The Tyranny of Adulthood: Working on Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving millions of folks across the USA will be sitting down for the annual extended-family-mega-meal. For some the tradition is accompanied by the ominous yet exciting warfare of commerce infamously known as “Black Friday”. With the logistical focus of a military invasion families design spreadsheets, thumb through wish-lists, and don comfy running shoes all in preparation for the throng of competing families who are vying to do the same.


Simultaneously, stores are topping off stock, examining projected sales and margins, and shoring up workforce moral. The newer employees don’t know exactly what to expect in their excitement. “What’s it like?” they ask the veteran employees. “We’ll do our best” they say with a nod. They know that words can’t describe it. Everyone has to experience the flood for themselves. An invasion is never something that you are fully prepared for.


For some, black Friday is a serious matter. For others, it’s just an opportunity to have fun and participate in a shared experience – something to talk about in the break room come Monday. Many don’t care at all and instead get a head start on the ritual of Christmas movies. Still a new indignant minority sees it as a wretched part of materialistic fervor on the level of hedonism and envy. Among the charges levied are that stores open ever earlier and place too much pressure on the families of the employees who have to show up and cut their holiday short. Again this year, many stores will have their doors wide open on Thanksgiving Day itself.


Some media outlets join in and reflect this sentiment, calling the earlier start time of Black Friday “appalling”. The air of self-righteous concern for the oppressed workers who have no choice in their work schedule bathes the discourse in moral indignation. Anyone who disagrees simply betrays their ethical inferiority and loses the argument for lack of compassion. Such rhetorical tactics attempt and often succeed in shutting down the dissenters and stifling all discourse.


I am here to say that stores can open their doors on Thanksgiving and that’s OKAY.


The argument against scheduling employees to work on holidays should be familiar to anyone who pays attention to policy debates. It’s the same claim against sweat shops in developing countries and organ markets in any country (except Iran, interestingly enough). The argument goes something like the following: “I’m rich enough to avoid some decisions about scarcity. Everyone should be rich enough to avoid some decisions about scarcity. Therefore, some decisions about scarcity should be illegal.” Maybe people who make this argument know something that I don’t. Last I checked, no one ever rose out of poverty by wishing that hard trade-offs didn’t exist.


Look, most workers in the USA are fully functioning adults. We’re completely capable of buying and selling what we want. Who are we to judge the choice of another? We don’t know what their interests and values are. There could be a darn good reason to work on Thanksgiving. Maybe Grandma’s kind of a jerk and making $24 per hour at Walmart’ is a better alternative . Or maybe there are any number of purchases that a person is saving up for and could afford that much sooner thanks to the holiday pay. We should have some humility and allow people the presumption of liberty – out of respect if nothing else.


No one is forced to work. When any of us accepts a job offer, there are certain explicit expectations on both sides of the table. Potential employees are free to assert their availability right off the bat. Will limited availability reduce their odds of getting a job? Absolutely. Just as an employer who only schedules inconvenient work hours will have a hard time finding willing hands.


Retail workers aren’t the only ones who often work on holidays. Odds are good that workers at utility, delivery, and security companies are also on the job during Thanksgiving. I fail to recognize the difference in circumstance for retail. Maybe the difference is that retail workers tend to be less skilled and have fewer alternatives. Getting people to invest in more relevant skills might be good. But prohibiting those with few alternatives from accruing experience by limiting their hours is not the way to do it (not to mention that it’s pretty degrading to speak of another person as lacking some ‘adequate’ standard of education).


There is nothing immoral nor inhumane about going to shop on Black Friday or Thanksgiving. Analogously, there’s nothing wrong with being open or working either. We’re all adults making adult decisions. I encourage everyone to do exactly what their heart desires on this Thanksgiving. Enjoy voluntarily being around family and friends with the added plus of football, tofurkey, and yes, maybe even a little work.

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