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.

75 thoughts on “AMERICAN WASTE”

  • All this goes to prove is that all these pop-psychology articles which try to claim that capitalism is somehow hardwired into our brains are basically bullshit, and humans still have an innate aversion to the capitalist system. The high value of self-employment is a good example of this as well. People know that when they work for someone else, their efforts are enriching others who aren't doing the work, period. Hence the desire to work for oneself.

    Alienation is an inherent part of capitalism and it's not going away. You can't tame capitalism, you can't roll back the clock to some "better" era which was actually shaped by specific historical conditions. Either end capitalism or this shit continues.

  • "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?"

    In that question is your answer.

    We're always looking outside ourselves for fulfilment. We see happiness and/or fulfilment as an additive process. I'll be happy when I have… (a job/car/travel/etc. etc. etc.)

    The reality is that to be happy/fulfilled – after the basics are covered (food/shelter/security) – it's a subtractive process.

  • grumpygradstudent says:

    I think that we should start kids out very early explaining to them that the goal for their educations is for them to be able to find the job that is the least terrible fit. That's not to say they'll like it, but maybe they won't suck down a gun barrel after 10 years on the job.

    As Ed and I are in the same general profession, I'd say that even after massive disillusionment with academia, I still believe that this career is the least terrible fit for me. It's still terrible, mind you, just slightly less terrible than anything else I can think of that would also pay me enough to live. Research topics are boring, political science is fairly useless, the institutions are great replicators of inequality, and the kids are often much more interested in getting their pieces of paper while maximizing fun and minimizing effort than in learning anything new or engaging with the world. But, hey, some students aren't terrible, some papers are interesting, and some topics are important. And at the very least you don't have to have a boss and you get a lot of time off.

  • Happy? Nahhh, I'd settle for some fucking STABILITY! Why do my fellow working class slobs profess admiration for people who wouldn’t even let them MOW their fucking LAWNS? Conditioning! 30+ years of conditioning by Corporate America. Benefits? Wage increases? Be glad you have a job, wage-slaves! “Permanent” employees? Associates? HA! The company I currently contract for (I am an “IT Guy”) hasn’t hired on an “Associate” for OVER THREE YEARS. Now they are talking about “re-organizing” the Helpdesk staff and running a “cost-benefit analysis” to achieve “greater efficiency”. And this company is making a FORTUNE. I could rant on, but…you get the idea. The Corporate States of America are sitting on over 2 TRILLION IN CASH. Things aren’t going to change much anytime soon (except for the worse) because Uncle $am likes things just the way they are: High unemployment keeps workers afraid, and a shaky economy allows these behemoths to continue to cry poor. Fuckers. Keep your happiness. Impermanence and the stress of not knowing where one will be in a year gets stressful after half a decade…

  • The only time I have ever had that feeling that a job was supposed to fulfill me was when I was employed in a job that was so terrible, or I was so terrible at, that I had to grasp for straws to keep myself motivated.

    My bachelor's degree took a long fucking time and it was unending stress as far as how I would find time to accomplish all my tasks and squeak by without having to repeat a course. Now that that's behind me, the mundane and mind-numbing cubicle world feels so awesome. It doesn't dominate my life to the point where I expect it to fulfill me. I have other fulfilling things in my life; I make sufficient money and get off early enough in the day to do those things, meaning I don't have to be especially in love with my job to be satisfied.

    I think that the idea that a job/career has to fulfill you is some bourgeois pyschobullshit meant to make people comfortable with the idea that their role in life is to produce surplus value. If you believe that your job is the most fulfilling aspect of your life, you don't have to get all bummed out that you don't have room in your life for the things that used to fulfill you when your job consumes you.

  • I know we've all seen the meme #whitepeopleproblems, but "meaningful job" issues amount to bourgeoisie problems, in my book. Not that they are not valid, but a job that pays survival wages plus benefits means hooray! I get to survive! This means a lot to me!

    Put differently: my generation hated plastics because they wanted items that were biodegradable. My grandma just wanted things that would last a long time. To her, that meant "last longer than the pot brought over on the boat by her mother." Different priorities.

    Fulfillment is what you do OUTSIDE of your working hours. Work pays the bills. Volunteering feeds the soul. Don't starve your soul by waiting for someone to pay you for the privilege.

  • "That's the deal: I show up and fulfill my responsibilities, and then I get a check."

    This is such a strange thing for an academic (one who I'm assuming is tenure-track) to say. The "show up" hours are actually quite low compared to the "spend weekends desperately trying to get published" ones, or so I've heard.

    That said, I love my job. And I love my job because I have a good relationship with my boss. Honestly, 95% of life comes down to whether or not your boss or supervisor is an asshole or not. Having three-months annual vacation definitely helps.

    And I guess I'm a hippie dreamer but I really enjoy teaching and, in a very small way, I do think I'm making the world a better place.

    I'm quite the cynical motherfucker in general, just to balance that hippie bullshit out.

  • Well said, although I am lucky enough to enjoy my work.

    It could be added that even today most of the world population is happy when able to feed and house themselves and does not have the luxury of expecting self-fulfillment through work.

  • I think what's missing from Ed's analysis is the old idea of service. Back in the day, you served not only your employer but your religion, family, community, and country (not necessarily in that order). That is where you were meant to get your personal satisfaction.

    Those filthy hippies in the 1960s dispensed with that idea, because a) it's a real drag, man; b) the old ideas of hierarchy had enabled horrific wars, up to and including Vietnam; c) the Pill meant they could literally fuck around while delaying family responsibilities; d) prosperity unparalleled in human history meant that getting food and shelter wasn't such an urgent concern; e) why bother serving anyone or anything if the world is going to be destroyed by nuclear weapons any time now?

    A couple of generations later, hippiedom has mutated into Employment as Spirit Quest. This is convenient for our corporate overlords, because old ideas of hierarchy aren't coming back, they have to motivate us to work somehow, and paying decent wages is expensive.

  • Also, I think "one in a million" is an exaggeration. I doubt that for the entire working-age population of the USA, there are only 200 or so fun jobs. I'd put it at around 2% of the total.

    There's a significant overlap with the 1% of the very rich. Their jobs may not be fun exactly, but many of them could retire in comfort any time they wanted, and choose to keep working for reasons of status and personal ambition. Add to that a contingent of people who see what they do as a vocation as well as a job, and might keep doing it at least part-time even if they didn't need the money — writers, teachers, scientists, musicians, and so on.

    The trouble is that a lot of the zeitgeist is shaped by this group of people who enjoy their work on some level, and being naive and/or delusional, expect everyone else to as well.

  • @Talisker:
    "Also, I think "one in a million" is an exaggeration. I doubt that for the entire working-age population of the USA, there are only 200 or so fun jobs. I'd put it at around 2% of the total."

    I beg to differ. It goes with what grumpy says, about finding what you suck least at. It's also where you find it.

    I know a guy who is probably the most boring as people you could ever meet. Talks in a monotone. He can speak with great interest about many topics, '70s rock music (e.g. Pink Floyd) is one he shows some enthusiasm for. Otherwise he displays little to no passion for anything really.

    That is until you get him talking about his job. Then he really lights up, and his eyes begin to sparkle, and what he does most of us would find incredibly boring and soul destroying. He just loves pouring over the numbers and finance reports for companies, and he seems to live for this.

  • @xynzee: Well yeah, I realize "fun" is in the eye of the beholder, and that "fun" is not a simple on/off quality. There's a continuum from "makes me lose the will to live" through "mostly OK", "might do it part time even if I didn't have to", and ultimately "will do it 16 hours a day regardless of who tries to stop me".

    I don't think any of this invalidates my point. Or are you really telling me that your Pink-Floyd-loving friend is one of a tiny group of 200 people in the entire USA who enjoy their jobs?

  • Back in the day ( 1950s ) the American Dream was to get a decent blue or white collar job- one where a guy could afford a home and a car on his salary. A job which paid enough for him to raise a family.
    Because of a combination of powerfull unions and the prosperity bubble after the Second World War, those guys got those jobs. And a job was more than a place of work. It was a place you made friends and socialized. Workers went on company picnics, formed sports teams, and did stuff together on their days off.
    Guess those days are gone. Everyone wants to be a billionaire or go on American Idol and become a celebrity. American workers live lives of isolation and bitter dissapointment. Which makes them especially vunerable to demands from management.

  • I don't know, maybe I'm just younger than other people here (still not THAT young) but I was raised with the "go to college so you can get a good job that you'll enjoy" propaganda. Hell…I wasn't even sold the "you'll get married and have kids and a house" version of the American dream. I was told constantly that there were jobs that were satisfying and if you just worked hard enough in kindergarten, you would do well in elementary school so you would do well in middle school so you would do well in high school so you could get into a good college and work really hard and get a job that is exactly what you want to be doing with your life! SMILEY FACES!

    I'm stuck here at the beginning of what I consider to be my professional life and I look around at the World Full of Jobs (well…jobs in the abstract "those career paths exist" sense. Not in the "they are hiring" sense) and don't see a damn thing like I was promised. I mean…I saw it coming in high school…but that doesn't detract from the DECADES of drudge work I have in my future.

    Can't I get paid to sow the seeds of disappointment in children?

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Refering back to what "wetcasements" said, sometimes you get lucky and get a job you like, and the job maximizes your talents, and you like and respect your boss, who likes and repects you back.

    And then, the company decides to shake things up, and replaces that great boss with an @$$hole, and that same job, now sucks snake-d*ck.

    The "Peter Principle" guarantees that at some point, some numbers-crunching incompetent soul-less @$$hole with zero people-skills will become your boss, because they always get to rule the corporate roost.
    Because there's nothing companies like better, than bosses who appreciate numbers more than people. They LOVES them some @$$holes who can make numbers sing an aria, and at the same time, make people shriek with agony.

    And the numbers-crunching incompetent soul-less @$$holes with zero people-skills can always show some number that they've crunched to prove that they're getting more out of people (that the boss and his/her bosses at the company hate), and they not only get to keep their jobs, and even get nice bonuses, they take another step up the corporate ladder, while the people who work for them, lose theirs.

    And as people lose their jobs because the soul-less @$$hole needs to prove he/she is worthy of their job, "The numbers don't lie," say those number-crunchers, who just manipulated those numbers to lie for his/her benefit.
    And the people at the top don't give a sh*t, because, well, they say the same thing to their bosses, and investors – "The numbers don't lie" – after they've manipulated their own numbers to lie for their benefit.

    And this, boys and girls, is how CEO's and other top management people get to keep the money as raises and bonuses that they just saved the company from laying-off tons of good workers.

    And this is why we have a dying economy, because the people at the feckin' top have more feckin' money than they can feckin' spend, and the people at the feckin' bottom ain't got no feckin' money to spend, 'cause they ain't got no feckin' jobs – to paraphrase the great Charles Pierce.

    "Ah, but listen to those numbers sing!", say the CEO's as they shovel their money to overseas accounts.

  • Cund, your post hits on the one thing I really don't understand at all about the modern economy. I get why the economy is currently tilted to send a massive dick right into the face of anyone not born to a wealthy elite. What I don't get is why that wealthy elite bothers to continue getting wealthier.

    When you have a $25 billion net worth…why wouldn't you just stop? Why bother going to work in the morning? You could buy out a dozen small towns every year for the rest of your life without ever leaving the comfort of your mansion, and still leave an obscene amount of money for whatever kids your maid spit out for you. I guess I just don't see the it really just some bullshit personal ambition and fame among the other elites?

  • @ Arslan –

    Capitalism is ending. It's becoming corporatist oligopoly, and ultimately the new corporatist feudalism.

    There was a brief golden age, and I, very unknowingly, got to ride the crest of it.

    But corporations have the power to emasculate unions and take over governments. And now they are transnational megacorporations with no loyalty to anyone nor anything, except the next quarterly statement.

    Thus – WASF!

  • "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."

    Because they were told to look for this by Steve Jobs. Just google Steve Jobs commencement speech. I'm sure most of your students have seen it.

  • It's called evolution. People weren't concerned about HAPPINESS because they were cretins. Personal/spiritual fulfillment SHOULD be every human's main concern. It doesn't have to come from having a fun job; that's just a misunderstanding of the concept. It comes from being grateful for what you do have, and that includes appreciating whatever means you have of supporting yourself. People's expectations changing is a good thing; the key is accepting responsibility for your own fulfillment regardless of how "fun" your job is.

  • I would up that age where people hope/expect to be fulfilled by work to about sixty or sixty five (another generation). That is where I where I see the generational split, not at forty. I don't think you can see it as well in older workers, but it is there, it has just been beat up and buried inside.

    As for me, months short of fifty, I am just tired of work. I actually like my job, and it is good job, but I would get tired of eating pizza 24/7 as well.

  • I'm one of Ed's despised boomers who grew up at the very end of the corporatist era of the 1950's-1960s.

    There was a hold-over presumption at the time that if you could "get in" to one of the rust belt automotive prime or tier one suppliers you were set for life. It was actually kind of an amazing era, when factory workers enjoyed the material benefits and security of the middle class; and your boss lived down the street and perhaps enjoyed one car model better than yours. There was implied social equality at school–everyone's dad worked at the plant in one capacity or another. Mothers, of course, did not work outside the home-nor did they need to.

    I took the path less trod at the time–(working on advanced degrees for years) and watched from the sidelines as this paradigm crumbled. Looking backward from the present twilight years of my working life I see that I inadvertently cast myself as the "new economic man" with an educational portfolio and portability–that oddly led me to a semi successful business career.

    I have never found happiness in my work. Whatever "success" I had led only to disillusion. Work has been and is something that is endured to feed the kids and finance vices. Throughout the years I have read about personal fulfillment through employment. I have always scratched my head at such a concept. I fed the kids and paid the mortgage. In the end, that was enough.

    I am, however, looking forward to a retirement filled with small self indulgences, freed from the yoke mandatory wage-slavery.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    I don't get it either.

    Maybe it's just that ego and greed know no limits or boundries. And there's never enough, if you can still get more.

  • I am fairly certain that you can describe my relationship with my job as "hate."

    But I have no idea what I could/would want to do that would be somthing that I would "like" for 40 hours a week…

  • @ kong

    "There's a support group for people who hate their jobs, it's called EVERYBODY!" – Drew Carey

    "There's a BETTER support group for people who hate their jobs, it's called UNIONS!" – sluggo

  • Middle Seaman says:

    The post reflects the current workers state. In other words, we the workers are sliding back from the top days of good salaries, benefits and job security to modern slavery.

    Some have fascinating jobs other mundane ones, but a good pay and stability makes most people happy. It isn't NAFTA or globalization, it's the surrender of the center to and including the left to the oligarchs. OWS tried to reverse the process. We may yet succeed.

  • I remember reading somewhere that, in the early days, work in many factories in the US was the sort of thing likely to cause severe disability or death within a decade. And people were willing to abandon everything they knew, get on a boat, cross the ocean in steerage, and live ten to a room to get those jobs. Because it was better than starving in the villages of Eastern Europe.

  • Is it really that outlandish to want the activity that most of your waking life revolves around to be fulfilling?

  • Like Dbp, no one "told" me in the '90s to get a job that fit my abilities and would fulfill me; it was just generally understood in the culture that smart people went to college, picked a major they liked, and went into the appropriate field, like the game of Life, and were happy because they used their science skills as doctors or their writing skills as journalists. I never really stopped to think about all the plumbers and restaurant workers and other people who worked jobs that couldn't possibly be personally fulfilling, because, well, I was middle class and figuring out what color my parachute was or whatever.

    In retrospect, how dumb, how blinkered. My own dad is a post office lifer (quality control/industrial engineering) and has never liked his job for one second, but I assumed that was because he didn't finish college and didn't really choose a career. I complained about all my first jobs — retail, admin, temping — and never considered that work in My Chosen Career, whatever that was going to be, might be boring and annoying for the same kinds of reasons. I incurred a nice house in Indiana's worth of debt on a law school education, trying to get ready for that "career."

    End result: I am now happy to do the legal industry's version of temping, which is almost as mindless as any old-school factory job, and ten years out of college I am no longer looking to work to fulfill anything more than a financial need. I've had a full-time job in a small business with a pleasant atmosphere and lots of socialization, and got financially screwed over by one of those nice conservatives who just couldn't be happy enough with a mansion and five cars and two trips to Hawaii a year. My new motto, as I focus on starting a family and getting my finances in anything like stable shape, is "fuck you, pay me."

    There's no one in particular to blame, other than maybe myself for buying into this load of crap and not just becoming an accountant. It was in the water, and mentalities are changing. I just hope kids who are currently getting ready for lives of work (and of course the American obsession with hard work as the only measure of personal virtue is another factor) can change their mindsets from the 20th century to the 21st.

  • Shemp Duchamp says:

    DB –

    It's not outlandish to want your job to be fulfilling.
    It is outlandish to expect your job to be fulfilling.

  • I think it was Freud who said that to be a full, mature human being you had to learn to do two things, Love and Work. And just as "love" means a thousand different ways of stepping outside of ourselves and forming a connection with another, so "work" means all those things we do and create in the world in order to get something done or leave something behind us. And I think we all know it is stupid when people conflate "love" only with the hormone addled state of courtship – but it is just as stupid to conflate "work" with the task we're given to do at our place of employment. Don't look for all your need of love to be supplied by your lover and don't look for all your satisfactions in work to come from your boss. That said, we shouldn't be putting in 40 hours per week on these things. That's just inhuman.

  • I will agree with everything you said. I always tell people the same thing but I express by one simple statement.

    I work to live, not live to work.

  • @ Andy Brown: I like the use of Freud–he points out that at our most basic level, we're motivated by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Love, it seems to me, is the payoff of the former, and Work is the means of achieving the latter. (Love, by the way, isn't just a romantic partner–it's whatever cranks your Eros up to 11.)

    Newton's First Law applies very much to human nature: we stay at rest as long as we have no reason to move. It's only when necessity boots us in the butt–feed me! clothe me! house me!–that we get moving. Work isn't a means of being happy–it's a way of not being miserable. And more often than not, Work is only miserable when we blame it for not making us happy. If we consider what it prevents us from feeling–hungry, cold, exposed–well, it's a good thing insofar as it stands between us and much, much worse things.

    That's not to say that I'm sun-shiney about working conditions all the world 'round, or about management practices, or the notion that since Work isn't supposed to make us happy, it can be as viciously unpleasant as possible–believe me, I like the concept of organized labor and bargaining rights and legally required bathroom breaks. Don't settle for less than human decency requires. But…just realize that Work should only be tolerable. If you expect more, you're going to hate it.

  • This dilemma pretty much explains why so many buy into one or another of the "God" programs. It takes skill and courage to find meaning "in the world." Most don't have it, so they turn to the big story, or the corporate version of it. As I spend another day looking for work, hundreds of earnest folks drive into the parking lot across the street and spend their day working for one of the companies Brill mentioned in his Time article: soulless, growth driven, illness exploiting, sophisticated, MBA ruled mfs full of fear for their stock price. At least they have something to do today. So does the old lady looking for plastic bottles and pushing her cart down the street.
    Pransky was onto it: he distinguishes Living from the Game of Life. The Game has no inherent value (or promise of fulfillment), it's just what humans do. Doesn't end if you get a billion dollars, tends to start if you want to keep eating. Living is the part we all have in common and we can do it well no matter the game stats, or we can do it poorly. Examples of each abound. The musical chairs part of the game is a killer. Isn't it a pity?Yes. Options? Not so many. Who gives a shit? Yes, that's kinda the point.

  • Number Three says:

    There's an element here that I think is missing. One of the most "satisfying" experiences is some combination of realizing "a job well done" or being very competent at some task that takes some skill. So even a subsistence farmer can take pride in his animal husbandry; even a shepherd can be the "best" at tracking down the lost sheep–and be recognized as such by his fellows. Even manual trades have their hierarchies, and even then, experience and apprenticeship relations mean that every "master" has pupils, and thus relative to them, he can derive satisfaction.

    I think one of the things that made the factory jobs so dull (and I have worked one, during summers, in Michigan) is that it's hard to feel that you've done "a job well done" operating a single machine in a robotic manner (I'm sure that robots do what I did then).

    The same is true of much of modern office work. What would it mean to do "a job well done" in many of the work settings of today? What would it mean to be above-average competent, and recognized as such?

    I don't dislike my job–as someone (wetcasements?) above said, I have a very cool boss, and that makes a big difference. But the parts I really like are the parts where I get that "a job well done" feeling, even when it's a little thing. I like it when people have questions, and they call me to ask them. When I can help someone, even with a pretty minor problem, at work, that's cool.

  • The best jobs, in my experience, are where my authority to carry out the job matched my responsibilities. Sadly, most of my working life lacked this.

    Teachers today have responsibilities for things that are so far outside of their abilities to influence, let alone control, that the job has become impossible.

  • I used to pride myself on not defining myself by what I did for a living, while at the same time doing it noticeably well. Now that I'm retired, I don't miss it at all.
    however, like my father before me, I worked my entire career at one job (twenty four years at a va hospital, fwiw). My sons will probably never meet anyone else who did that.

  • On top of everything already mentioned:

    We're encouraged to live vicariously through vapid celebrities who spend all their time doing glamorous but increasingly useless bullshit and to think these people are more interesting than we are.

  • Part-time Jedi says:

    I think the obsession with finding a "fulfilling" job is at least in part tied to the fact that the sorts of jobs that are frequently considered 'fulfilling' are pretty much the only ones that you can live off of. You would find a lot more people willing to spend their lives in food service or retail or manufacturing if they actually paid a wage that didn't put you below the poverty line.

    "I show up and fulfill my responsibilities, and then I get a check. Nobody said anything about fun."

    Except that there are now a number of jobs where the employer expects you to do so much more that just show up and fulfill your responsibilities. They expect you to show genuine enthusiasm and ambition, not to mention work ridiculous hours. See the New York Times article on the "no-limits job":

    Frankly, if I'm gonna be working 70-80 hours a week for a decade, it fucking better be at something I find fulfilling, because I'm not exactly going to have time outside of work to find any personal fulfilment.

  • A job can be fullfilling, fun, interesting, etc. while at the same time be painful, drudgery, hateful, etc. Even those of us who have jobs that we say we "love" find large portions of carrying said jobs to be unpleasant. I currently work as a nurse in a burn unit. I literally save peoples lives, help people recover from terrible injuries, and sometimes ease the transition into death. That certainly is fullfilling. But many of the tasks involved are unpleasant and even boring. I sometimes dislike or even hate some of my patients. Nothing is perfect in this world. Many people do get stuck in jobs they hate, but what is sad is when people have choices but don't even realize it.

  • Actually I found teaching in a university music department to be enormously fullfilling. It wasn't "fun" on a daily basis, there were certainly days when I wished I was somewhere else, and there was a fair amount of scutwork involved. But in the long run it was extremely satifying to be able to participate in the students development, both as musicians and human beings. I just ignored the ugliness of university politics, siince it seemed like frivolous, petty backstabbing and a waste of energy that had nothing to do with teaching. So, of course, I got pushed out.

    I was also pretty amazed by how much griping some of the senior tenured faculty did about how awful their jobs were, until I realized that most of these people had never done anything else. Spending a month or so on a factory floor, or driving a cab, or grinding out five sets of blues a night in a biker bar probably would have given them some needed perspective on this.

  • Thanks for this Ed. I have the same conversation without myself on at least a weekly basis.

    Why do we expect our jobs to be self-fulfilling?

    – Answer 1: because we're spoiled and not accustomed to freezing or starving to death, and we feel we expect more.
    – Answer 2: because we have ceased to find meaning in other aspects of our lives. We (mostly) no longer find meaning in our lives from religion. Our communities have broken down, and as atomistic fragments, we cannot as easily find meaning in our communal life, our friends, our family. More and more, our work life crowds out our "personal life" – where is there time for a "life" when one is not working, or getting read for work, or commuting, or recovering from a terrible day working? Somewhere Adorno says that even our personal affairs get infected with the logic of our work life (has a date ever felt like a job interview, for instance?). We're all fragmented shells of human beings and so, it's perfectly natural that we would seek some kind of meaning at work, the center of our existence, the place where we spend nearly all hours of our waking life.

  • A lot of us in the tech industry, or at least the software engineering industry do find our jobs rewarding, enriching, and a lot of the time, fun. I suspect that's true for a lot of engineers who not only get a creative outlet, but produce functional, useful things that they can watch people enjoy and use to make their own lives better. And the pay ain't so shabby, either.

    Sometimes it sucks, but most the of time, I look forward to coming to work to solve problems and make peoples lives better.

    N.B. None of this applies to the game industry.

  • Shemp Duchamp,

    Good distinction. Of course, it's probably irrational to expect anything besides death…

  • To back up what Arslan said, capitalism really wouldn't have been able to develop as a coherent ideaology without the changes in world outlook (the secularization of time, the focus on human good as God's mission, the development of the idea of the individual, as some examples) that led to the Protestant Reformation.

  • Andrew Laurence says:

    I figured out early on that I would probably not have a FUN job, but I found a more than tolerable job that pays well and allows me enough free time to do the things that I DO find personally fulfilling.

  • I think Rosalux has this just about right. Our lives from the time we start school are so geared towards our future work lives, there is little nurturing of other areas of our lives…unless you count the constant focus on entertaining ourselves. Work and entertainment when we are not working is what our lives revolve around. It is not unreasonable to look for meaning in our work in that scenario (you won't find much of it in entertainment) and be disappointed when it doesn't materialize. This is especially true of those who go into academia and think that they are doing something grander than ordinary working people, only to find out that there work has little meaning outside of a very small circle of people. I've been telling people for years that all "careers" ultimately turn out to be "jobs."

  • grumpygradstudent says:

    Indeed. I look at the most "successful" people I know in academia (in the sense of being published a lot and well-known to other people in the field). Aside from their nice R1 salaries, would I want to be those people? Hell-fucking-no. For the most part, they are boring, miserable assholes with dysfunctional families. I don't understand why being well-known for publishing answers to largely unimportant questions to a small circle of socially dysfunctional, boring assholes would seem fulfilling to anybody. Even if fame were important to me (which it most decidedly isn't), that's NOT FAME! It's academic famous. It's like being famous for selling carpet or something. I entered this career because it's a tolerable way to pay my bills that gives me a lot of flexibility to do things that actually do give me joy. Now, actually getting one of those academic jobs, that's another story….

  • Then, of course, there is a special level of purgatory for lawyers, who not only usually hate their jobs, but whose jobs usually preclude any possibility of a meaningful non-work existence due to the insane hours and demands of the job. And they're also saddled with debt and may not even be be employed, and are reviled/mistrusted by the rest of the population.

    Great Woody Allen joke: "You know, some men are heterosexual and some men are bisexual and some men don't think about sex at all, you know… they become lawyers."

  • TomAmitaiUSA says:

    Number Three asks "What would it mean to do "a job well done" in many of the work settings of today?"

    They fire the people around you who aren't quite as good as you and add their work load to yours- without a commensurate increase in your compensation.

  • cungulag: "Maybe it's just that ego and greed know no limits or boundaries. And there's never enough, if you can still get more."

    This past weekend I read a breathless article about the upcoming trend that will sweep the nation: eating less, particularly less meat. Future-us will be eating smaller meals with more soup, the article chirpily predicted. I wonder if it was cheerleading the ongoing povertization of working people, as corporations record ever-higher record profits.

  • Good post. Can you do a post about the flipside of this, please?

    We're told in school and in college that work should be rewarding and fulfilling- but I think it's a much larger problem from the corporate end.

    After I got my master's degree, my search for an honest-to-god corporate whore gig was filled with alarming little episodes like these.

    I was asked what relevant (!) non-fiction book I was currently reading. Because I'm expected to love the job I don't have so much that I'm supposed to spend money I don't have studying my potential profession . .. for fun!

    My hobbies (writing, coding) were insufficiently relevant to the position (research).

    My skill set (research) was more suited to academic results than corporate.

    Here's the one that made me want to vomit:

    "We thought you'd fit in here, and you clearly enjoy research. But it seems you'd be happy doing research anywhere- we weren't convinced this was your dream job."

    I finally did land a job, and I found out the only reason I was chosen over other candidates was that I was no stranger to 80 hour workweeks because of grad school.

    And I'm still expected to LOVELOVELOVE my job- marketing wants me to like their facebook status updates and retweet their latest musings and rate all their blog post FIVE STARS. Go to conferences on my own dime. I get emails about our mission statements and core values and I'm supposed to nominate my colleagues and describe how they LIVE our company values.

    Don't cry for me, I actually do love my job. It took some time to find my groove and really excel, but I eventually did it. But I'm EXTREMELY lucky. The entire job market EXPECTS that you live, breathe, and shit your career (even call center phone monkeys). God help any job-seeker (even temps) who can't act that well.

  • Part-time Jedi: "Except that there are now a number of jobs where the employer expects you to do so much more that just show up and fulfill your responsibilities. They expect you to show genuine enthusiasm and ambition, not to mention work ridiculous hours."

    In the past 10 years, I've worked for two employers who not only expected "exempt-employee hours" of 50 – 60 a week, but also 100% employee participation in whatever charity events the upper management personally favored *and* whatever stupid "get to know your manager" activities they dreamed up. Example: a morning spent driving to corporate headquarters to look for Hershey's kisses hidden around the offices. Each candy would have a question such as "name your manager's favorite movies", and the finder would have to ask a manager and write down the answer, then go hunt for another candy, read the question, corner another manager, document the question, etc. For the employee who got the most questions answered, the prize was…a bag of Hershey's Kisses. Then all employees had to drive to their actual job and put in a full day's work. Non-participation would NOT be tolerated.

  • Why shouldn't we seek some meaning in our work? We spend 40 or more hours per week working, plus time at home thinking about work. Studies addressing meaning at work (i.e., notions like job enrichment, empowerment, engagement, job involvement, affective commitment, etc.) show that when people experience meaningfulness in their work, they tend to be more satisfied with their job and tend to perform better, especially in regard to the quality of work, engage in more creative behavior, and have better social relations with colleagues and customers.

    What makes work meaningful? Performing jobs requiring a variety of skills, where the tasks a person performs are a big part of the whole rather than narrow, and where the tasks are significant to the organization and to the customer. When meaningful work is combined with a feeling or responsibility for one's work and knowledge of the results of work, we would expect a relatively high level of intrinsic work motivation.

  • Every Friday I say "I never wanted to be the person who lived for weekends and evenings, but here I am." *sigh* I just don't know how I am going to be able to work until I am 80. Because with the way Congress and the President are getting ready to bend us over, that's what I need to plan on.

  • As my grampa used to tell me when I'd complain about whatever work I happened to be doing at the time, "There are 2 good jobs: the last one and the next one."

  • Whenever they do surveys on job satisfaction, at least here in Canada, teachers turn up near the top. I am an ESL instructor who became such after 15 years in corporate PR as a writer/editor culminating in a surprise downsizing and a year of soul-destroying final-round interviewsese. Between these two periods of stable employment I telemarketed. One place was such an abysmal sweatshop that we unionized it. It was the first private call centre in Ontario to be unionized. We went through certification, strike, decertification, re-vote, the whole road. It was probably the most work fun I ever had.

    My husband was a millwright who took pride in his skills and hated his job and his bosses (it was mutual, he was the union president. Three strikes in 21 years).

    I love my (unionized) job now.I teach adults who are mostly smarter and more highly educated and more interesting than I am. God knows they are harder working. I have autonomy and great range to express myself, even in Academic Writing – a recent essay topic was "Describe the qualities that have contributed to Nazem Kadri's current success".

    Guess what the moral of this post is.

  • So, I think I am 99% aligned with Rosalux as well. I might add one thing — the movement of wealth to the financial sector has sucked the life out of jobs that were certainly tolerable. If I look across my blue-collar uncles and my PhD father, none had their dream job. But all seemed reasonably content — they were immigrants, they had a fine standard of living, and they enjoyed the social aspects of work and some of the random "perks." Most of that has been removed as jobs are stacked, perks are eliminated, etc to concentrate wealth. So, while my uncle may not have woken up every day fired up at stevedore-ing at the docks, he seemed to see it as not a bad outcome given his upbringing and lack of education, and a fine way to go day to day. I am a core Gen X guy demographically, so we came in skeptical and angry and that probably accounts for some degree of unhappiness. But every job I have ever had seems more stressful and has longer hours and fewer perks vs what I saw growing up, and that has to feed into this as well.

  • Redleg wrote "What makes work meaningful? Performing jobs requiring a variety of skills, where the tasks a person performs are a big part of the whole rather than narrow, and where the tasks are significant to the organization and to the customer. When meaningful work is combined with a feeling or responsibility for one's work and knowledge of the results of work, we would expect a relatively high level of intrinsic work motivation."

    I think you hit the nail on the head here. Notice how nothing you said has anything to do with the activity of the job per se; it's the context in which the activity takes place.

    I have a friend who works as an assistant in a primary classroom. Her job is essentially that of a cleaning lady (a job that most of us probably think of as intrinsically sucking); she helps keep the classroom clean and in order, and she rarely interacts with the kids. However, because the classroom is a great place, and because doing her job helps to keep it that way in very visible ways (a fact that's recognized by the school and the staff in terms of how they treat her), she finds it fulfilling.

  • So (to continue where I left off), the fact that people don't find their jobs to be fulfilling doesn't necessarily have to do with the nature of the activities of those jobs in themselves (although they might think that to be the case, for obvious psychological reasons). It has to do with how those activities are performed (e.g., with autonomy or with a supervisor breathing down your neck; the assistant I mentioned enjoys the former, whereas the latter would probably make the job intolerable), the people's relationships to the results of their work, etc.

    To respond to people's desire for fulfilling work by saying "what, you think this shit's supposed to be fun? why do you think we're paying you for it?" therefore kind of misses the point. Their dissatisfaction is indicative of larger problems with the way work is done in our society.

    One other thing: in my last post, I wrote (responding to Redleg) that "nothing you said has anything to do with the activity of the job per se." That wasn't quite accurate, since Redleg did list "requiring a variety of skills" as a criterion—but unless you're literally just pushing a button all day, almost any job requires a variety of skills, so that's almost a given.

  • Ed, I love your work. I agree with you on most issues.
    But this is not only repetetive ( you've issued esentially the same rant i the last 2 years), but whiney.
    Come on. Really? I work in basically the same job as you, in the state you just departed. It's not fulfilling? It's not satisfying? Well shit, Ed, why don't you go do some I-banking? Not that hard and way more money, and teaching is unsatisfying anyway (to you) so… what are you doing here?

  • I think the point above about love and work is apt.

    I get a lot of satisfaction from my work, and doing something well. Being "in the flow" is complete joy. Although it is certainly a privilege to like my paid work, there are other sources of satisfaction from Freud's "work" than paid work .

    Isn't this blog and standup comedy your "work"?

    I'll bet there are some of your students whom you'd like and enjoy teaching if you looked at them with an open heart.

  • My grandfather, who was too young to be drafted in WWI and too old for WWII, was graduated from high school (pretty rare in that time and place for somebody from a poor family) and got a plum job sorting incoming mail on a local train. (Each train stop had a mailbox on the boarding platform.)

    It paid well, important for a kid with a wife and child, but it was unfulfilling. He saved his money, went to normal school (6 weeks), and became a teacher, which he hated (although a contemporary of my mother said he was fabulous at teaching math). He bought a copy of Blackstone and became a justice of the peace for a while.

    He studied engineering on his own, passed the exams, and became a registered engineer. He maybe loved civil engineering or maybe he ran out of options or maybe he settled. Anyway, that's what he was when I knew him. (My first memory of him was learning that he built the Pennsylvania Turnpike; for a while, I thought he did it singlehandedly.) He was the one who at the beginning of a day checked the concrete to be used, for example; if no one supervised the contractors, they cut every corner.

    When he died in his late 60s, he was still working for the state. He said young civil engineers were aiming at the big bucks, not government pay, and his staff were foreign students who stayed in the US; he was sure they needed his knowledge of the language and local mores to outfox the contractors.

    So wanting fulfilling, worthwhile work is not all that new.

  • Having been in the Army, the service sector, construction, a start-up, a Fortune 500 company, the job I enjoy most is teaching. No where else do I have the freedom to control how I do my job like I do as a teacher. I'm paid to think about ideas and how best to teach them to my students. Want to teach The Fall to my freshman English class? I can do that. Create a unit on the rhetoric of social issues video games? Done it. Yeah, grading the amount of papers I have to can be a grind, and the students don't always bring their A game, but there's nothing like the feeling I get when I see something click for a student, or when I read their papers and am surprised at how insightful they can be. Now that isn't every class, every day, but it happens often enough, and that's what makes the meetings and everything else about the job worthwhile.

  • Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951. Playboy started publishing in 1953. The first one elevated teenage angst to the position of Central Problem Of The Age and the second proposed a life of leisurely consumerist "individualism" as its solution. Since then, anyone coming of age in circumstances luxurious enough to indulge that problem and that solution has had his or her life formed and malformed by it to some degree.

    And then we have the wholesale disappearance of jobs that can actually be fun.

  • Mike Rowe said something along these lines:

    Basically, he said the folks he's interviewed doing dirty jobs are the most fulfilled people he's met. No illusions about their jobs, I'd guess. IN particular, he mentions a pig farmer near Las Vegas who's gotten rich by feeding his swine the nutrient rich leftovers from Vegas buffets; the man laughed when Rowe asked if this was his dream job. The suggestion has no meaning at all to a millionaire who spends his days in pig slop.

  • I'v been coming around here as of late reading the blog,and the comments, I find them rather interesting, most of the time. Today, I find it kinda sad!! I'm at the end of a very rewarding career, one in which I enjoyed coming to work everyday!! One that I got a great sense of fulfilment, acomplishment, self satisfaction. One that I will miss, on what I hope will be a long retirement. Over the course of my career I'v had many bosses, ( I never left the company) some , mostly the older ones, were exceptional, some were less than what I would expect. So many people who hate their jobs, their careers, their field of choice! Over my time in this field, we've been down sized, expected to do more with less, taken pay cuts, cuts in benefits, reduced healthcare, forced into training programs without compensation, and the list goes on! Yet here, the majority of the comments, along with the blogger, look at their jobs as a means to a pay check, nothing more, nothing less. For christ sake!!You spend a fortune on your education, go into your field of choice, and bitch about your job!!! Damn thats sad!! I'm 55 years old, been in this business for over 30 years, and would do it all over again if I had half a chance. You make your life, your job doesn't define you, but you can define your job!! Lifes too damn short to be stuck in a job you despise. I wouldn't change a thing, and I'm proud to say my son's have followed in my footsteps! I'm a Career Firefighter/Paramedic.

  • the American dream is all around us. there is no way to escape the " way" we should be if we are born and raised in the US of A. and that means we have been lied to since day one and so were our parent before us. and so on, communism a la USA

    if you don't like what you do, you have only yourself to thank or blame. you can either enjoy or hate where and what you do/are. and to think we have to be "good enough" to be measured by what we do rather than who we are is another dead end.

    if our value/self worth is measured by our jobs, then the America BS machine is in charge of our lives. not getting what we want can be the best "enlightenment" we could ever hope for. finding our right spot at the right time is pure chance. sometimes we have to find out what we don't like to go where we need to go.

    now with the decline of the American Empire, thanks mostly to the Republiclan kleptocracy, there are fewer jobs here that exist, even less jobs that pay living wages.

    Happiness is a decision we make. we choose to be either unhappy or happy. no matter where we are or what we do, happiness is something we choose to create for ourselves. and sometimes discovering this is worth the road we have taken, sometimes not, but it's the only way to find out. and time is the only avenue for such discoveries.

    that said. i think America is fucked way beyond any semblance of hope, those Fucking Republican/Democratic politicians need to be killed.

    i usually don't believe in violence in any way shape or form, a reaping what we sow concept. do unto others as you would have others do unto you and payback from one's actions, you know that kind of thinking, BUT, if i could help kill a few hundred CEOs or Presidents or leaders of wars/companies, i would surely trade my life. that kind of karma is immensely satisfying and worth any and all paybacks i could ever imagine.

    since Men value themselves by the jobs they do in our society, less the real men who know otherwise, this fallacy about self worth and jobs is a killer that reaches down to the core of American humanity and causes nothing but endless grief for our loved ones/families and societies.

    i still despise these fuckers who get over the poor and less "rich" in money. and don't get me started on the concepts of God and religion, which is part and parcel of these CEO's/partriarchy BS. Calvinism/Christianity comes to mind here. evil hate filled scams

    life is way too short to measure our selves by our jobs. maybe that's why we hate our jobs so much, we know better than to believe our real value is tied up to and through that which we do for a living. the whole Greed thing/Republicanism is finishing us off as a species and the Earth will gladly help remove us from being the "pest" we are, as George Carlin says in one of his rants.

  • My dad was stupid, as all dads are.. to their sons.. but he did give me two pieces of advice..

    "Never plead guilty. Make them prove it." which of course was delivered too late after I had already confessed.

    and "Who ever told you you were supposed to be happy? You live.. you work.. and then you die"

    which of course is even sadder than the first. and yet, he did have some happiness amidst the sadness. he just didn't expect any.

  • "Fulfillment is what you do OUTSIDE of your working hours. Work pays the bills. "

    "Outside" of working hours? Who has time "outside" of working hours? Lean in, ladies! Give 100% to all 5 universities you teach for, perma-adjuncts! Stay on campus forever, Googlers and Yahoos! Work 3 jobs so your income approaches what it should have been if minimum wage had kept up with inflation and productivity! Commute an hour+ each direction because the cost of housing close to your job is through the roof thanks to the new wave of real estate speculators!

    My last full-time job teaching assumed a 60-hour work week was normal for its faculty. IME it was more like 70-80 hours if I did the kind of job they wanted. I currently teach for four different programs and run a private practice. I can't remember the last weekend when I didn't work Saturday, Sunday, or both on top of getting home around 9pm Monday – Thursday.

    I'd damn well BETTER get some modicum of satisfaction because I'm doing damn little else besides working.

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