I got my first job at 15, in my Dad's shop. After coming home from the war he went to work in the machine screw business and eventually, in a time honored American tradition, went into competition with his boss. The shop reeked of machine grease ( a smell I still dread), and I spent Tuesday afternoons sweeping floors, sorting bolts and cleaning toilets. In the spring, when I quit a a few weeks before tennis season he followed me out of the shop and told me I'd never amount to much.
Since then its been pretty much the same. Digging ditches at 16, building prefab houses at 18, hauling suitcases at 19, driving a cab to put help put myself through med school at 24. Now it's making sure that the young docs in my lab get their work done and helping then when they don't, or can't. I read 4 times as many tests as any of them, and they are all at least 10 years younger then me. My guess is that you have pretty much the same story to tell.
I don't go on like this to brag. In fact I don't think there's anything special about it. Lots of us work hard our whole lives. Its simply what we know to do. Most of us never get rewarded for it the way you and I have.
That is why the Germans think austerity works. They work hard, and their government promulgates a series of public private partnerships that promote a successful industrial and economic policy. And they'll be damned if they're going to go on paying the salaries of 26000 Sicilian forest rangers.