“I Do Not Dream of Labor”
I started writing a post for LinkedIn because I'm looking for a new job and need to be "engaged" on the platform to help my chances of landing something...but then it devolved into a rant that I have not proofread, but feel the need to share so maybe someone reads it and it was not a complete exercise in futility.
We’re seeing an increase in conversations around labor, capitalism and the ways in which American society might benefit from reimagining how workplaces approach employees and how employees approach work. I recently read Derek Thompson’s article in The Atlantic called “Your Career Is Just One-Eighth of Your Life” and it got my wheels turning even further on the subject.
Thompson starts the piece off by saying that “autobiography is not advice”, but I question the extent to which he realizes that his own advice is shaped by his very specific and privileged experience as a young white man who graduated from Northwestern and came from a college-educated, successful family. I think you can see the influence of this experience as he hits some of his numbered points in the article.
#1 – He says that the typical career is 80,000 hours long, thus making up “only” one-sixth of your existence. Reminder that the title of the article says one-eighth and I am confused on this point alone – but I don’t want to dwell on it too much because there’s a reason I’m in communications and not an accountant. What I will say is that I’d question if this estimation includes commuting hours or is reflective of many folks who have no choice but to work overtime, whether paid or unpaid, due to the way businesses are structured (the prevailing workplace ideology in the U.S. that you must “always be connected”).
An inability to transition to a work situation that offers better work-life balance due to common barriers to entry like higher education, access and cost of licensure, childcare needs etc. might also account for marginalized folks working above and beyond the 80,000 mark. Ultimately, he ends the section stating “Your career is not your life. Behave accordingly.” Easier said than done when losing your job can have devastating effects – like resulting in the inability to afford life-saving healthcare or feed your family – and many of us don’t have other kinds of safety nets to fall back on (e.g. a race and gender that gets you ahead of the job hunt game without you having to do a thing).
#2 In his next point, he talks about the idea of job hopping, noting that people who switch careers, especially early on, tend to have higher wages. He quotes an economist, Henry Sui, who says that’s because people have found better career matches. That statement in particular raised a flag for me. I think it's more so that their new employers just pay them better (an average of 30% for those who switched jobs over the pandemic), which would point to the fact that their current employers aren’t valuing their work or tenure with fair compensation given a market that’s seen inflation rise a whopping 492% since 2020. I agree job hopping is the way to go, and that often means making lateral moves. In the current economic climate, however, it’s not the way to go simply because you’ll learn new skills or find a role that better suits you (though that may very well happen), but more so to simply snag that pay bump. If your employer really values you, perhaps they should think about giving you a raise or promotion, paying you a fair market rate or, at the very least, giving you a counteroffer when you let them know your plans to jump ship. Otherwise, the grass and the money is literally greener.
#3 Thompson’s next directive is to take a job you actually want to do vs. one that just sounds good at a dinner party or written on your resume. Again, for those with the luxury of choosing more fulfilling work (myself included), this is sound advice, but it leaves behind a swath of average Americans. Yes, I’m talking about the majority of blue-collar workers, but I’m also talking about entry-level and middle-management cubicle gigs too. The simple reality is that the prioritization and pursuit of work that is more fulfilling – like non-profit support, creating art, playing music, writing creatively etc. – is most often going to cost you a decent salary, security, stability and a manageable work-life balance. (If such creative endeavors can even be called “work” is an existential question for a different day.)
Perhaps Thompson should have a chat with fellow Atlantic writer Erin A. Cech about her thoughts on how “Loving Your Job Is a Capitalist Trap.” She says that recommending career aspirants do what they love and deal with the practicalities later “ignores the structural obstacles to economic success that many face, and blames career aspirants if they cannot overcome those obstacles,” a point I less eloquently made above when talking about barriers to entry. That kind of advice assumes the availability of financial safety nets and social-networks that only upper-middle-class folks have access to.
In labor journalist Sarah Jaffe’s book, Work Won’t Love You Back, she also talks about how corporations created the discourse about loving your job as a way to pay workers less and give them fewer benefits. Basically, she says the whole capitalist regime depends on you believing that lie, and I’d rather not fool myself. Hence, why many folks like me are enticed by the idea of “quiet quitting”, which is a purposefully deceptive misnomer (capitalism infiltrates our discourse again!). It really just means having reasonable boundaries around your work life – predictable hours from 9-5 and not deriving a sense of self-worth or meaning from what is often just a means to an end in a capitalist society – you work to get paid. You can engage in the stuff that brings you joy and ignites your passion in your spare time, and this is made all the easier if you’re not working past 10 PM or stressing about getting promoted so you can feel like you’ve “made something of yourself.” Besides, when you’re passionate about something and pursue that kind of work for an organization, chances are your employer will exploit it. That’s why you hear about non-profit workers being burned out so often – we’ll do uncompensated work for the causes we love.
#4 I agree with Thompson that we should be honest with ourselves about what motivates and inspires us, though that can a difficult thing to unpack when you live in a world where everything is commodified, and money is king. Corporate America tries to sell you on the idea that you should do what you love so that you can be a teacher with a graduate degree making the same amount as a waiter and way less than anyone with an OnlyFans page, but you have the pride of doing what you love! Let the low wage work that only benefits the corporations rage on.
Furthermore, many of us don’t have the luxury of having career ambition as “a matter of taste.” You can have all the drive in the world, but you can’t singlehandedly fix broken systems and institutions that often blocks you from achieving those goals, or at least makes the journey decidedly more difficult for some of us over others. When people on the internet decry hustle culture, they’re not dogging on ambition – they’re saying you should be wary of exploitation – like low wages for less job security and longevity. It’s about advocating for fair working conditions and being able to live a comfortable life without dedicating so much time and energy to employers whose CEOs make billions and would just replace you with another cog when you die without a second thought.
#5 Honestly, I almost threw my laptop across the room when Thompson concludes with his fifth and final point – “The best kind of work is voluntary: It’s something you choose to do rather than accomplish under the imminent threat of poverty or getting fired.” I’m not sure where he lives, but in capitalist America, no labor is voluntary. That’s why we call it work. And with all the power that corporations have amassed, it’s hard to find work anywhere where you feel valued for your contributions, treated like a human and not a robot and can therefore free yourself of fears of getting fired. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard bosses and C-suite executives talking about how their lower-level employees should just be happy they’re employed and stop complaining. If that isn’t a low bar, I don’t know what is.
Until we reimagine the capitalist regime and redistribute wealth in an equitable way in this country, choosing more fulfilling work will always be a luxury. Folks are lucky if they’re able to make ends meet. Many can’t conceptualize pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones in the workplace because we’re just trying to stay afloat in a society that doesn’t prioritize healthcare for all or other basic human rights – like the ability to marry who you choose or decide what to do with your own body – for people who aren’t white Christian males. Saying “don’t be afraid to do hard things” in this climate ignores the very hard realities many folks are facing right now. I am not advocating for the elimination of joy from work – if you can find it, good for you – but it’s not so readily available for everyone. For many of us, working for pay can be tedious and soul crushing. Maximizing profit while minimizing time working for that profit seems the best way to preserve your health and sanity in the modern American machine unless you can organize, unionize, strike and take other “radical” steps to fight to change it.