So What Exactly Is “An Honest Day’s Work”?


I recently watched the movie, The Company Men, and I found it to be a great study in what can happen when a corporation is forced to downsize via layoffs.  The vantage point of this film was from upper management; loyalties vanish, past performance means nothing, friendships are threatened… and then there’s the realization of people making six figure incomes suddenly having to find employment by any means just to survive.  But in one scene of the film the dialog included a  character reflection of the company’s past when employees worked “an honest day’s work”.  Now, this phrase is also used quite often in politics and this being election time it’s being used prolifically by everyone.

I guess when we try to understand why this phrase is used we have to understand what it means.  It’s basically a populist phrase and as such it can have a range of interpretation, which is the whole idea.  The listener can interpret it anyway they want since the person who said it is simply trying to inspire an emotional interpretation.  But I think I can venture one practical interpretation.

“An honest day’s work” guys.

When it’s used politically the phrase conjures up an image of the average joe working in some trade… likely a production line or assembly plant or some occupation that has repitition to it; maybe even in the mines or in construction.  An occupation that works up a sweat and is physcially demanding.  It’s a job he never dreamed of doing as a kid but probably does it because there’s not a lot of choice or it’s been the family occupation for generations.  When he goes home at the end of the day it’s to a loving and dedicated wife (who doesn’t work) and two kids who live in a place just a level up from Ralph Kramden‘s.  He struggles to pay the bills and goes to church on Sundays.

Conversely, while we might have an image of what constitutes someone who does an honest day’s work, we might presume to guess what constitutes those people who don’t do an honest day’s work.  You know the type.. those are the people who might get the feedback, “he hasn’t done an honest day’s work in his life.”  I suppose one could presume to think that people who earn money doing illegal things, like mob bosses or hit men or international thiefs or something like that might be included in that category.  If “he” hasn’t done an honest day’s work in his life does that mean he’s only done a dishonest day’s work?

Ok.. but if the image is one of an average joe in some hourly trade  occupation where he works up a sweat, what about all us other workers in life who don’t have jobs in the trades nor work up a physical sweat?  Are we suggesting that people who make a salary wage are all working a dishonest day’s work?  I’m presently a security guard and likely the so called “average joe, honest-day’s-work” guy belongs to a union and makes far more an hour than I do, but because I am not in a physically demanding trade am I making a dishonest day’s work?

I think during poor economic times there’s this idea, likely a throwback to the Depression Era days, that you take a job, any job, just to survive.  That somehow it’s noble to struggle to pay whatever bills need paying because this is what everybody does.  Forget about pie-in-the-sky American dreams and just work at something for the sake of saying you have a job.

Sorry, folks.. here’s the reality.  Contrary to what the politicians say or want you to believe… no one in this country is entitled to a job.  What we are entitled to under the Constitution is an equal chance, or equal opportunity, to apply for the job we might want.  Having a job is NOT a right but rather a privilidge based on our own personal desires to achieve.  Now, this does not mean that everyone gets a job they want when they want it.. or need it.  That’s when the government steps in with unemployment benefits and welfare and other social programs to aid low or non-existant income people.  Unfortunately we don’t live in a pure and perfect social system.  We pat ourselves on the back for creating a strong nation built on free market capitalism and the individual personal freedoms to pursue the American dream but the fact remains.. not everyone has the same dreams nor does everyone have the abilities, skill sets, or health outlooks for pursuing the so-called American dream (which in itself we presume is having a job that pays enough to own the home with the picket fence and put our kids through college).

A more contemporary image of “an honest day’s work” kinda guy.

So the next time you hear how noble it is to work “an honests day’s work” and how noble it is to struggle to pay bills… remember that it has nothing to do with being noble but has everything to do with ability, personal desire, choice, and achievement.  If you feel the country and society owes you something then maybe you might want to consider moving to a socialist country… or run for public office to change our country.  If you need help to survive, the government is there to assist, which is as it should be.  But just because someone has a job that doesn’t get their fingernails dirty doesn’t mean they should be any less respected than those who do.  And when some politician rambles on about how in this economy  Americans only want a job so that they can work “an honest day’s work, for an honest day’s wage” to support their family, we can safely assume he really means Americans want a job that pays a lot for not doing a lot (the true American dream), but for now will likely accept a lesser paying job to pay the bills.

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2 thoughts on “So What Exactly Is “An Honest Day’s Work”?

  1. I recently watched that film too. It had a very good cast, and showed a side of big business that many working class people are unaware of. My Dad was fond of using the phrase ‘An honest day’s work’. He had been a regular soldier for much of the first part of his life, then spent many years in the record and music business.
    If he was still alive and watching what goes on in this country today, he might have altered that to ‘An honest day’s employment’. I can’t recall a time when the employees were so badly served by terms and conditions, or paid so little for that ‘honest day’s work’, whether they toil doing some manual labour, sit at a desk, or work behind a shop counter. It is true what you say, that they are not entitled to a job. But when they have one, they should be entitled to fair treatment, a living wage, and a little respect.
    Best wishes from England. Pete.

    • Interesting how our respective worlds are indeed a world apart.. but yet, not all that different for desiring the economic basics in life. If you are as old as me then your father was part of what we call here The Greatest Generation.. the generation that clobbered Germany, Japan, and Italy. No doubt he had his stories to tell. You say, fair treatment, a living wage, and a little respect. Do I detect Labor Party? 🙂 (sorry… Labour) 🙂

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