Dead-End Work



In a news story from a third world country recently, the reporter referred to farm chores, butchering and street cleaning as “dead end” work. The inference was that progress involved convincing young people to go to school and avoid low-paying manual labor. Never once did the report mention that a good way to turn dead end work into high end work is to raise the pay. 

Why is it that so often society puts down essential work like farming and food production as merely menial tasks that any dumb ass can do. If you teach young people that farming is dead end work, you are guaranteeing food shortages in the future. Or at least that would be the case except that enough people still know how to think for themselves and see opportunities in making successful careers out of seemingly menial work like farming, butchering and street cleaning.

There’s a guy in our town who shunned college, started out as a lowly paid street maintenance worker, and today runs a million dollar business in landscaping and related work. Among the people I know are farmers and butcher shop operators who make almost as much money as doctors do. If you want to talk more accurately about dead end work, how about spending fifty years in an office cubicle doing nothing more than channeling information streaming across your desk from one vice president to another.

I like to shock people by pointing out that I was once a homeless guy from Baltimore. ‘Once’ is the key word here. When I was working for a farm magazine in Philadelphia back about 1967, there was a big fuss over a government effort to train unemployed welfare recipients roaming the streets of Baltimore to pick apples in the commercial fruit orchards nearby. You would think that this would please both conservatives and liberals but when has that ever happened? Even the migrant laborers and the apple farmers themselves opposed the idea. The migrant workers didn’t want competition for their jobs and the farmers  were afraid these idlers scraped off the streets of Baltimore would make poor apple pickers and so cost them money. They were right. The underlying mistake the government was making was that anyone could do manual labor like picking apples.

To see just how this social experiment was working, I went undercover, signed on with a busload of homeless guys from Baltimore, and worked for a couple of days in the orchard. About the only thing I really learned was how to pick apples. Like any other manual labor, it takes skill to do it correctly. You have to learn how to handle a ladder without killing yourself. You have to learn how to tell a ripe apple from one not so ripe, so that when you pull on it gently, it comes loose easily and you don’t rip the whole twig end off including the buds that will make next year’s fruit. You have to learn how to handle the apples without bruising them. And you better learn how to do it fast enough to compete with the professional migrant pickers. As for the discomfort of hand harvesting, which many journalists tend to overstate because they themselves do not like physical work, it was not nearly as stressful as a high school football practice.

The homeless guys seemed so totally barbaric at first and I feared for my life at night. I witnessed some gross events at the labor camp including a drunken group taking bets on who was up to doing a little bestiality with a donkey in a nearby field. But after awhile, I began to understand that these guys were as pathetically human as the rest of us, just terribly unlucky in the circumstances of their births. Only a very few were inherently stupid, lazy, or lawless. Being in an orchard was for them the equivalent of being turned loose in a deep jungle. They had known only streets and slums. A rumor spread among them that the orchard was full of snakes, and they refused to go among the trees until finally assured that it was safe. My fear of them was soon replaced by pity.

But here’s the point. They could not pick apples just because they had hands and fingers. They were there because of the mistaken notion that manual labor is dead end work. The migrant laborers knew how to pick apples and they made fairly good money doing it. I became interested in migrant workers and later joined another bunch of them picking tomatoes here in Ohio. One I got to know was putting his son through Ohio State on his earnings.

I asked my doctor the other day if he didn’t get awfully bored and tired of his work— he had just given me a prostate examination. (Talk about dead end work.)  His eyes widened and he blurted: “That’s my job. Someone’s got to do it.”  That’s true of all kinds of dead end work. Pitch manure? Repair sewer lines? Cut pig throats? Turn garbage into fertilizer?  Someone’s got to do it. If you turn your nose up at dead end work, one of these days you just might have to do it yourself.


We have simple and cheap kitchen knife sharpening machines that will never get a knife as sharp as a stone and strop in the hands of a practiced chef. Any task can be improved upon with practice, and farming tasks are no exception. Hand a CEO a shovel and tell them to dig a trench 2 feet wide by 2 feet deep by 10 feet long, the ensuing chaos will be so comical it may be material for a ‘viral video’, and you will probably never get your trench dug. Hand a farmer a shovel with the same instructions, and you can be sure he will get straight to work, slowly and methodically, and be done in a relatively short amount of time with no drama.

Just because something is simple doesn’t make it easy. This confusion of vocabulary is glaring us in the face with our current agricultural systems.

Lorenzo Levi Brown June 1, 2015 at 6:41 am

The observation of “dead-end” jobs is from another Techno-Idiot/book-learned/ idot who has not figured out that the hands are connected to the brain and that muscle memory is as valuable as brain memory.

The not all humans are designed for a “STEM” education. (Science, Techology, Engineering, Math). I posit that the ones who go for a STEM based world view are the ones who are living in a delusion state and in a true dead-end world.

Had a Good friend that once said — People who are good at their job, make it look easy! He went on to say this applies to any and all jobs. Think about it and its true, look at all those around you. From the factory worker to the McDonalds worker to the garbage man to the Farmer. Its the same in all fields!! People will see someone do something and say or think I can do that until they try it and find out it is harder than it looks!

Shared this on Tennessee Community–Mother Earth News (Facebook page).

Jan made a great point. We went through the same sort of nonsense 2 years ago in Georgia, when the legislature tried to shut down illegals laboring for farmers. You could hear the screams in Tenn. Same thing around here. When you ask the locals if THEY are willing to put out tomato plants and raise them and then go through the fields carefully picking only the ripe “Grainger ‘maters” under a hot sun they get quiet all of a sudden. I enjoy working in my garden, but you could not pay me enough to do it for someone else.

I’ve never found even what some may assume to be mind-numbing farm tasks like shoveling manure to be menial nor trivial. My animals are relying on me and it’s my responsibility to care for them. The manure allows me to be independent of a big chemical company’s fertilizer to grow food for family and neighbors, and it gives me the opportunity to return to the earth some of what was taken. What office job can offer that sort of reward? The problem is, our present-day society tends to view work and the rest of life as two different things. When in fact, if the two can be combined in a way that brings joy and gives one a sense of purpose, we are the luckiest people alive.

Reblogged this on Dolphin.

Radio is real dead-end work. It leaves you with no transferable skills for ANY other profession and very little hope of work that pays a living wage. Landscaping taught me how to keep a garden alive.

I think the truth of it is the big desk big office types dont want people to know how really satisfying these so called dead end jobs like farming are because even with their pay and benefits they cannot offer the level of peace and tranquility and independence that owning your own small farm or business or even being satisfied with these small jobs and life. Happy ,content and satisfied people do not keep running out buying the latest gizmo or visiting the “hottest vacacation spot. Like Gene said about his own “stay cation in one story about the fish dinner,the bicycle ride,etc. Now that i am retired and learning somewhat out of neccessity that living a small life and doing “dead end chores like patching my own pants,doing the odds and ends job that most hire someone to do is rather satisfying. Like Gene said there are a lot of people making money out of doing dead end jobs for others.That could be the next popular trend like the back yard chickens,or grass fed cattle,etc.Or making modern horse drawn machinery,equipment for small produce farms.Mine was driving a truck till my health gave could be rather lucrative at times but very dead end ,unless you wanted to own your own company or truck.Now they are screaming for drivers so much they are even threatening to raise pay as a last resort to fill the seat.

Thanks for that, Gene! Most people have no appreciation for what goes into “dead end” jobs.

In another blog, someone was going on and on about how the “1%” were going to simply “get rid of the rest of us.” It was a plot, a conspiracy, and only a very few of us hoi polloi were going to escape into the wilderness, to live out our short, brutish lives eating worms.

I thought this was ridiculous, and asked, “Who’s going to build their Ferraris? Who’s going to remodel their mansions? Who’s going to make their fine clothing? Who’s going to clean their toilets? Who’s going to grow their food?

The original poster mumbled something about “high tech” and “robots” (“Who’s going to build their robots?”) and went away.

Prostate exam = dead end work! Now that just made my week! Dead end work = dead end minds/imagination. There is ALWAYS something to be learned or gained in any task. We just need to be imaginative enough to figure out what is the lesson or skill gained from the task.

My husband and I work picking apples before we had kids in Upstate NY as well as in NM on the RioGrand river valley . We also picked oranges in Florida with a mixed crew. That was aweful nasty work because of the soot on the oranges and the one inch thorns on the trees which tore up your clothes . We stayed through the whole season to get the bonus . The owner wanted to know if we knew any other white folks who knew how to work….

After I pick my apples I usually dry or can them so I can enjoy the fruit when the fresh apples are not available as just straight dried fruit or canned fruit or used in heavenly pie. The reporter can call that dead end but I feel complete and even revived. Enjoying Mom’s apple pie is allegedly about as American as one can get.

It really is enjoyable to be a part of the cycle of life and death and enjoy the fruits of your labor. I’m willing to bet even a street sweeper could take the street sweepings from his or her job and with a bit of ingenuity turn them into value added products such as compost ingredients or structural material components or things we haven”t imagined yet. Could it be that nothing in the field of labor is really dead end if imagination and follow through effort to make the imagination reality are present in the mind and body of the “dead end job” laborers.

You’re right. When I worked in an office cubicle it was a whole lot more dead end than anything I’ve done since I got my farm.

Sitting in my cubical I would agree…That is why I put out a 1/4 acre garden and work my tail off after I get home. All that meaningless work is pretty worthwhile as I set down to eat my nutrient dense meals that taste like a bit of heaven or give produce to neighbors who are in there 90’s.
It seems to me an entire generation has lost its way concerning food production. I hate to admit this but just a few days ago my daughter who was raised around produce asked me where to buy potato seed. After I explained you plant the potatoes she asked where to buy potato plants. (like tomato plants) Some days I believe we are doomed unless there is a way to plant, grow, harvest and preserve produce with a text, tweet or app.

A bit of manual labor in service to the community should be mandatory before graduating from high school. Kids helping folks in nursing home, meals on wheels, or the infirmed would have a better understanding of what life is all about. All people who are incarcerated or drawing assistance should do the same if they are able. I am not talking about hard labor just upkeep of the roads, parks, and public facilities we never have enough money for, mixed with skills training to increase peoples self worth.

and we all know that the real dead-end job in your story was that news reporter -a truly endangered ‘career’.

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