The joy of knowing “I built that”

At its height, about 1,800 men and women were on the job building the new Vikings stadium in Downtown Minneapolis.  A truly remarkable number when you think about it.

In the starkest of contrasts, the American Enterprise Institute’s Nicholas Eberstadt recently wrote about how one out of every six American men between 25 and 54 – known in the trade as the “prime age working years” – are currently not in the workforce at all.  Which is to say, they are neither working, nor between jobs, nor even looking for one.  They’ve dropped out.  As numbers go, this too is a truly remarkable one.

But forgo the obvious about how men in former group have made trainloads more money.  Think, instead, about the satisfaction derived by both the men and women who toiled and sweated every yard of US Bank Stadium.  And then think about how, for decades to come, they will be able tell their children and grandchildren, with pride as they drive by or watch a Vikings game on television, how they built, with their own hands, one of the great edifices of its kind anywhere.

Eberstadt writes what he does in his new and important book, Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis.  He certainly recognizes contributing factors such as closed-down factories.   But as a conservative political economist, he cites a culture conducive to unadulterated laziness along with perverse welfare policies as larger causes of the problem than do liberal scholars, who are quicker, generally speaking, to stress globalization and an increase of actual, not feigned disabilities.

Without dismissing macroeconomic roadblocks to remunerative work, particularly in regards to the plight of Americans without much education, I line-up largely with Eberstadt.  But no matter how one divvies up the problem, two things come to immediate mind.

The first is the direct link Eberstadt’s boss at the American Enterprise Institute, Arthur Brooks, cites as connecting something called “earned success” and “happiness.”  In doing so, Brooks does not conceive earned success as wholly synonymous with making lots of money, or as having anything to do, necessarily, with what one does for a living.  Its joys, instead, can come from being a good and conscientious volunteer, a good and conscientious parent, or a good and conscientious just about anything.

But as Eberstadt writes, the only things many men who are out of the workforce are seriously proficient at are sleeping late, playing video games, and “socializing”; skills and preoccupations having little if anything to do with serving others, be they family members or others.  How sad for everyone involved, but especially for those wasting whatever gifts they might have along with irretrievable time.

The second point to be made has to do creativeness.  For me, just about the most satisfying things I’ve done professionally in recent years has been to write several books.  I’ll keep the waxing here to a minimum, but the satisfaction is deep and warm when a publisher says “yes”; when I finish a first draft; when I finish a final draft; when I first see a proposed cover; when I first hold a hot-off-the-press copy in my hands.  You get the idea.

In regards to my hands, about the only other things I now do with them is type and eat.  I’m not particularly proud of this, especially since I’ve long admired, to the point of envy, people who are more widely adept with their own hands.  People, for prime example and returning to the top, whose mastered hands built something world-class beautiful and lasting in Downtown Minneapolis.  The creativity of it all.

This fecundity, though is under tarps, as a significant number of the men and women who built US Bank Stadium, as well as everything else in the Twin Cities during the current building boom, are aging Baby Boomers who will be retiring in droves in coming years.  I may not be instinctually equipped to do what they do, operating sky-high cranes and the like, but many other, much younger Minnesotans surely are.  Nevertheless, their interest in making their careers in the construction industry has been weak.  Or at least it hasn’t been enthusiastically expressed.  This is unfortunate for their sake, as well as for the industry, as well as for the economy, as well as for society overall.

In encouraging response, Minnesota’s construction world is reaching out, seeking to encourage greater numbers of young men and women to consider working with their hands on big projects driven by big dreams – accompanied, not incidentally, by good-sized paychecks.

Epilogue.  As will be made clearer in the New Year, American Experiment is also interested in encouraging young people – which is to say high school students, and even junior high school students and their families – to at least consider career routes other than four-year degrees, as such paths can be more rewarding and remunerative for many, as well as a spur to job growth in Minnesota and the nation.  For now, though, if any of this intrigues you, especially if you’re a parent, please let me know and perhaps we can pull some possibilities together.

Mitch Pearlstein is Founder & American Experiment Senior Fellow.