After a stretch of not terribly awesome news over the weekend and continuing into this week, I was talking with a friend about my favorite topic – feeling stuck in a place I don't particularly like. She noted, and I immediately agreed, that this is hardly a unique problem. If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone complain that they felt shackled to or stuck in a job they don't like, I would have a very strange way of earning money. I'd also have about twenty extra dollars per year. If anything I have less to gripe about than most job-haters given that I don't actually dislike my job but rather its location. Still, it's not pleasant. Just in case you imagined having no life whatsoever outside of work as being pleasant.

My standard line is to tell frustrated friends that all paid employment is pretty awful, because if it was fun and fulfilling they wouldn't have to pay people to do it. This is an exaggeration, but only just (notice how the unpaid intern economy focuses on professions like journalism and activism rather than mundane but economically productive jobs). I doubt this is comforting, but it is hard to get useful advice on this topic since we are all basically in the same boat. The vast majority of us would love to wake up tomorrow morning and never have to work again; more accurately, we would love never to have to work a given job because we needed it.

Everyone tells a version of the same story: I hate this job but I need it. I'm stuck, I'm trapped, it's out of my hands. The reason we all say this is that it is true. Unless you happen to be that rare individual with some high-demand skill, most of us are in an unhappy marriage with our jobs. We live paycheck to paycheck and struggle under some debt burden – educational, medical, consumer, or whatever – that keeps us going back to a job that makes us feel like shit day after day. Getting a different job sounds good in theory but with hundreds of applicants for every job in most fields these days we realize (and are repeatedly told) that we're lucky to have one.

We are not, in any meaningful sense of the word, free. Yes, anyone is free to quit and become a hobo. But for those of us who like living indoors and having exotic luxuries like electricity and running water, the feeling of being Stuck is overwhelming. We all realize that the job we have is the best job we can get and the other options reside several rungs down on the ladder. The more I think about this dilemma – and I'd estimate I devote about 25% of my waking time to it on any given day – the more I realize why Americans, particularly the ones under the most economic pressure, talk so much about Freedom and put so much stock in their 2nd Amendment rights and their, uh, unique conception of religious freedom. People cling to those more symbolic types of freedom because they understand, even without admitting it to themselves, that they don't have any real freedom. Saying "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays" or stocking your home with a ludicrous arsenal of weapons gives life a nice, shiny veneer that looks like freedom. Those things probably feel like great moral victories to a person who spends his days working at a job he hates and for which he is barely paid enough to afford his shitty house and shitty car in whatever eyesore of a town he calls home.

I guess guns and public nativity scenes and refusing to buy health insurance are symbolic things that allow people to convince themselves they are free, or at least to avoid thinking about how little freedom they really have. We are encouraged, and in many cases encourage ourselves, to think of Freedom as intangible because most Americans have none that is tangible. Like Bill Hicks used to say, "You think you're free? OK. Try doing anything without money, then you'll see how free you are."

47 thoughts on “LIVE FREE AND DIE”

  • A good point, well made. I'd also add that one additional thing that keeps people from changing jobs or cities is the total lack of guarantees that the new gig will be any better than the current one. You think your boss is an asshole or your benefits are a joke or your office might be full of asbestos? Well, who's to say that your next gig won't be worse? At least at your current gig your (meager) paycheck arrives every two weeks and doesn't bounce and you can tune out your asshole boss most of the time and hey at least there ARE benefits, however meager. Not to mention the complete time-consuming pain in the ass it is to job hunt (especially if you are employed and trying to hide it from your current job) or the hassle it is to learn a whole new job's spoken and unspoken procedures and politics. No wonder most people consider themselves Stuck.

    Also, this all nicely shows how bullshit the traditional glibertarian/conservative response to every labor or workplace issue – "well, why don't you just go and work somewhere else!" – is. Boss steals your tips, forces you to work unpaid overtime, pays you 30% less than your male coworkers, or keeps grabbing your ass? Just go out and get a better job, silly! If stick and put up with that shit, well, that's all on you. Ah, victim-blaming – is there anything it can't do?

  • Daily I wonder what it would take to get a UBI for everyone, just to take the edge off the anxiety and wrest back some control from the hands of the oligarchy.

    And daily I contemplate the fact that servants, peasants, and serfs stay servants, peasants and serfs until some overwhelming disaster wipes the board and re-aligns the power structure for a few decades until new assholes climb to the top.

    Fuck, we can't even persuade people to vote.

    And I really do want a pony. Perhaps I will move to Iceland.

  • "If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone complain that they felt shackled to or stuck in a job they don't like, I would have a very strange way of earning money."

    That is gold, sir. Pure gold. Thanks for the chuckle, now back to reading the rest of the post…

  • c u n d gulag says:

    "Work" is a 4-letter word.

    And because we have to work, the FSM gave us sex, drugs, booze, R&R, TV, and drugs:
    To make the time we have off until we have to go back, bearable – and to keep our minds off of work.

  • Ed, the best advise I can give is to get an off-the-wall hobby. At various points I've gardened, brewed wine and beer, and made my own soaps, all for the sheer hell of it. A buddy of mine roasted his own coffee and built furniture for the same reason. Basically, any project that gets you looking forward to every day to check results/ progress and not just getting obliterated on the weekends.

    Next up is learning Spanish, I picked up a Rossetta Stone package on sale.

  • Is it just me, or does anyone else have to actively search for reasons not to put a bullet in your head after reading one of these posts?

  • My issue isn't my job, boss, co-workers. Love my job, boss is great, co-workers are either decent or completely avoidable. The location isn't some horribly decaying pit of a place, but it wouldn't be on one's top-fifty travel destinations and it's pretty. It's not the middle of no where but if you had access to a deep space telescope you could see it from here ;)

    It's possible to live off the grid, but you'd have to be prepared to go the full-pioneer. You won't be near civilisation, Alaska and the Northwest Territories come to mind. As you'd then be able to hunt your own food and farm some vegetables, etc. Not many are prepared for that level of self-suffiecency, especially those yahoos who go into Walmart with their peepee extenders slung across their backs posing with Oreos. Ain't no online games out there son and you sure wouldn't have the free time to play em. You may be able to set up a hydro for power, but how you'd get replacement parts?

    Isn't that the irony? You maybe free of debt, the rat race and gub'mint interferin' in your affairs. However, you still cannot live where you want to live and travel where you want when you want, and you still have to work, perhaps harder than ever before. Nice freedom you got there, how's it workin out for you?

  • I happened to read your last two posts in a sitting: live free and die, and rugged individualism. Sides of a coin. The 'shiny veneer' wears pretty thin, quickly, and the next person I deal with feels in some way as crappy as I do at the soul-crushing reality of life in a big city. Still, I appreciate it when someone sneaks in a little friendliness and smile and I try to do the same. Some appreciation of the irony of the set-up. I doubt our President has said anything better since his comment about people clinging to their guns and religion, and those doing so still hate him for pointing out that fact.
    Anytime someone mentions Bill Hicks………that's a good day for me. It's just a ride, he said, and we always have a choice.
    Not many, not great, but still, there's a choice.

  • Honest question: what is your own definition of freedom? 'Cause right now it sounds as if the only people you might classify as "free" are the so-called 1%, house pets, and spoiled children.

    I know a lot of people who feel that there is no freedom unless you have enough personal wealth to be able to tell anyone to go fuck himself ("drop dead money"). These people chafe at earning enough to meet their needs but which will never accrue to drop-dead amounts.

    (I always picture these folks winning the lottery and being miserable. Then they only get to bitch about being chained to their bodies. Ugh!, having to sleep every day, having to eat every day, aging…I mean, how can a man truly be free if he has to stoke his body like a furnace every day and evacuate his bowels regularly? Sleep is such a waste of time. I mean, think about it! A third of your life, out the window! It's not faaaiiirrr.)

    Your bitching is entertaining, and if it makes you feel better, everyone's happy. But if it doesn't, what then? You can adjust your definition of freedom, adjust your attitude about it, or both. Keep fighting against wealth disparity, keep educating the young ones — but don't fail yourself by not looking for an actual way to be happy when you get home at night. Money is not the variable in that equation.

  • Money is not the variable in that equation.

    Oh, yes it is. I used to live in a place that is remarkably similar to the place our host currently lives. I lived there for years and every day I woke up Stuck and every night I went to bed Stuck.

    Now I live in a place with culture! and entertainment! and people who smile! for no reason and it sort of still makes me nervous! The difference? Money. the money to get here, the money to stay here. I am enormously fortunate to have family that allowed my husband and I to stay with them while saving enough to get an apartment. I'm fortunate in that we don't have kids to support. I'm fortunate that the opportunity even came up.

    Money is the variable in pretty much every equation. The only people who say it isn't are fortunate in ways they refuse to acknowledge because it would destroy their lovely fantasy of bootstraps and The American Dream(tm).

  • @Sloterdijk. Not a bad idea, but masturbation is a distraction — not a solution. :-)

    Let me tell you a story. I have a friend who told me his work tale of woe over the weekend. He's in his mid-50s and has worked for the same company since he got out of college. A Fortune 500 company. He had set things up so he could retire at 60. He had a nice pension coming and while he wouldn't be rich, he would be OK. Last month, the company where he had spent his entire work life decided that they didn't need him any more and they're cutting him loose. No job and no pension. No health care — except COBRA for 18 months — and a spouse with pre-existing health issues..

    He has also reached that unhireable age. Add to that the fact that he has faithfully worked for the same company all his life. He got one interview through an old friend. Thy company told him they hired someone else because his resume wasn't "broad enough."

    This will be the third of my close friends pounding the pavement fruitlessly, until they finally come to the sad realization that they're never going to have a real "job" again.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    That would describe me, as well.

    On top of that, I'm growing more and more handicapped, and trying to get SS Disability Insurance.
    But then, so is every other over-50 unemployed person.

    And I can't even join the others at the bar, to cry and commiserate.
    No money…

    But, I DO drink at home!

    It's cheaper, and I don't have to worry about a DWAI or DWI.
    Or a bar-fight, either!

    Though I do look in the mirror sometimes, and act like a pugnacious and drunken dick.
    But so far, either I've stayed smart or sober enough not to punch that asshole in the mirror!

  • "I have a job I like that pays me well enough to keep a roof over my head, the bills paid. Problem is, I live in a boring town. Although it would be very difficult, I could move, but I sure don't feel free."

    "Man, I hear you," said a resident of North Korea, a woman in Saudi Arabia, a Foxconn employee in China, an undereducated black person raised in harrowing poverty, a guy trying not to get shot or get his head cut off in Iraq because of his religious beliefs, a guest of our prison industry serving time in a violent hell hole for a drug offense….

  • Wotan Nichols says:

    I recall my first 'real' job–summer after my freshman year in college, working at the Dr. Scholl's shoe factory on N. Wells in Chicago. Of course, for me it was just a temporary gig, but I was surrounded by these folks who had been there 38 years. One odd thing: the coffee machine put out its product in little paper cups with jaunty, pro-employment slogans printed on them, like: You've got to work to make it! I have never managed to shake the idea that the people who have really made it never had to work a day in their lives.

  • @Dookie: No, I just feel bad for Ed and others. I love my profession and mostly love my job (which is good since I am self employed). I am only sorry that the majority of others don't feel the way I do. And I hope that my kids will be able to enjoy their careers as much as I enjoy mine, even though I am afraid that they won't.

  • Captain Blicero says:

    @ Jason

    Last week, some asshole without insurance rear ended me. But I decided not to be upset about it or even file a claim because hey, there's Ebola in Africa.

    Don't be a sanctimonious twat.

  • Errol Morris once said, of Philip Glass and his music, that "Philip does existential dread better than anyone."

    I'd say that Ed gives him a good run for his money…

  • lack of vacation in America is a steaming pile of horseshit as well, as long as we're bitching. It's one thing to be chained to a job, and another thing entirely to be chained to it 50-odd weeks a year (minus Christmas, 4th of July, etc. We are nothing if not a civilized country).

    As much as my wife works her ass off to be disrespected by students and parents, I wish I had gone into teaching. The older I get, the more I think of all of the time not working she will have in the end vs. my life.

  • Capt. Blicero:
    I was not saying that we should never feel bad about our relatively minor problems. I'm materialistic and bitch about my 1st world problems as much as anyone, I'm not some enlightened monk. The issue was something much more specific. The idea of not feeling "free" because you don't have a mobile profession seems a bit out of whack, particularly when that profession was freely chosen, not forced by a family or bureaucracy. If I made a mistake, it was in not using more examples of people in our own country; one doesn't have to go to a totalitarian state to be trapped and deprived of some pretty basic rights. Living in a boring town sucks, I've been there. I have chronic depression despite living a life that 99% of the world's population would find luxurious. But I don't complain about my problems in so high-minded a manner as lacking freedom.

    The chipping away of the fourth and fifth amendments? The ever narrowing border between what we think of as a free state and a police state? Obscene property seizure, horrifying rates of imprisonment for people of color, children getting substandard public education because of their zip code, thus trapping them in a cycle of poverty? Those are all subjects worthy of discussing eroding freedom. Having to live in a shitty town because of your career choice (emphasis on choice, since that's normally an aspect of freedom)? It sucks. It's depressing and without a good social group, it can be downright despairing. But it doesn't have a goddamned thing to do with freedom.

  • I love columns like this. It highlights one of those ingredients that is so thoroughly baked into our working assumptions about society that many people have a hard time even recognizing the taste anymore. If you spend half of your waking hours doing what someone else tells you to do, then you are not free, you are ruled.

    And yeah Jason, it's not for nothing that our rights of expression aren't abrogated as thorougly as they are in other places, and that the nature of our labor can be more varied and less deadly, and all that. Good things! But like most people, I still just obey orders from my bosses all day long. Freedom, my ass.

  • Just outta curiosity, has anyone noticed the flip side of working – i.e., deliberately not trying to find a job? Or, the corollary, not working below your grade – refusing to do time as a barista when you have a law degree, for example?

    The loathing people have for their jobs is perhaps only exceeded by their loathing of people who refuse to tolerate tedious work. "If I can do it, so can you!" Self-righteousness is right in there with sugar, alcohol, weed…

    Not only have the 1% pilfered the loot from work done by the 99%, they've ensured that the worker bees feel virtuous about slavery, and resentful of those who won't knuckle under.

  • I think there used to be some inherent dignity in work. Most of us were employed doing things that were necessary and useful. We built shelters, we grew food, made furniture or built cars or healed the sick or put out fires. There was a sense that what we did actually mattered and that society was improved by virtue of us being alive and contributing to it.

    I’m not sure exactly when this started going away but most people that I know are employed sitting at a desk typing and moving a mouse with the bulk of their energies focused on how to replace a person doing one of these jobs that are actually necessary and productive with either a robot or cheaper foreign labor.

    Most of us can’t stand what we do for a living. We end up doing it because it was the best option we have available and our skillset pretty much limits us to work in the same field, at least until our employer decides we’re too old and resistant to continued lower wages and benefits and throws us out on our asses.

    America never ceases to amaze me with its blanket acceptance of what is, in essence, absolute freedom for employers to exploit their employees. By law, you have NO right to paid vacation, employer sponsored healthcare, retirement finding (beyond a minimal existence from Social Security) and absolutely NO right to job security.

    Your only right is to live a life full of anxiety and fear of when the precarious existence you have managed to eke out is made redundant by a nameless, faceless sociopath with a spreadsheet and a copy of the latest business Best Seller that outlines how to make a few more dollars by crushing the lives of those that already made you rich.

    Whenever you find a way to free yourself from these predators in the C-Suite, I highly advise doing so. It’s a soul crushing existence when you are forced to kiss the ass of your abuser with your only hope is to be allowed to continue to do so for a few more months or years.

  • @Mo, funny you should mention that. Haven't done a lick of work in more than a decade; though I'm able-bodied, as they say, I'll never work again (if can help it – you can never rule out ruin.)

    Work meant hating and escaping a series of (admittedly remunerative) shit jobs. What followed was seven years of sense-making, followed by even more years of getting unmiseducated, and then properly educating myself – a slow reversal of the deformation of what's called a career, a process that returned me ethically and intellectually to about age 12.

    The result was, I now hate the shitty essence of it all, the fucked-up state that has infected this society, with unprecedented white-hot hate. My immediate whereabouts are unremittingly idyllic, but the bigger picture is mounting outrage. And the big picture dominates as the petty imperatives recede. All I want now is to fuck up and destroy this state.

    I suppose that is why they want us working.

  • Charles Pierce's "Evening Jemmy" seems peculiarly appropriate:

    All dependent countries are to the superior state, not in the relation of children and parent, according to the common phrase, but in that of slave and master, and have a like influence on character. By rendering the labour of the one, the property of the other, they cherish pride, luxury, and vanity on one side; on the other, vice and servility, or hatred and revolt.

    — James Madison, National Gazette, December 12, 1791

    Swap "employees" "corporations" "99%" and "1%" into the appropriate spots.

  • notice how the unpaid intern economy focuses on professions like journalism and activism rather than mundane but economically productive jobs

    No, notice how the kvetching about the unpaid intern economy focuses around professions like journalism and activism.

  • Jason Says:

    "Capt. Blicero:
    I was not saying that we should never feel bad about our relatively minor problems. "

    Yes, you were. Otherwise your comment made no sense.

  • I am now a retiree–one of those golden boomers that Ed loves to hate.

    It was not easy to get here. I ate miles of crap and endured my job (s) until I hit the finish line. Even at that I was "downsized" early and endured a minor pension screwing. The economic world, like the universe, is indifferent to all.

    Here is my report from the other side–when time and assholes have no claim on you, life is pleasant and enjoyable. I feel sorry for those whose job is their life–they will discover that, in the end, they have none. Jobs are to be endured–life expectancies are up and and you'll be facing the end of your working life long before you meet the undertaker.

    Your real life can begin then.

  • @Nunya
    "America never ceases to amaze me with its blanket acceptance of what is, in essence, absolute freedom for employers to exploit their employees. By law, you have NO right to paid vacation, employer sponsored healthcare, retirement finding (beyond a minimal existence from Social Security) and absolutely NO right to job security."

    And need I to add that ALL "employers" (or people-users) in other parts of the world, educated by reading the Wall St. Journal or by doing a MBA in any American Varsity, are trying to impose exactly those features of the American Capitalism on the rest of the countries just in the name of "Freedom"?

    But then, we need to reexamine the concept of "Freedom" to avoid the cartoonesque understanding of it as a childish do-whatever-I-wantism. Ed, what about doing a little reading of Stoic Philosophy? After all, Epictetus was a slave, and at the same time the freest man of us all.

  • I could change jobs probably pretty easily, but it would just be same circus, just different clowns. As FMguru pointed out.

    Dick Nixon, what's a pension?

  • Mothra

    A pension was a mid-twentieth century social contract between employers and employees. It was supplanted by FREEDOM! in the Reagan-Bush years.

  • @Veg:
    "And need I to add that ALL "employers" (or people-users) in other parts of the world, educated by reading the Wall St. Journal or by doing a MBA in any American Varsity, are trying to impose exactly those features of the American Capitalism on the rest of the countries just in the name of "Freedom"?"

    In Australia, Keating made some of those noises, people then brought in Shrub's Bonsai and the "Work Choices" because "we're an aspirational society". And suddenly wages are stagnant, and your boss can do what they want. Then we let Bunny and Shonkey at the reins and now they're trying to achieve the same level of devastation in 3 what took Ronny and Maggie 30 in the US and UK. Granted Labor's 457 Visa policy was part of this type of BS. People were stunned! STUNNED! I tell you! When they started seeing what their real policies were.

  • @ Xy
    A former president in my country used to sya: "If I've told you what I was really going to do, then you wouldn't have voted me". And yet, he was at the helm for 10 years… "Never underestimate the power of denial" (American Beauty)

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  • schmitt trigger says:

    Lyrics from Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee", which impacted me when I first heard it close to 45 years ago:

    …Freedom's just another word, for, nothin’ left to lose.
    Nothin', don't mean nothin' honey if it ain't free…

  • Dick Nixon, I'm in a similar lifeboat to yours. I went to work at the VA right out of college, and clung like a limpet to that iron ricebowl. I was all set to keep on until year 33, when illness knocked me onto SSDI. Despite having had the same job for twenty four years, I never identified myself as what I did for a living. My dad taught me that. Now I take care of the house for my husband and watch my kids grow up.

    Real life is what happens when you're not at work.

  • I was lucky to join the financial sector out I worked in IT and admin so I never made millions, but this sector gobbled up something like 40% of all profits made in the last 30 years so I as well paid for my efforts. I worked for german banks and the whole experience was much much nicer.than american firms. We talked about family and support and really meant it.

    When times were slow we never fired anyone and when they we good we all worked our butts off. I think everyone was on salary not wages.

    So anyway, 15, 7 and 10 years working at firms has given me two small pensions, a paid off house, no debt and a pile of cash in the 401k. Last place was closed by the EU regulators so I am left on severance for a while… and will most likely go back as a consultant next year.

    So many projects! Doing some volunteer work as an accountant/treasurer and the fish don't catch themselves.. the sunfish needs repairs and my bike has not been ridden in years. Lose some weight and get relaxed for a change. Feels.great!

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