Working in the fast food industry: We need to change our perceptions

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I didn’t grow up in a particularly wealthy area, but Northwest Indiana back in the day was home to steel mills that promised a decent paycheck to many a family. Most of the region’s cities and towns straddled the line between “working class” and “middle class.” For many young people, the future included possibilities such as working in the mills, going to a local college, or raising a family.

If you’re like me, you grew up thinking that working behind the counter at McDonald’s or Burger King was a classic entry-level job. It was not unusual to walk into a fast food place and to see one of your high school classmates taking orders or working the french fry baskets.

And if you had that job or something like it (mine was working as supermarket bagger), you might joke about making the minimum wage but mainly took it in stride. After all, you assumed that better opportunities would come your way.

Take another look

But hold on a minute. In truth, the vast majority of our low-wage workforce — including most who work in the fast food industry — are adults, and they’re not working behind that counter to pay for weekend movies or nights out with friends.

Fast Food Forward is a labor advocacy campaign on behalf of fast food workers in New York City, and their info graphic above shares the main points:

  • “Contrary to common belief, teens represent less than 12% of the low-wage work force.”
  • “Over 60% of low-wage workers are 25-64 years old…, many with families to support.”

And take a close look behind the counter

Okay, so maybe your dietary habits have evolved beyond Big Macs and Whoppers. But if you do find yourself ordering at any fast food restaurant, take a look at who is working there. At many of these places, you’ll find a good number of workers who are well past their teen years. It’s their main job (or one of them), and not infrequently they’re trying to support a family on it.

Just as there are wage-related reasons why we can walk into a big-box store and buy a DVD player for $40, the low prices of fast food items are partially enabled by the small paychecks of the people preparing and selling what customers consume.

Unions, yes!

I shake my head at people who scoff at the idea of fast food employees and other low-wage workers trying to unionize. These critics regard such organizing as an act of entitlement . . . Hey, I worked for the minimum wage before going to business school/marrying a doctor/winning Lotto . . . Why can’t they?

But let’s understand reality: Many people are trying to support themselves and their families in these jobs. And the Barons of the Low-Wage Workforce aren’t giving it up voluntarily. It will take workers organizing on their own behalf to push them beyond McWage-level paychecks. Here’s wishing it happens.

The School of Life on finding fulfilling work

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Here’s a thought-provoking question that writer and lecturer Roman Krznaric poses at the end of the first chapter of his very good little paperback book, How to Find Fulfilling Work (2012):

What is your current work doing to you as a person — to your mind, character and relationships?

I’ve heard and offered less compelling variations of questions like this one — How’s work going? What’s good and bad about your occupation? Is your job meeting your needs? — but nothing so neatly framed.

School of Life series

How to Find Fulfilling Work is one in a series of short books on practical philosophy sponsored by The School of Life, a London-based entity that offers “a variety of programmes and services concerned with how to live wisely and well.” The book series is entering the U.S., and this title will be available soon.

The School of Life sounds like a fascinating initiative. Reading its description makes me wish we had something similar here in Boston:

The School of Life is a place to step back and think intelligently about these and other concerns. You will not be cornered by any dogma, but directed towards a variety of ideas – from philosophy to literature, psychology to the visual arts – that tickle, exercise and expand your mind. You’ll meet other curious, sociable and open-minded people in an atmosphere of exploration and enjoyment.

The quest for fulfilling work

Krznaric mixes ground-level philosophy, vocational guidance, and inspiration into this quick read. Here are the chapter titles:

The Age of Fulfillment

A Short History of Career Confusion

Giving Meaning to Work

Act First, Reflect Later

The Longing for Freedom

How to Grow a Vocation

The book concludes with helpful recommendations of books, movies, and other resources to help people in their quests for work that suits them.

But first: Basic needs and obligations

If you’re weighing your career and vocational options, especially with an eye toward pursuing more meaningful work, this book is worth your time.

But I also know that some readers are not in a position to be selective. They need decent paying work, period, and with bills mounting they’ll be grateful for whatever comes their way. Indeed, anyone who is free enough to consider options for making work a fulfilling activity in itself is very fortunate.

So, if you need to pay for food, shelter, and clothing, the type of work you’re doing may matter a whole lot less than getting a sufficient paycheck. And if your obligations include kids and/or other dependents, you may not be in a position to “go for the gusto.”

In fact, one of the few quarrels I have with Krznaric is his suggestion that financial fears can be softened by having a backup fund of three months worth of expenses in case the “dream job” falls apart. In the first place, saving up that kind of money is difficult in tough times. And secondly, a three-month emergency fund isn’t all that comforting anyway for someone who must care for others as well.

Onward

Still…my hope is that we will evolve into a society where decent pay and good work come together more often than not. Books like How to Find Fulfilling Work point us in the right direction. So, let’s put these options for individual initiative and change out there, and gravitate toward them when we can.

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