Monday was Labor Day. Congress made the first Monday in September a legal holiday in 1894 as a way of recognizing the contributions of “working people” to the nation.
Al Gini, a River Forest resident, former longtime resident of Oak Park and the “resident philosopher” of WBEZ’s 848 Program, shared some thoughts on the nature of work the day after his father’s funeral a week and a half ago.
“My father taught me to work hard, never accept a dishonest dollar and apply myself,” Gini said. “Both my parents were immigrants. It wasn’t the Protestant Work Ethic but the Italian Work Ethic. It was the belief that if you worked hard at anything it will get better.”
Gini’s father went to work-right after World War II-for the Post Office, where he stayed 25 years. That generation rarely talked about having a career or being fulfilled by their work.
“My father only had jobs,” Gini said. “He didn’t like the work he did.” He did work he did not enjoy in order to earn the money to raise his children.
Gini, who wrote My Job, My Self: Work and the Creation of the Modern
Individual in 2000, told a story about his father illustrating why that Italian immigrant went every day to a job he did not like. A few years ago the father had acute problems with his heart. Gini, the son, said to his father, “Don’t die without telling me you love me.”
Gini’s father sat up on the gurney in the hospital and replied, “Did you ever miss a meal? Did you ever not have shoes to wear? Did you go to school? I love you.” And he laid back down.
Likewise, his mother was always a working housewife. Back in the old Italian neighborhood on the Near West Side, she would go to the bakery across from their place at 3 a.m. and work until 7:30 when she would return home, get her son up and off to school and then go back to the bakery for three more hours. When women began talking about having careers in the 1970s, Gini’s mother responded, “Career? I didn’t have a career. I had a job, because I had to.”
Times have changed. Sixty years ago at the end of World War II, Al Gini’s parents along with G.I. Joe, Rosey the Riveter and millions like them were happy to just have a job. A good job was one that paid enough to meet the mortgage on that bungalow on the West Side, buy a car and put something away every month to pay for the children’s college education.
Those children raised by the G.I. Generation heard stories about the Great Depression and the war, but what they experienced was prosperity and rising expectations. When they went to college they read humanistic psychologists like Abraham Maslow who talked about a hierarchy of human needs crowned by the need for self-actualization. Maslow and like-minded thinkers gave those Baby Boomers words to articulate what they were feeling, i.e. the expectation that their jobs should be not just a means to a paycheck but that their work must be fulfilling as well.
Al Gini, the immigrant’s son, felt that way as he began college in the 1960s. Al Gini, the philosopher, feels the same way in 2006.
“The best of all worlds,” he declared, “is that you have meaningful work that you like and at which you excel.” Referring to My Job, My Self, he said, “The thesis of this book is that adults need work the same way children need play-to fulfill themselves. For the adult it’s the possibility of personal outlet, growth, fulfillment. It’s in our tasks that we recognize ourselves.”
In the book’s preface, Gini argues that three tenets regarding work need to be recaptured:
1) Adults need work … to fulfill themselves.
2) Work should produce ideas, services, and products people want and need as well as help to produce better people and a better life.
3) Work is a fundamental part of our humanity.
To put it another way. Gini wouldn’t contest the statement that good people do good work, but he would also turn it around to say that good work produces good people. In My Job, My Self, he cites everyone from Karl Marx to John Paul II to support his contention that, “Rene Descartes was wrong. It isn’t Cogito, ergo sum … but rather Labora, ergo sum.”