AMERICAN WASTE

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.

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75 Responses to “AMERICAN WASTE”

  1. 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.

  2. Anonymouse Says:

    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.

  3. Karl Says:

    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.

  4. Anonymouse Says:

    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.

  5. Redleg Says:

    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.

  6. mothra Says:

    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.

  7. Purple Says:

    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."

  8. caroljane Says:

    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.

  9. VCB Says:

    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.

  10. DB Says:

    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.

  11. DB Says:

    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.

  12. eau Says:

    I find my job fulfilling.

    Hell, I find *both* my jobs fulfilling.

  13. Devo_n Says:

    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?

  14. Jane Says:

    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.

  15. JoyfulA Says:

    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.

  16. hwooda Says:

    My fave of your posts eva. Bitch, you ain't being whiney, you are being matter-of-fact. Preach.

  17. cyntax Says:

    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.

  18. don Says:

    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.

  19. zombie rotten mcdonald Says:

    Mike Rowe said something along these lines:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRVdiHu1VCc

    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.

  20. zombie rotten mcdonald Says:

    No where else do I have the freedom to control how I do my job like I do as a teacher.

    The right wing and the creationists are working to eliminate that.

  21. Hank Says:

    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.

  22. Bernard Says:

    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.

  23. Kevin NYC Says:

    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.

  24. Elusis Says:

    "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.