The Nation's Pulse

The World Doesn’t Owe You a Living

Some grandfatherly advice for the permanently aggrieved.

By 10.11.11

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When I think about the Occupy protests in New York, Washington, D.C., and here in Boston (as well as in other cities across this country) I think about what my maternal grandfather used to tell me and my siblings. In his deep, authoritative baritone he would exclaim, "The world doesn't owe you a living."

Now I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that my grandfather was speaking harshly or was anything less than generous with us. Quite the contrary, he would spoil us during my grandparents' annual visits, giving us liberal helpings of gum, candy bars, and potato chips. Occasionally he would sing, "Roses are red, violets are blue, honey is sweet and so are you." On our birthdays, he would send us cards accompanied by a crisp Canadian $20 bill. I even remember the handwriting on the envelopes. It would be written in block letters. I wasn't addressed merely as Aaron Goldstein but rather as MASTER AARON GOLDSTEIN. He made us feel important.

So when Granddad told us the world didn't owe us a living, I think it was his way of saying that the world wasn't going to be gum, candy bars, and potato chips forever. After all, it was at the age of fifteen that Granddad went to work in the coal mines in Alberta's Crowsnest Pass. Despite the dangers of working underground, Granddad was undoubtedly fortunate to find employment during the Great Depression. At its height in June 1933, the Canadian unemployment rate was nearly 20%. He would be eventually promoted to pit boss and remained in the mines for 43 years. Those 43 years represented more than half his lifetime.

I think I can say with certainty that Granddad was hardly the only grandfather to tell his grandchildren the world doesn't owe them a living. Yet when I think about the twentysomethings occupying Zuccotti Park, Freedom Plaza, and Dewey Square, I wonder if their grandfathers ever imparted such wisdom. Considering the advocacy of things such as a guaranteed living wage and a free college education, chances are they didn't hear this from their grandfathers or for that matter from anyone else.

Of course, one could make the case that even if these people had been told the world doesn't owe them a living; it would be like speaking a language they cannot possibly understand. I suspect that many of the occupiers were told by their professors, their parents, and even their grandparents that they have a right to a job, to a home and to free health care, to education and for that matter to clean air.

My grandfather was certainly sympathetic to the labor movement when it came to concepts like the eight-hour day or a day's pay for a day's work. But that's just it. You still had to put in your eight hours. You still had to do a day's work. You still had to earn your keep. The occupiers leave me with the impression that they want something for nothing.

I don't doubt that some of the occupiers have accumulated a considerable debt from student loans and haven't been able to find the means to pay it off. But it's difficult to see how camping out in the city square is going to improve their long-term employment prospects. I realize that finding a job in this current economic state is far from an easy task. Yet I honestly wonder how hard these people have been actually looking for work. How many jobs have they actually applied for? How many job interviews have they received? As Herman Cain said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last week, "Don't blame Wall Street! Don't blame the big banks! If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself!"

Not surprisingly, Cain was excoriated for his candor. ThinkProgress called his statement "especially heartless," while Al Sharpton questioned his "blackness." At his blog Freedom Writing, David Goodloe writes:

The vast majority of the unemployed are not to blame for their plight, and it is to Cain's everlasting shame that he does blame them.

What's next? Will he blame the sick and the handicapped for their conditions? Will he blame the elderly for coming down with maladies that typically affect older people?

All of which completely misses the point. Cain's statement isn't a matter of the heart, isn't a matter of race, nor is it evidence that he blames the elderly and the sick for their afflictions. It's just another way of saying the world doesn't owe you a living.

Let me put it another way. Do unemployed youth stand a better chance of attaining employment if they spend their time applying for jobs or by spending their time occupying a patch of grass, be it on Wall Street or Main Street?

Again, I fully realize that finding a job in Obama's America isn't an easy task. The doors of opportunity don't open readily and sometimes the government sees fit to keep them closed. When they do open, some people get to enter sooner than others and not everyone advances to the top. Sometimes it's a question of sheer good luck. So capitalism isn't always fair. But unlike socialism, capitalism isn't intended to be perfect and that's a good thing. A system geared toward perfecting an imperfect people does not work. To paraphrase Winston Churchill's quote on democracy, "Capitalism is the worst economic system, except for all those other systems that have been tried from time to time."

So those who currently reside in Zuccotti Park, Freedom Plaza, Dewey Square and elsewhere filled with the desire that capitalism be abolished should be careful for what they wish because they probably won't like what they get. They might find out that starting a revolution won't guarantee them a living.

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About the Author
Aaron Goldstein writes from Boston, Massachusetts.