Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A job worth having

I stopped into a drugstore today and the clerk behind the counter ran me through his whole spiel on their discount card in a very enthusiastic manner. He struck me as a person who was very happy simply to have a job. Given the overall unemployment figures and especially those in Michigan, it's not unusual for that to be the case among any number of people.

The thought occurred to me to think to myself: "I've been there." I've been unemployed for fairly lengthy stretches at times, struggling to pay the rent on time and putting 1 or 2 dollars into the gas tank; just enough to keep the car moving from one interview to another. But it's not true. I've never been happy simply to have a job. Any job that I've had that has directly contributed to keeping a roof over my head has always been one that I despised. Its sole function was to pay for the necessities of survival and nothing else. Well, that's also not true. The other purpose it served was to make me hate the majority of my existence while I was doing it.

I have had jobs that didn't pay the rent. Those were the ones that I loved and would have gladly continued doing even as financial failures. I did them while I was also working for a paycheck and didn't consider them "work" in the dolorous sense. Of course, they were work and lots of it. They often required more energy and effort, physical and mental, than anything I expended on the tasks that people were paying me for. But I was driven to do them because I loved what I was doing. The people that enjoy those tasks they do for a living are often termed "people that love their jobs". They're defined as a jovial anomaly; someone that, essentially, got away with something in the game of life because they found a way to put food on the table and still be happy while doing it. "Pursuing one's passion" they call it and it often involves a serious expenditure of money on one's own part to get to the point where you can chase those dreams.

Except that it's not such a great idea to make the attempt any longer, as a number of recent reports suggest that unpaid student debt now exceeds $1 trillion (ever notice how no one uses the phrase "that's billion with a 'b'" anymore, because the numbers we talk about in ominous tones now routinely exceed trivial billions?) The sad thing about that is not only that a large share of said student debt is based on people making attempts into the fields that they were encouraged to pursue because they were seen as "sure things" (read: economically viable) but that those things are nowhere near as sure as they used to be.

Time was, you could spend your 4 years in college and come out with an anthropology degree and find a career in research or curating or education or even cultural relations for the nearest oil company wanting to lay waste to Borneo. That's all gone now (except for the oil devastation.) I met a really interesting woman a while back who has just such a degree and further education besides. She's fully trained to maintain and enhance the nearest museum exhibits on what has gone before. But those exhibits might as well be telling the story of the American education system that used to be a byword for opportunity but is now reduced to this simple message:
(When I was 5 or 6, I remember thinking that my dad was going to get in trouble for driving past one of these signs...)

Do not attempt to be an art historian. Do not attempt to be a historian. Do not attempt to be a marine biologist (Ghostcrawler promised me a pony!) or a journalist or a practitioner of any number of cultural or geographic arts. And don't even bother to get medieval on anyone's ass. No one else cares. It doesn't serve the drive of the modern society. It's not productive. You can go into business, technology, the law, or medicine. Make your choice.

Except that... well... you can't really go into any of those, either. The vast majority of the aforementioned debt is the (ahem) product of people venturing into those fields in the past decade or so. Those are, after all, the fields that society has deemed truly beneficial. After all, they get paid the most and the most assuredly, right?

A friend of mine started a blog recently, entitled "Inside the Law School Scam", which details the apparent effort by major law schools to recruit students not for the purpose of teaching them to become lawyers, but simply to make money... for the law schools. It is becoming a supposition among lawyers that law school doesn't really teach you about practicing law. You learn that in the real world, when you're making money. After all, that's the point of being "productive", right? To make money? Except that making money often involves being unhappy; something done for the sake of "getting by".

What kind of successful society perpetuates unhappiness for the sake of popular concepts of efficiency? What kind of society deems any activity that does not make an immediate or enormous profit one that is, essentially, a burden to that society? Produce or die. And yet, most of the major works of art and literature that form the foundation of our modern society were the product of patronage or starvation. The very culture that is lionized and revered by the ownership class was created by the kind of people that that class reviles. Most of those people did so because they were driven by passion and, occasionally, assisted by those who had means.

Our means, at the moment, is often directed toward creating more means as an end unto itself. I remember thinking about going back to school a couple years after I had graduated from Michigan. I had thought about getting a master's in education and going into teaching. My father attempted to talk me out of it because "there's no money in it." True enough. Unless you're a big-time law or business or medical professor, I suppose.

What kind of society perpetuates these conditions? Presumably, the one that doesn't care about them and those left to endure them. That, in itself, is an argument for burning said society to the ground and starting over. "There always seems to be money for war but not for education..." Or happiness.


  1. What kind of society *doesn't* perpetuate unhappiness for then-current conceptions of efficiency or good?

    This reminded me of your post. http://girlscholar.blogspot.com/2011/11/whats-matter-with-higher-ed.html You're both right, of course. We get what we pay for.

    I'm a little weirded out that your last word is happiness, though. Is that the end goal? Is that what we ought to be working towards?

    Maybe the better question is: how are you defining happiness? I can't help but be reminded of Wittgenstein: "I don't know why we are here, but I'm pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves." Or are you talking about something more like eudaimonia than hedonism? I have a hard time getting behind the idea that the goal is pleasure. Fulfillment...well, that seems a little more complicated than "happiness."

  2. It's interesting that you quote Wittgenstein at his most negative as a means of attempting to assign complexity to a word choice that may, in fact, be intentionally simple. It was at least a mild obsession of his (that people entrapped themselves by distorting language) in his later years.

    To answer your question: Yes. Eudaimonia would probably have been a clarifying approach in that "happiness", to me, has always meant "fulfillment" or "flourishing". I can derive joy or laughter or pleasure or simple enjoyment from various things in my life for brief periods and still be profoundly unhappy. Such is the measure of my existence and has been for as long as I care to remember. In fact, I daresay that interpretation of "happiness" is something that a large number of people in my life would not argue strenuously against. That was my intent. I probably should have elaborated a bit.

    I have a post in mind that questions whether wage slavery is, indeed, that much different from actual slavery. If we assume that society has moved past the latter, then I think it's a fair assertion to suggest that the concept of economic efficiency should not be the one that denies people the opportunity to pursue what most drives them. That, too, would be "happiness" to me, which is part of why I included it. I'm well aware of the economic realities, but that only serves to bring them more into question, IMO. If everything is to be dismissed in the face of the intolerant dolor of the "real world" what, then, is the point of trying?

    You have to remember that Wittgenstein also wrote: "People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them — that does not occur to them."

    I think that approach only serves to reinforce the point of my post. Perhaps you'd like to try again with, say, a Kantian perspective? ;)