High school dance analogy holds up after 50 years

Wednesday, March 20, 2013 - 19:00

One of the most accurate and enduring analogies I’ve come across to describe our society was gleaned in high school, when I observed that the same few people planned and organized school events like dances, and the same folks did the cleanup afterward. I wasn’t one of those industrious volunteers, because I didn’t attend the dances. But I always felt guilty for not pitching in.

Over time I’ve noticed that this model — a few doing most of the work for the many — is basically how our society works.

To break it down into simpler terms, I recall once trying living in a commune-type situation with about nine other people. The way it turned out, about three and sometimes four people did the lion’s share of work, for example, cleaning, cooking, repairs and bringing home groceries. About four did a modicum of work around the house if they were prodded. And the remainder, averaging one or two, contributed nothing. I had a similar experience in a college fraternity setting and in the military. There always seemed to be slackers.

I doubt this analog of our society will ever change. There are certainly some who, for legitimate health reasons, are unable to work. But there are always those who seem unwilling to work.

I had my first job at nine years old, whitewashing a house. In one way or another I’ve been working ever since. I put in about 40 years in Alaska’s oil and gas industry, primarily as a corporate writer. I always worked very hard at every job, probably because my parents instilled in me a strong work ethic. But somewhere along the line, I began to think: “Life is short — why am busting my butt when so many aren’t?”

At that point I began to make more time for the things I like to do: hiking, climbing, fishing, etc. I probably sacrificed advancement in the companies for which I worked, but it became important to me to enjoy life — following the old saw, “you work to live, not live to work.” With the government’s tax take increasing and a growing number of citizens not contributing to the country’s economy, I thought, what’s the point?

During my career I learned that there are dumpers (work planners) and dumpees (work implementors). Like a law of physics, gravity for example, dumpers are attracted to dumpees. The more work dumpees do, the more dumpers pile it on.

I have a good friend who by anyone’s definition is a “workaholic,” and he is indispensable to his company. It’s very true when they say if you have something to do that is important, assign it to a busy person. He is that kind of person — capable, energetic and willing. But unlike me, he seldom has time to enjoy the outdoor activities he loves. He has a way to go before retirement and needs to work, but I keep telling him to throttle back. Yet like others who make a yeoman’s effort at the world’s work, he doesn’t know how.

I stopped thinking that way quite a while ago. I not only require time to get outdoors and hike, I also selfishly guard my time to read, write and reflect.

A University of Alaska philosophy professor of mine spent some time every day sitting in a small room in the library, for the single purpose of “thinking.” No paper, books or pen; only an empty room. Some students said he was just doing nothing. But he wasn’t. He was thinking — something we don’t do enough of these days.

I suppose there will always be a small number of people who organize and clean up after the high school dances, and I doubt it will ever change. Like the law of physics that states a body in motion will stay in motion, industrious people will remain industrious. Busy people will remain busy.

But I wonder — with fewer and fewer people pitching in, how is the world’s work getting done?


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. To contact Frank, email [email protected].

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