.
According to Sessions, the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) – which included giving recipients a temporary work permit – “denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens.”
What a dumb thing to say. As if those “hundreds of thousands of Americans” – many of whom had every advantage in life – weren’t free to compete with the undocumented for these jobs, and as if they didn’t have a huge leg up in that competition because they were born on third base.
Given that most DACA recipients are Latino, what a nice touch by the White House to have Sessions swing the ax on the program. He is no friend to immigrants. Sessions opposed DACA while serving in the Senate, wants to cut legal immigration and plans to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities because he thinks local police should enforce federal immigration law.
If Sessions and the White House want to champion American workers, they can find other ways to do it besides trying to kick out of the country undocumented young people who are working, producing and going to college.
If folks like that threaten and frighten American workers, then we have bigger problems than DACA. Our spirit is broken – and our country along with it.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.