AMERICAN WASTE

Posted in Rants on March 4th, 2013 by Ed

The world has got some plans for me
Courthouse, jail, and factories

This song keeps popping up in my shuffle lately. The opening lyrics, while not especially profound, are probably confusing to people under the age of 30. One of those things does not seem like the others. But in the 1970s and 1980s, the children of the Boomers started to see boring, blue collar work like factory jobs as a soul-killing prison. There are hundreds of movies, books, and songs from that era featuring characters who just want to live…but they're stuck behind a machine press for the rest of their lives. It's funny in hindsight that we used to worry about the work being insufficiently fulfilling, because I'm pretty sure most of us – and plenty of people in their teens and twenties right now – would gladly take those factory jobs today. They paid decently, they had benefits, and they had a semblance of stability, at least before NAFTA.

The idea that jobs are supposed to be psychologically rewarding is a remarkably new one, and not a particularly helpful one. People under 40 today – myself included – think in terms of "careers" instead of jobs. We also tend to look at careers as outlets for expressing who we are (or how we see ourselves) and we expect them to be rewarding in ways that go beyond a paycheck. When I look at my own mangled expectations about the sense of fulfillment I'd get from my career or see and hear the same from 18-21 year olds on a daily basis, I feel like we could benefit from a little historical perspective.

For most of human history the idea of a profession or a "career" was either nonexistent or relevant only to a tiny niche group in society. Our job was to avoid starving, freezing, or being killed by large animals. When learning trades and getting formal education became more common, rarely were they chosen on the basis of which one would provide the most stimulation and opportunities for personal growth. One became a blacksmith not because it offered the chance to let one's personality shine through. You became a blacksmith because you were lucky enough to become an apprentice to one and if you learned the job well, you stood a fighting chance of making enough money to house and feed yourself and a family. That was it, essentially. As far as the work itself, any job that didn't present an excessive risk of killing or maiming the person doing it was considered pretty sweet.

I often tell students – they have a habit of returning from things like internships and summer jobs jaded by the mundane nature of the working world – that if a given job was fun, they wouldn't have to pay people to do it. No one out there is offering $45k plus benefits for someone to do kegstands, watch Netflix, or play with tiny puppies for 40-45 hours per week. Maybe one person in a million has a job that truly is fun in the sense that it's a thing people would do without getting paid for it. For the vast majority of us, however, a job is just a way to pay the bills. That's all it ever has been. Nothing has changed except our expectations.

Right now I have what by any criteria would be considered a good job. I'm paid decently, I have basic benefits, and the position is as close to Stable as jobs get these days. Yet I'm not happy because I'm expecting the job to make me happy. I expect it to not suck, when in reality on many days it does suck because it's a goddamn job. Nowhere was I promised that it would be rewarding and fun all the time, or that it wouldn't be frustrating, or that I would have days where I come home and wonder why I bother. I bother because they pay me, and getting paid is very useful to me. But that's it. That's the deal: I show up and fulfill my responsibilities, and then I get a check. Nobody said anything about fun.

As often as I give this advice to other people, I give it to myself lately. What I can't figure out is why people in my age group (or younger) have this idea that the task for which they get paid will also be personally enriching. Is it because we lack fulfillment in our personal lives? Is it because we're spoiled, believing that the working world owes us self-actualization in addition to a means of supporting ourselves? I'm not sure. What is certain is that we should be careful what we wish for. Those factory jobs that no longer exist start to look pretty appealing as our Career-as-Spirit Quest theory runs into reality.