Busy Being Busy

A few weeks ago, a roommate of mine posed a peculiar question. I was describing the common path of a great many new graduates from US universities - that is, to take one or two months off, then begin a very serious, very full-time job in a major city - when she began to look confused.

“That’s so crazy. You guys are all, like, 22, yeah? Do you even know if you want a career yet?”.

I had no good answer and was admittedly puzzled by the notion. In truth, I’d never been asked this type of question, nor had I really thought much about ‘when’ I wanted to start a career. The normal answers to these often-absent questions have been, respectively, ‘yes’ and ‘immediately’. I, of course, approach this question from a distinctly American perspective. But what is it that we, on a base level, are searching for in work in an age where fewer and fewer jobs are becoming necessary? Earning potential notwithstanding, is it contentment, status, or perhaps just a seat at the table in public life?

This thirst for work is often somewhat ill-defined. In a recent piece titled Revitalizing Public Discourse: Populism, Trump, and the future of democracy, the political philosopher Michael J. Sandel argues that there are four main themes that progressive movements must pragmatically come to grips with: income inequality, meritocratic hubris, the dignity of work, and patriotism. He does well to make a case for the importance of understanding each; on ‘the dignity of work’, however, there remain a great many questions. Sandel writes,

“The loss of jobs to technology and outsourcing has coincided with a sense that society accords less respect to the kind of work the working class does. As economic activity has shifted from making things to managing money, as society has lavished outsized rewards on hedge fund managers and Wall Street bankers, the esteem accorded work in the traditional sense has become fragile and uncertain… To think it through, political parties will have to grapple with the meaning of work and its place in a good life”

He’s right. But Sandel’s guidance, especially as it relates to ‘work in the traditional sense’, seems to operate on an assumption that, until very recently, there was some clear consensus on what work was and should be. It may be easier to think first about the consequences of work; for many, the most satisfying (outside, of course, earning money) is belonging to a working class. But this distinction, too, falls short in providing a more detailed description of what work should be doing for us. As it stands, there isn’t really an agreed upon definition of ‘middle class’, and, further, some 90% of Americans identify as such. Moving backward, then, what is to be said about the work itself?

This is probably a still-harder-to-measure metric that leads me to believe work will become a smaller portion of Americans’ lives moving forward. Last year, the New Yorker’s Nathan Heller looked at some of the literature behind modern job satisfaction. He borrows from the anthropologist David Graeber to define a phenomenon known as ‘the bullshit job’. This is, “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence”. A lot people appear feel this way about their jobs, even when very well compensated (Graeber ran a poll which found that nearly 40% of workers in Great Britain didn’t think their jobs made a meaningful contribution to the world). There’s nothing wrong with these types of jobs, but they make clear the incongruence in the collective narrative on work in America, specifically. Most people’s work is not their passion, and it’s not helpful to pretend that it is.

So, returning to Sandel, maybe considerations of the future of work’s place in a good life should begin by considering these other things that make life good. Accepting that most measurements of the output of work are increasingly irrelevant will make way for a higher societal value placed upon non-work that makes people happy. Preserving those in the face of a changing economy is a more interesting question.

I’ll have get back to my roommate on that question some other time. But right now I don’t have a job, so I’m going to sign back into Linkedin.