I've spent the last few days looking around and wondering: "When did the American worker get so whiny?"
A lot of people seem to resent having to work for a living and feel entitled to a smoother ride. Some politicians help make the whine. When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) beats the drum of income inequality, and talks about how the rich are getting richer at the expense of the working class, you catch a whiff of presidential ambitions. In California, Democratic officials are making their bones on the debate to raise the minimum wage in a state where it is now $9 an hour and will jump to $10 in 2016. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is proposing a bump in the city's minimum wage to an eye-popping $13.25 in 2017.
With politicians competing with one another to pump up the minimum wage, how will we know what a job is really worth -- as opposed to what ambitious officials tell us we should pay someone to do it?
Both major political parties are more than eager to exploit discontentment among workers when it serves their interests. When George W. Bush was president, Democratic activists complained that he didn't create enough jobs and said that, as a result, workers were "unhappy with the economy." Under President Barack Obama, House Republicans now use similar language.
Supposedly, there is this unhappiness in this country. And no one has stopped to think that maybe it's not because we have too few jobs but because there is too much politics.
Long gone seem the days when people were glad to have a job, and grateful to their employer for providing one. Admittedly, some of this is the fault of companies that have shortchanged their workers. Yet much of it has to do with how we react to the changing job environment. It's not just our work ethic that's the problem. It's our work attitude. We want maximum pay with minimum effort, and plenty of time off because we think that vacation days produce happiness and ensure quality of life.
The media often act as enablers. Newspapers and TV networks run stories around Labor Day about the beleaguered and bruised American worker. Hear enough of the reports and you might think there is something wrong with you if you like your job and don't hate your boss. The new normal for American workers, we're led to believe, is for them to feel -- in the words of the researchers from Rutgers University, who recently put out a depressing new study on the U.S. workforce -- "insecure, underpaid, highly stressed, and generally unhappy at work."
In the study, which bears the downer title "Unhappy, Worried, and Pessimistic: Americans in the Aftermath of the Great Recession," 71 percent said they believed the recent recession caused permanent change. More than a third reported their finances were permanently injured by the recession, with 16 percent saying they were wiped out financially and expect the damage to be permanent. Seventy percent described typical American workers as "not secure in their jobs" and 68 percent said workers were "highly stressed." Only 14 percent said they thought that workers were "happy at work."
What a bleak picture. I understand stress. I know what it's like to lose your job and attempt to regain your footing. It has happened to me at least three times since I took my first job at 13 busing tables at a restaurant owned by a family friend. But look at the country we live in. Americans have the final word in what happens with their employment prospects. Hate your job? Get another one. There are "Help Wanted" signs everywhere. Be prepared to move if necessary for the right opportunity. Or start your own business.
But don't wallow in the self-defeating juices of envy, resentment and despair. That's when you know the game is over, and you've lost.