Why would anyone want to work for the Federal Government now?

“Good enough for government work” - we’ve all heard this mildly satirical phrase uttered when work crosses into that grey area where it can be loosely be called “finished”. You may even, as I have, heard it used in reference to ACTUAL government work. When I was 18, I spent the summer as a janitor for the Chesterfield County School System, “working” 10 hour days 4 days a week in a school with no kids. As you can imagine, there were lots of *good enough for government work*s going around THAT summer.

Turns of phrase like “Good enough for government work” may wrench the stomach of the American people, but they exist because they reveal an kernel of truth: if you work for or contract with the government, that shit is GUARANTEED. Your bills WILL be paid, your job is unlikely to go away, and you’re unlikely to be fired for anything short of extreme incompetence (and even then, you’re probably fine).

The reason I took that janitorial job when I was 18 was for one reason security. I had three months to make my money for the rest of the year, so I needed my hours and salary set in stone. Entrepreneurs often forget how much people value job stability, and in this economic and cultural climate, the government seems to be the only “job security” left. My friends who work in Washington all hate their jobs, but they’re all people who value security and and a career track more than anything else. That’s a huge recruiting advantage, especially for the federal government.

Or at least, it was.

How bizarre it was seeing the reactions of my friends who were furloughed, left unpaid, and without any idea of when that would change. The last few weeks have resulted in the final stages of a shift I’ve been seeing in their attitudes since the first battle over the debt ceiling and the sequester: the stability gap between government work and the private sector has shifted to the point where it’s not really relevant anymore.

The biggest result of the government shutdown for me is this: in a world where you might be laid off without pay for 3 weeks at random from your government job, why would anyone want to work for the government now? In a world where private sector wages outstrip government wages, where you don’t need permission to start pursuing your creative dream, and where the security of a government job is waning, why would you work for the federal government?

I’ll close by suggesting one reason: because you believe in government. Not because you believe in MORE government, or really any particular amount of government, but that you believe that government can serve it’s purpose when called upon if it is actually functioning and managed right. That’s what I believe: that the government, when it operates where and how it should, can do extraordinary things [1].

When my grandmother graduated from college, she took a government job in Tennessee at a military base. The whole place was entirely desegregated - no “whites only” bathrooms, nothing - and this was 1952. There was hardly a place in the country in the private sector that operated this way in 1952, and certainly not in Tennessee. She still talks about it to this day because it was so weird to her, but it changed the way she thought about how people could treat each other forever. I think about this whenever I’m about to give up on government - for all its ills, it is still our best hope for moving forward when the few try to obstruct progress. If future generations of government workers don’t believe that, then there’s no reason to work in or serve in government anymore.

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NOTES:

  1. I don’t think these are the two most important things government has done, although the consistent enforcement of contracts IS up there, they’re just my two favorite examples to use.
 
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