Everyday Ethics: Reflections on Labor Day

Several professions, a single theme. A good description of my thoughts for this week’s Labor Day celebration.

I guess that’s how I would describe my professional life. I’ve had many jobs over the years, but as I looked through them I realized that what I was doing was communicating with others in many different settings and in many different ways.

I doubt that I am alone in my vocational journey. The US Department of Labor reports that a person will change careers five to seven times during their working life and that approximately 30% of the total workforce will change jobs every 12 months. Of course, statistics can be misleading. Younger workers may change more often than older workers, and job changes may occur within the same organization.

That’s why I would say it’s good to have an education that can adapt to a lot of job demands. You need the basic ingredients of a traditional liberal arts education — like learning to think, write, and relate to others — in the jobs you pursue.

Sometimes we slip into a job we had no intention of pursuing, another reason to learn to adapt to changing conditions. Holder of a master’s degree in philosophy, I became a journalist in a daily newspaper. I knew how to write and hopefully think clearly, but I had little training or skills needed for the hectic life of writing or even covering stories.

I had to learn quickly and not without some errors while working for this first newspaper. But I learned two important lessons that I wouldn’t have covered in grad school: how to write simply so readers understand, and how to work with many different types of people under the stress of deadlines. Both skills have served me well no matter where I have worked. As would be the lesson of the slogan I kept above my desk: “Today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s kitty litter.” It keeps you humble.

I also learned that I loved working in newspapers, so much so that I was accepted into a graduate program in international journalism, hoping to become a foreign correspondent. This path felt like a way to combine my love of writing with an interest in world affairs. My diploma thesis was about two Spanish philosophers who survived World War II. Spain was considered the place where this war really began. If you want to see an artist’s perspective on this period of Spanish history, check out Picasso’s Guernica, a visual depiction of the horrors of bombing in this nation, much like we see today in scenes from ‘Ukraine.

I loved learning at this university with classes taught by those who had been foreign correspondents. The second year of this course was to be completed in a work study abroad program. I chose Spain. What I didn’t choose was Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator who wanted to stifle speech and certainly didn’t want graduate students studying him or his politics. He blocked my program there. This memory made me worry about national leaders who want to crush free speech. In these times, I often remember another wise saying, the motto of The Washington Post; “Democracy dies in darkness.”

Having refused my internship abroad, I ended up working as an editor and columnist for a chain of 13 newspapers. I loved this job and even won many awards for my articles and columns on local and national affairs, but the salaries of newspaper staff were very low and I was looking for more lucrative work.

Before my brother died a few months ago, we were discussing what each of us could have done differently in our vocations, each of us having followed similar paths and ended up as teachers. He said that if he had to start all over again, he would be a sports commentator or a writer. I said I would choose to be a journalist, maybe a foreign correspondent. I laughed as I remembered the words of the philosopher Kierkegaard about journalists: “If I had a son who became a journalist and continued to be a journalist for five years, I would abandon him.

Work, like many other dimensions of life, is about learning to adapt to new situations. Change is the nature not only of the universe but of our lives. Those who adapt move on. Those who don’t are stuck.

Life seems like a circle in which we sometimes go back to the beginning and start again, perhaps a little more wisely. Professionally, I went back to where I started and I’m grateful to have found my way back.

John C. Morgan is a writer whose weekly columns appear in this newspaper and others.

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