Once the Prophet (PBUH) was sitting with his companions and they happened to see a young man busy working in the early hours of the morning. The companions watched him and commented on how beneficial it would be if he put his effort in worshipping Allah (S.W.T.) instead. When he heard this, the Holy Prophet said to them: “Do not say that! Because if he is working to be independent and self-sufficient, it is in the way of Allah. Even if he were striving to earn a living in order to support his family, it would still be a noble act. It is only when a person takes pride in his efforts and money that he is working in way of Shaitan.
This simple, yet provocative story, recounts Mohammad’s support for just and noble work. Yet many youth today avoid jobs that require physical labor and would rather wait for less tiring opportunities. Labor market realities are not working in favor of those who wait. With economic stagnation dominating MENA economies, and a growth rate of 5% off in the distance, it is hard to imagine a robust economy anywhere in the region. Even the UAE, which is doing better than most, has very high unemployment among its young people, especially university graduates. And foreign worker participation remains very high.
Given MENA’s growing population and the reluctance of young people to consider employment that seems to lead nowhere, governments are scrambling for strategies to bring more entrants into the formal economy. From programs to certify skilled workers now in the informal economy and efforts to replace foreign workers with local substitutes, to a variety of wage and work subsidies to make national employees more attractive to companies, the work space is literally littered with opportunities, but the dent in overall employment is barely noticeable. Even large-scale efforts to promote entrepreneurism only produce hundreds rather than the tens of thousands of jobs needed, if locals will take them.
Labor and Work
I recently went to a cheese maker’s shop in Jordan who started out as an environmental activist. Then she decided that Jordanians needed to source more of their basic needs locally and in a more sustainable way. So she started making cheese. If you’ve ever tried, you know it’s not so simple to make cheese, despite the fact that when our parents made laban or labneh or halloum, it looked pretty straight-forward.
You have to pay attention to not overheat the milk, add the starter at the right time, let the culture do its work, and then more patience is needed through the final steps to the end product. No wonder no one makes cheese at home anymore! Who can spend the time it takes when there’s no guarantee that something won’t go wrong.
Making cheese reminds us that making choices in life are not always in our control, there are many mediating factors: age, gender, education, physical condition, training, temperament, opportunity, even wasta have a way of shaping choices we can make. But like the Jordanian cheese maker, we need to start somewhere with a belief that we can do something with our lives, even when it seems that there are tough challenges ahead.
Start with thinking about the differences between labor and work. Although they are used to mean the same thing, by definition, labor involves hard physical work. Work, on the other hand, is defined as “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.” It is this emphasis on achieving a result that should guide us as we look for opportunities to grow, earn money, and have satisfaction in our lives.
Some want to work with as little labor as possible, because they are interested only in compensation, not achievement. People who see the challenges and are still determined to make a difference in their lives are willing to take a risk and treat work as a means to achievement – of a better job, better salary, having a family, and raising children – all started because of their parents’ labor and work. This is not always evident at the start, especially in technical and vocational job sectors. Yet this is the work that makes a modern society function – building and maintaining infrastructure, making clothing, furniture, ice cream, and food, and providing all kinds of support services.
Later that day, I met a man who is proud to say that he is a farmer. He has a degree in agronomy and is one of the pioneers in developing, producing, and marketing organic products for local sale and export. He says that the short-sighted view of young people is supported by the reluctance of families to accept marriage prospects who are not “good enough” because of their jobs. This attitude will only be mitigated when society remembers that it was only a few generations ago that many family members were illiterate and only did manual labor…that was then and now…it’s time to rethink what matters about work, and labor.
Top photo: tastejo.blogspot.com