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Net Worth vs. Self Worth: How Every Job is Eventually a Dead-End Job

What is a dead-end job? Most ‘careerists’ will equate it to a day job, insofar as it is a means to an end—a task provided and endured solely to make money in order to make a living and which is in no way related to one’s aspired career path or ideal occupation. (Occupation, in this sense, entails a long-term commitment or some collective purpose to which one must exhaustively dedicate the majority of one’s life. Otherwise, (and often more frequently), they will characterize a dead end job as one which offers limited or no upward mobility (e.g. the glass ceiling). This, of course, is perceived strictly in terms of capital: salary. The problem with the term dead-end job is the inherent societal construct that it entails: suggesting that your job/occupation/career ultimately defines you as an individual and determines your self-worth; therefore setting a standard by which we are to measure our happiness or fulfillment.

The obvious reason for this is that we live in a Capitalist society. What is not so obvious is the extent to which this economic system permeates nearly every facet of our lives. From as early as Kindergarten or even preschool, we are preconditioned to think along these terms. Remember career day? They do not ask you what you want to do when you grow up,  they ask you what you want to be: a fireman, a doctor, a lawyer, etc. I remember I said that I wanted to be either a lawyer or a detective because they got to wear suits to work; fair enough, given my five-year old logic at the time and the fact that I grew up watching reruns of Perry Mason and Columbo with my mother. On the other hand, I certainly don’t recall any of my classmates expressing a desire to one day become a risk management officer or a financial analyst. The point is they were trying to get us, as soon as possible, to be career-oriented in our thinking. As we grow older, this process grows more involved and complex. Take your daughter/son to work day eventually leads to appointments with the high school guidance counselor, which in turn leads you to college and the career center—and that’s where things start to get a bit more complicated.

I usually hate when people do this but for the sake of argument, let’s say that college life is divided into two groups of people: those who go for enlightenment and those who go for employment. Again, most people will tell you that if you were wise, you would have fallen into that second category; having followed some sleekly utilitarian and marketable discipline such as computer programming, law or accounting. Other than hearing people complain about being broke, the most popular grievance I came across in college days was “I can’t wait until I graduate so I can get a job, make some money and start living." Going into college, I knew that I wanted to be an English major, absorb the lush universe of the humanities and later synthesize all my acquired knowledge into my art. Granted, it wasn’t a very pragmatic worldview—actually not too far removed from the Columbo-logic of my formative years—but as I look back and contemplate the current state of today’s job market, I have no regrets.

There are a couple of things that they didn’t tell us back in Kindergarten on career day: At five, no one knows what they want to be when they grow up but that it takes time and experience and sometimes when you’re grown-up you still don’t know; What you study to be in university is seldom what you wind up doing for work; And in an increasingly unstable global-economy you wind up being several different things—working multiple careers throughout your life and none of them necessarily reflects or defines anything about you. In fact, these days you are lucky if you can find a job at all, regardless of your education or qualifications.

Several of my college friends went the pragmatic route. They are now certified lawyers, investment bankers, and accountants. I also have many friends who fell into that first category I mentioned. They are philosophers, writers, musicians and artists. Interestingly enough the rate of either unemployment or misemployment among them is just about the same.

I have one friend who was an investment banker and now he is a valet. He tells me he hates his new job as much as he hated his old one, although he does admit to missing the pay and benefits. I have a friend in London who is a gifted artist working as a receptionist and another here in New York who has successfully written and published several novels—he’s a bartender. I also have a friend in Atlanta who is making six figures a year as a corporate lawyer and a cousin who’s been working in pharmaceuticals for five years. My old roommate who studied business management used to complain endlessly about how much he loathed his part-time job at the university bookstore. I ran into him last month and he, with the same intensity, protested as to just how much he hated his middle management job. They have all expressed to me, in various ways and on various occasions how they hate their jobs and how they feel ‘trapped.’

What are we to deduce from all this? Is there some deep-seated and obscure condition inherent in our present society that inevitably leads to this brand of postmodern malaise? Is the average working middle-class American the contemporary incarnation of Marx’s alienated worker—infinitely dissatisfied with his life as he never fully experiences the fruits of his labor? Perhaps.

But more basic than all of that is the fact that our conditioned thinking has been misled. It is true that there are those rare few in the population who sincerely enjoy their work but the majority of us are not that lucky. From a very early age we are taught that our work is what defines us but when you must work and finding a job that reflects your personality and your ideals is not always as probable as simply finding a job that will put food on the table a disparity emerges and for most people, the inability to reconcile this contradiction causes a sense of dissatisfaction or lapse in self-actualization. This is compounded by the myth that money can lead to happiness. They always said that money can’t buy happiness but this is totally contradictory to the nature of the job market and the ‘education’ which supposedly prepares us for it, as money is the primary motivating factor for people who work jobs that they consciously or unconsciously despise. It is in this respect that almost any job can be a dead end job, whether it’s a part-time flipping burgers or a multimillion dollar chair on the board at a prestigious law firm.

Therefore, maybe what is needed to transcend this feeling of occupational claustrophobia is a reevaluation of priorities. When I lived in France, it was common for virtually all business to be closed on Sunday. People worked just enough to be comfortable so that they could live. The common explanation was that they did not want to be rich they just wanted to be happy. This is a mindset that in our culture would be instantly dismissed. Perhaps the current state of the economy will help lead people to reevaluate the state of things. I believe the cliché is “work to live not live to work.” I believe that fully--that is, of course unless you love what you do and in that case it is no longer a job but a true extension of who you are. We should all be so lucky.

Written by: Franklin Fisher

Last modification: Wed 19 May 2010

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