I can be fair once in a while. This week it occurred to me that perhaps I’m not being entirely fair to you entitled, bratty, reality-challenged, psychotic millennial boneheads.
Yesterday’s Thanksgiving edition of the Matt Forney Show was about crappy jobs, and we absolutely crushed it, as Bill Burr likes to say. In anticipation of Black Thursday—the nadir of a retail serf’s year—Matt wanted to talk about his old job at Kmart and the abuse that the public likes to heap upon the temporary whipping boys they can rent for the price of a mop head and a giant bucket of Cheetos. I wanted to talk about my many years in the restaurant industry; “Internet entrepreneur” wasn’t an option when I was his age, so I was armed with an embarrassment of possible digressions.
I used to score the occasional lucrative gig waiting tables despite being chronically insane, and I was as eager as my cohost to talk about the crazy behavior of temporary people-owners. But I found more interest in the far greater amount of time I spent playing a more pleasant though punitively ill-paid role: I was a dishwasher and table busser.
I’m continually surprised by my nostalgia for that work. I certainly wasn’t thrilled with my situation at the time, but in retrospect, years filled with days filled with nothing to do with my brain except gnaw on my own thoughts left me with an invaluable gift: I learned to think for myself. This is a somewhat crude boast. But if you can’t come up with original thoughts while you do menial labor, you are going to wind up in a rubber room. Those were the days; sure, I lived on leftovers from other people’s plates and probably narrowly escaped hepatitis, but I was being paid to think more surely than a college professor.
As per our usual shtick, the show sidetracked into making fun of stupid millennials: what’s wrong with these kids, that they think microaggressions on a college campus are exactly as terrible as scores of Parisians getting torn limb from limb? Some individuals might have a genetic propensity to stupidity and narcissism, but it can’t be a coincidence that an entire generation of Americans is incapable of putting anything into perspective, and swallows whatever claim sounds like it will score them the most Twitter followers.
The Internet oft retreads the obvious factors in the Gen-Y environment that could have made them this way: helicopter parents, PC bullshit in the schools, trophies for every snowflake, and most obviously, the highly addictive, ADHD-provoking, hamster-pellet brain-reward system that is the Internet itself.
But at the risk of sounding like someone’s grandpa, I began to wonder: Even with all that stuff going on, if you kids on my lawn had ever had to do menial labor, could you have learned to think anyway? Could you have stood tall against the Tumblrs and the cat videos as you won the skill to meditate upon a single train of thought long enough to develop it into something logical, sensible, or even beautiful? (As opposed to this.)
Maybe I should say, rather: if you had ever been able to do manual labor, you might have. There’s so much unskilled labor coming into the country that employers can have their pick—and they’re not going to pick someone with an empty resume.
The last time I had to resort to bussing tables was an embarrassingly puny number of years ago; hey, I was a perfectly serviceable newspaper employee, but it takes time to transition to the Internet. My bussing and dishing colleagues were no longer kids starting out in the work world. They were old guys from Latin America who still hadn’t learned the English word for tenedor. (They also exploded the stereotype of Latinos as hard-working when they rewarded my feeble grasp of Spanish by showing me where they hid when they didn’t feel like doing their jobs.) And the pay rate was through the floor.
Yep, it’s a bad situation for those old guys. But at the risk of being a Nazi, may I be allowed to say it’s bad for the Anglophone kids, too? Menial labor used to be a rite of passage, and we complained about it. Now it’s not an option, and you don’t even know you miss it.
I don’t know what you kids do for money, honestly. You can’t all have trust funds. I’m guessing those of you who can’t or won’t get a job waiting tables or servicing customers are out there scribbling something on the Intertubes. Unfortunately, you can’t all have something interesting to say, either… which would explain in large part why the Internet is the death of civilization. It may seem self-evident to you that absorbing 120,000 words a day of news and gossip is more intellectually stimulating than staring at a dirty cinderblock wall while you scrape dried eggs off a thousand plates, but you can’t keep stuffing your head-tube with crap all day and expect it to ever digest anything.
Would you like to explore the mysterious world inside your own brain? Would you like to indeed have something interesting to say? I suggest you put down the Patreon, quit begging your parents and random passers-by for money, grow some self-respect, and try harder to snare a brainless job for a while.
The benefits are immense. You will learn to deal with frustration. You will learn humility. You will learn to cope so sturdily with being belittled that people can call you any word in the book and you will not need a safe space.
It will suck. You will be bored. You might even cry. But if you want to be a decent human being, you need to be bored and cry once in a while.
Maybe all that time spent talking to yourself instead of to your phone will help you learn to value the merits of an argument over its emotional appeal or social utility. Or at least you might learn to tell the difference. Being left to your own resources for hours on end—sorry, a yoga class is nowhere near long enough—is brain magic.
You’ll interact with real people when you’re forced out of your Internet cocoon every day. You’ll finally have a fighting chance at developing the social acumen to make the very basic observations about human behavior that currently seem to elude you. You might realize that men and women are not exactly alike, which will do wonders for your sense of mystified frustration and unfairness.
You might even develop a lifelong empathy for working Americans, even if you do go on to “work” for Buzzfeed. You might stop seeing them as xenophobic yahoos whenever they complain about being crushed by wave after wave of immigrant labor. If you have to live hand to mouth by the sweat of your brow for a little while, you might understand how badly every little downward adjustment of wages hurts. (It hurts more than mansplaining, if you can imagine that!)
But maybe you wouldn’t consider such empathy an actual benefit. More of a stumbling block to your career at HuffPo, eh? It might lead you to slip into a gaffe.
Well, here’s one that will get you where you don’t want to admit you live: being forced to get off your ass for a while might help you lose enough weight to quit wasting your life blogging against beauty standards. Go out after work and talk to your meatfriends instead.