Workers vs. Heroes in America

There’s something broken in the way we view competence, in the value of doing your job, in America today.

We know the names of various actors and sports figures, people who entertain us. Most of them are well-paid, celebrities who appear not just in scripted movies or shows or competitive events—they end up as guests on TV talk shows, and in various awards shows.

It’s nice that they’re sort-of familiar, even if it is artificial. But let me ask you: who is more important, the guy who played the superhero in that popular film that came out last month, or the guy who put the bolts into the bridge over the Genesee River downtown?

I’ve gone across that bridge probably one or two hundred times since it was built. And not only me—my friends and thousands of people I don’t know have passed over that bridge. It’s 3 lanes in each direction, so it’s got capacity for 12,000 cars/hour, although it’s surely not at peak utilization every hour, every day. Let’s say 100,000 cars, trucks, buses, delivery vans, construction vehicles back and forth each day; or, 50,000 in each direction. So 3 million crossings per month, 30 million per year, 300 million in the time the bridge has been up.

And not once has that bridge ever fallen down, not once has the surface collapsed and a car or truck fallen through. The nuts haven’t come loose and let the bolts fall out, the steel hasn’t turned out to have cracks from improper forging, the concrete has held up despite the hundreds of millions of tons of people and vehicle and cargo that have travelled over it.

But who do we celebrate? Tom Fucking Hanks for his great acting, Babe Ruth for his ability to hit a ball with a stick, Lance Armstrong for his ability to ride fast (and the scandal when it turned out he was doping).

There is something simply wrong with America’s lack of appreciation for doing your job, unless your job makes you the center of attention. Maybe we should, because all jobs are hard.

Jobs are hard

In America, it seems like everyone looks down on everyone else’s job, like everyone has it easy, everyone else is on the gravy train.

Waitresses—they just write down your order, pass it off to the chef, bring the food when it’s ready. Easy.

Delivery drivers—they just drive around all day, carry a few packages into places. Easy.

School teachers—they get all those vacations, and the summer off. Man, have they got it made.

Fast food workers—man, you don’t need any training to work there. They’re disposable jobs. Anyone can do it.

Warehouse workers—move a few things around, maybe drive a forklift. How much work can it be?

Software/IT folks—man, they just sit on their ass all day in front of a screen.

See where I’m going here? You can take just about any job, and frame it in a way that makes it sounds like it’s trivial. And it seems like, at least here in America, that’s the normal way we look at each others jobs. And it’s bullshit.

In reality, it’s hard work taking orders and delivering food and drinks (which in many restaurants they have to pour or make themselves), squeezing in coffee top-ups, check-ins, and bringing cheques in their free moments. Waitstaff bust their asses, on their feet their whole shifts.

Delivery drivers—have you ever seen an obese UPS driver? No. There’s a lot of deliveries to make, especially on Tuesdays, and they have to be made today, because customers are expecting it, and tomorrow there’s a whole new set of crap to be delivered. Twelve-hour days and Saturday? That’s the holidays. Weather? Doesn’t matter if it’s ±40C, snow or snush or sleet or chill or heat. Parcels weigh up to 140 pounds, and they’re moving them by hand or hand truck.

School teachers put up with rooms full of kids, and do it like the champs they are. Enough said.

Fast food, like a lot of jobs, are a fast-paced scramble to keep up with workflow. It may not take a university degree, but it does take patience and diligence, and it’s still got to get done or I’m going to go hungry when I want a quick bite.

Warehouses are brutal. I’ve never seen one with air conditioning; they have heat, but loading bay doors just let all the heat out so they’re frigid in winter anyway. I carried two 1-liter bottles on my toolbelt when I did this, and in the heat of summer I’d drain them twice in a 4-hour shift. I’d leave drenched in sweat, tired and hungry.

And fighting with computers? In information technology, life is keeping up with the latest security standards and making sure exploits are closed off before evil takes advantage of them. All while battling compatibility issues between Linux and Windows and third-party proprietary junk. Software developers write code, and have to understand what thousands of lines of code do, most often by reading it. They have to understand databases, communications protocols, and what is contained in various software libraries and how to use those components. And no matter what area of software one is in, the continual full-speed-forward of the industry means you have to perpetually learn new languages, new protocols, new libraries. If you can’t keep up, you’ll end up outdated and out of a job.

Appreciate work

Every job is a hard job. The challenges vary; some challenge the mind, others the body, some are just mentally taxing to deal with the speed or the tedium.

Instead of dismissing all jobs as easy or unimportant, we should appreciate the hard work that others are doing, if they do it well, or even adequately.

We should appreciate that software these days has gotten pretty reliable, that the bridges and roads we drive don’t kill us or destroy our cars, that the supply chains work effectively so we can buy whatever food we want at restaurants and grocery stores nearby. And we should appreciate all the hard work all the people involved do, to make these things happen for us; and they should appreciate our hard work, for what we contribute for them.

Perhaps, if society started to appreciate work more, then we would also come to expect fair pay for the work we do.

A culture of “heroes”

One of the side-effects of not appreciating work in this country, is that when we really do want to express appreciation, we aren’t sure how. And so, we have the ubiquitous heroes.

In America, various workers are always being touted as heroes. A few—fire fighters come to mind—might be. But it’s not just a few being touted. Look around, and you’ll see lots of people being touted as heroes.

During Coronavirus, delivery drivers are essential workers, and people are putting out signs in a rare expression of appreciation but declaring them “heroes.” That seems like overkill.

The grocery store around the corner has also declared their workers as heroes for the duration or Coronavirus.

Sometimes teachers are heroes, and I’ve seen propaganda at work that says that us school bus drivers are heroes.

EMTs, doctors, nurses, are heroes; cops are heroes. Is the waitress who brings me the hot chocolate a “hero” too?

And it’s not just jobs. There’s propaganda around town telling me that I should be a H2O Hero and not pour chemicals or unsanitary things down storm sewers, and if I eat the recommended amounts of various food, I’ll be a Healthy Hero! I can be a hero by donating blood, by being a designated driver, or donating money to the right cause.

Like the word “epic,” inappropriate use and overuse of “hero” has deprived it of the connotation it once had.

Please, do me a favor: take your “hero” designation and stuff it.

Screw being a hero

This hero culture is ridiculous. We should do the right thing, because it’s the right thing. Why do we need to have our egos stroked with the title “hero”? And at this point, “hero” is thrown about so easily that it’s losing all meaning. (It doesn’t help that there are way more superhero-based shows than we need.)

So I want to be appreciated for doing my job well. I don’t need or want an empty title. I want to be paid fairly. And I want others to think about what it is I do and the hard work and effort it takes, notice my contribution to the shared output pool that is civilization, and appreciate what they gain from it.

I appreciate that Tom Hanks has been in some good movies. Thanks for doing that, Mr. Hanks. But it seems odd that you’ve got a shitload of medals, when I think about the crew that put up that bridge downtown. Or the guy who picks up my trash. Or the folks who maintain the water system, the electric grid, or my Internet. Like me, none of these folks are celebrities, none of them are heroes, none of them get medals. But you know what? They don’t need to be. They’re just people, like me, who do their fucking jobs. To all of them, Thank You. Each of your contributions makes my life a little better. Life wouldn’t be the same without what you do. We are the ones getting shit done, and we should command more respect for it.