A few years ago I attended a 25 year reunion of my high school grad class in PIckering, Ontario. During one of the events, I was getting caught up with someone who I not only knew in high school, but went to grade school with. We had many chats over that weekend about how we were, where we’ve been, what we’ve done, who have we seen, etc. But during this particular evening, he looked at me and said ‘You know Marke? I’m really proud of you. You went and did exactly what you wanted to do. As opposed to me, because I did exactly what I didn’t want to do.’ What’s that, I asked him. ‘Go work at GM’
He wasn’t the only one who made that choice. We were all near the end of high school, the time when you’re supposed to have everything figured out, right? Did you have a goal in mind? Which university or college were you going to? Or did you just want to get out of school and out on your own into a good paying job? For a lot of guys, the last option was the most attractive. The promise of a good paying, ‘steady’ job on the assembly line at the GM plant in nearby Oshawa made that prospect even more alluring. Some didn’t even wait to finish out their final year. No more school to endure. You could make money, have your own place, your own car maybe…you were set. Wasn’t that what it was all about? Isn’t that what your parents did and wanted for you? Get a good job, a nice house, start a family, all that stuﬀ?
When GM announced in November that they were planning to shut down the Oshawa plant, I thought about my friend and all those other guys I knew. Many of them either lost those jobs through the recessions and slumps in the auto industry of the 80s. Many, like my friend at the reunion, found other work and got back on their feet, but the sense I got from our discussion that night was that he could have done better but, instead, took the easy way out. Somehow, he felt he should have known that perhaps a clearer vision and more education would have made things diﬀerent.
Maybe he felt like he could have done something a little more outstanding. He probably could have, but none of us can make that judgment. Nor do I feel I’m better than him or any of my other friends who did that. We all had our choices and our paths. Sometimes our choices are limited. A few of us never had much choice to begin with. We all wanted a good life, to be our best, to enjoy ourselves and provide for ourselves and those we care about. We just had diﬀerent ways of doing it.
Oshawa is not the only community going through this either. This scenario has played out and continues in many one industry towns across
Ontario and the rest of the country. My first job in radio was in Sault Ste Marie, not long after graduating high school and completing college. I was one of those rare young men in their early 20’s who lived there but was not working at the town’s largest employer, which was Algoma Steel. Any guy my age was probably already 3 or 4 years into his job there with a family and mortgage payments. I wonder how many of them survived the years of downturns, restructuring and adjustments that followed.
We’ve all seen the concepts of work and career change over the years. A steady, well paying job at one place until retirement seems like an ancient concept, but it many ways is still a noble one. But in these days when industry and corporations see their employees as liability rather than nobility, respect for that work ethic seems like an ancient concept too.