Reflections on White Collar Work
I was crossing the elevated walkway to the parking garage after a busy, but successful day in the classroom when I passed by a man cleaning one of the walkway windows. The sun was shining liberally through the large glass panes through which one can spy on a small portion of the city of Milwaukee sheltered from the biting January wind. As I walked past him, I saw the care with which this man performed a task I had taken for granted since my mother first forced me to do it as a kid. He was intently focused on eliminating every streak from the window he was cleaning, despite the fact that no one was supervising him and he had dozens more to tackle. A smile crept upon my face as I watched him work. He radiated a sense of pride and professionalism I don’t often see in other professionals, myself included.
This change in affect started me thinking about how great it would be to feel that way about my work. Do my co-workers and I smile when we pour over a data set, or lose all sense of time when we type out a report? Come to think of it, yeah, we do! I didn’t realize it until I started writing this piece (seriously, this was going to be a very different post), but I can think of plenty of times when I was so focused on a spreadsheet that my fingers positively flew over my keyboard without a single conscious instruction from my brain. And I vividly remember those feelings of near-ecstasy when I solved a particularly recalcitrant data analysis problem, or devised a particularly clever way to phrase a concept with which I was struggling. I occasionally jumped out of my chair and did a little victory dance (<- this is a Family Guy clip, so beware).
This was an important realization for me because I occasionally feel guilty about being a white collar worker. Growing up I was surrounded by blue collar workers. They were some of the hardest-working people I have ever met, but they all wanted their children to be “something more.” They had great pride in a honest day’s work, but wanted their children to work with their minds, not with their hands and certainly not with their backs. Now that I have achieved what they wanted for us, I catch myself looking back wondering if I have abandoned them and the values that made them so special. I somehow internalized the idea that blue collar work is somehow more honest and real that whatever it is the rest of us do (thanks Mike Rowe). Seeing the sense of pride in the janitor cleaning the skywalk windows, I saw myself even if I didn’t realize it at the time.
Both blue collar and white collar (I am resisting using the term pink collar- but I am open to persuasion attempts) work is valuable and beautiful in their own ways. Both types of work require humans to reach deep within themselves to produce work we can be proud of; the kind of work we can speak of openly to our children and grandchildren. Of course, slackers can be found in both arenas.
By the way, anyone that uses the term “unskilled labor” has never seen the concentration of a janitor as he cleans a window and has most certainly never seen a waitress carry five armloads of dishes with only two hands.