PORTLAND, ORE. — Certain areas of my home are off-limits to visitors. The laundry room is a nightmare. There's way too much clutter, dust layers the window sills, and the linoleum floor is coated with mystery stains created by previous owners. I look around while loading the washer and think, "Cleaning this up is going to be truly unpleasant. Why do these dirty jobs never go away?"
This question resonates far beyond my household, and I'm sure it's vexed every civilization since the Ice Age. It would be great if we all held prestigious jobs, the ones with fancy offices, cushy hours, and lots of perks. But through history, and here in the 21st century, many jobs are physically draining, emotionally uninspiring, and mentally unstimulating. Finding workers to fill these positions is a complicated and controversial puzzle.
Wal-Mart got some unwanted publicity recently when the company agreed to pay $11 million to settle a federal investigation into allegations that it knowingly hired floor-cleaning contractors who employed illegal aliens. Most news stories focused on the immigration angle. I was more intrigued by the notion of how much floor space needs to be cleaned every day in giant warehouse shopping outlets and high-rise office buildings across America.
When I was little, it was still OK for teachers to admonish misbehaving students by saying, "You better start paying attention unless you want to end up being a (fill in undesirable occupation here) for the rest of your life." Unfortunately, that kind of warning has the effect of stigmatizing every person who holds the job that is being denigrated, and that's not a good message to give kids either. Just because a job is dirty and low paying doesn't mean the person doing it is a pathetic loser.
The frustrating reality we face is that society's job ladder always has a bottom rung. Someone has to clean buildings, harvest crops, wash dishes, or sort through slimy piles of paper, glass, and tin cans along the conveyor belt at the recycling plant.
And even if laws were enacted to ensure higher wages and benefits for low-end jobs, I don't think they'd be perceived as career opportunities. For most workers, citizens and illegals alike, they would continue to be temporary stops on the way to something better.
Will there ever be a permanent solution to this puzzle? These jobs can't be outsourced. Robots are not a viable option. Perhaps the government should step in and create a national on-call workers pool. But who would be drafted into the group? High school dropouts? Senior citizens? Martha Stewart?
Experts who are smarter than I am can take up the debate from here. But no amount of talking will get rid of the grease and grime that's building up, and that's why I have to stop now and get back to my own dirty little nonsecrets.
However, if the executives at Wal-Mart are willing to think outside the big box for a moment when it comes to floor-cleaning issues, here's an idea that works for me: Just make sure all your customers take off their shoes before stepping through the front door.
• Jeffrey Shaffer is an author and essayist who writes about media, American culture, and personal history.