By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
Now that the pandemic has flooded the job market with openings and left employers scrambling to fill them, we’ve been told by cranks and churls that no one wants to work anymore. In case you haven’t heard, many people merely got a chance to stop and think about what they were doing and whether it was worth their time and effort. Some took a break before going back or moving on to something new.
When it comes to dragging our carcasses out of bed in the morning, most of us simply want to do work that makes us feel glad to be doing it while we receive at least a living wage. Interestingly, the Washington Post’s Department of Data reviewed the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey this month and found what a majority of people say are the most rewarding jobs.
Believe it or not, these gigs are in agriculture, and in logging and forestry, which have the highest levels of self-reported happiness—and lowest levels of self-reported stress—of any categories of major industry. Go figure.
I marvel at farmers, especially the ones who own small independent operations. They work from before sunup to after sundown every day while battling Mother Nature’s capricious ways and the domineering greed of corporate agricultural conglomerates. By most accounts, these little guys and gals are lucky to break even. But it seems the pleasure is all theirs.
The same with loggers. Felling, cutting and transporting timber is highly perilous (if you want a vivid description of the dangers and ghastly injuries, read John Irving’s novel Last Night in Twisted River), but working in the outdoors apparently cures a multitude of wounds.
Dana Chandler, co-owner of Family Tree Forestry in South Carolina, told the Washington Post, “Even on your worst day—something has broken down and you need to get wood to the mill—the wind’ll blow and you’ll inhale a familiar scent — that pine sap — and it’ll just take you to a place of peace instantly. It’s therapy. The woods is therapy, the forest is therapy. You can have the worst day ever but when you get out here? The forest just takes it all away.”
Second on the Happy List was another surprise: real estate, rental and leasing. I know people who manage rental properties and it’s a wonder they have a tuft of hair left on their heads because they are forever tearing it out, thanks to deadbeat tenants who trash apartments and homes while refusing to leave and defying eviction attempts.
The rest of the Top 10 are, in order: construction; management, administrative and waste; information; health and social assistance; arts, entertainment and recreation; transportation and warehousing; wholesale; and retail.
I am currently employed in transportation as a school bus driver, a job I never, ever dreamed I’d do until I was out of work for a year and needed a gig, any gig. Let’s just say I can see why there’s a national shortage of folks who are willing to take the wheel of a big yellow madhouse. I’ve been chronicling my daily trials and misadventures in my blog Hellions, Mayhem & Brake Failure (an apt description of the job, if I do say so myself) and this line of work is most certainly not for the faint of heart. But it helps to have a sense of humor and I’m blessed in that the more aggravating my job is, the better (I hope) my blog becomes.
Nevertheless, there are school bus drivers who have been at it for many years and love it, despite having to constantly deal with incorrigible urchins, unreasonable parents, demanding bosses, and unsupportive school administrators. That’s not to mention traffic hazards, potential legal liabilities, and huge responsibilities for the safety of other people’s kids. But many drivers quit because of the stress and low pay — typically about $20 an hour, though that has been changing for the better as districts and private companies try to entice more people to take the, um, plunge. Rising wages have a way of alleviating manpower shortages, no matter what the field happens to be.
Speaking of stress, the jobs with the highest frazzle factors according to the study are, for the most part, well-paying: legal (lawyers rank #1); finance and insurance; and education.
Stress and rewards are where you find them, of course, and one can certainly offset the other. I spent 33 years in professional sports journalism where the thrill of covering major events and stories I felt passionate about more than offset the demands of daily deadlines, unpredictable hours, and the long costly commutes to my office in New York City as well as the battles with editors and rude, uncooperative athletes. I hardly got rich doing it, but I love to write, so it meant the world to me that I was able to make a living at it.
I am now enjoying the variety and slower pace of my life. I spend more time puttering at home, get a long break in the middle of my workday (between trips hauling surly middle-schoolers), and my time alone in the bus while driving through beautiful Hudson Valley countryside is one of the best perks.
When my precious cargo acts up and the steam jets out of my ears, I can fully understand the allure of grabbing a chain saw and heading for a stand of pines. That Post article made me realize that nature does indeed soothe the spirit. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys, being outdoors ranks second, behind a house of worship, among the happiest places to be. (A bus rolls in at #15.)
But no matter what you do and where you do it, the meaning you find in your job will be your greatest reward and the biggest reason why, contrary to what the cranks say, people do still want to work.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.