Work is a heartbreaking story, and a confusing one, too. Or at least the most familiar prescription of work in the U.S.
I grew up in Silicon Valley, too young to understand the dot-com bust but old enough to see the sinking morale. Researcher Gina Neff (@ginasue) says, “Economic downturns, company layoffs, booms and busts—these are collective phenomena, but people attribute managing these risks to individual.” When my stepfather was ready to retire, he’d chuckle about the raw deal the next generation of workers were getting. This was when employees still expected companies to take care of them somehow. He retired with a pension, but he’d joke, what is this 401k business? I’m a few generations of work later, and I don’t even know many young people who have a 401k.
After returning from Peace Corps, I was lost and confused and all the other classic ingredients of readjustment. I did the only thing I could think of: move to Portland, Ore. Over two years I watched as my friends and I struggled to find jobs. I spied Ph.D.s stocking grocery shelves. I met friends—pillars in the cycling community—waiting patiently for five years to enter their professional field. And I watched as coworkers suffered through a toxic work environment because if you lose a job in Portland, you’re back to square one. I knew many people, including myself, on some sort of government aid: food stamps, Medicaid, affordable housing… You know the buzz around freeganism? Sometimes it’s not a lifestyle choice; it’s a necessity that you call “lifestyle” as a point of pride. I learned from Portland that without job security, people face a choice between quality of life and quality of career.
I left for Grand Rapids, Mich. and stayed for two and a half years. Right when I moved, Oregon and Michigan were in a tussle for the national title of #1 highest unemployment. Some of my GR friends had job security, but the color of their struggles was different from Portland. These friends didn’t find their work meaningful, even if they were well-respected by the community. Other young people who couldn’t find jobs just hustled; they gave away their talents for free to build a reputation that might soon spell income. GR is a very intergenerational city, and on the other side, people with decades of experience (what those on the conference circuit would call “subject matter experts”) were suddenly “too old” to hire.
There are undoubtedly those who find their work meaningful, but the lesson was clearest with my nonprofit friends: While you can survive eight weeks with only water, you won’t survive as long only on passion. It’s easy to exploit energetic do-gooders, but with nonprofit funding so tight, can they be compensated enough? I’ve always been enamored with Sherlock Holmes’ quip that our minds are like attics—stuffed too much and you can’t find what you’re looking for. On the flip side, if we have limited capacity and 40% of it is spent worrying about making ends meet, imagine how much that subtracts from all the good a person could do. I learned there was name for this: burn out.
I used the word “heartbreaking.” It’s a strong word. But I can’t find a better word for what I saw, which is to say that achieving the dream—a full time job—is not a guarantee, or even a universal first step, to happiness. Aside from common research (1, 2) that job growth hasn’t kept up with population growth, this exalted narrative stripped people of their agency. So that’s what I’m interested in: How do narratives of work move into the mainstream, how do they become legitimized in society and are there any narratives that are leading to more economic self-agency?
“When a society’s organizations thrust a large number of its citizens into a condition of permanent survival-oriented tension, it would be remarkable indeed if the effects were benign.” – Gina Neff
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