[The following essay was published on whywork.org in 2003. This is the original, unrevised version. If I were to write it today, I’d lose the smug, sassy tone, for starters.]
The Cult of the Job
by D. JoAnne Swanson
I am job-free. Out of the rat race. Unemployed, as they say, but definitely by choice. My self-esteem is intact, thank you, I’m not “in transition”, and I have no intention of getting a job again.
That’s right – I’m on the leisure track permanently. I don’t have a cushy nine-to-five job with profit-sharing, “security”, stock options, health insurance, advancement opportunities, or free parking. I also don’t have to deal with office politics, attending motivation seminars, climbing the corporate ladder, employee evaluations, increasing productivity, the absurd “team player” mentality, brown-nosing, mandatory overtime, stressful commutes in rush-hour traffic, being trapped in a cubicle, or the threat of being pink-slipped. Oh, and let’s not forget – I don’t have the expense of a “professional” wardrobe, strong coffee to wake me up every morning, or “power lunches”.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
If you ask me what seems to have become the first question new acquaintances ask each other nowadays – namely, “What do you do for a living?” I’m likely to say that I’m job-free by choice or quip that I’m an “occupational tourist”, as a friend likes to say. Sometimes I’ll tell ‘em I’m a freelancer or self-employed, specializing in leisure. Most people, when they hear this, say something like “You mean you don’t have a regular job? Wow, that’s great – I’ll bet more people would do that if they thought they could swing it.”
I’m willing to bet that more of them could swing it if they’d just find within themselves the wherewithal to question a few of the assumptions that are often taken for granted in America, particularly by the middle class and those who aspire to wealth. So what assumptions am I talking about? Well, let’s start with the cult of jobs and work.
We need to re-evaluate the role of jobs in our lives. For far too many of us, getting a job amounts to securing a means of paying for our living expenses, and not much more. At best, this attitude leads to years of “paying one’s dues” in exchange for the dubious “security” of a (hopefully) steady paycheck and the promise of finally enjoying leisure when one retires. At worst, it leads to a way of life where we devote 40 or more hours of our precious time a week to doing something we don’t care about mainly for the sake of having a roof over our heads and food on the table. I know I’m not the only one who thinks this is ludicrous. It took me years of trying to fit myself into some kind of job title, of devoting myself to figuring out “what I wanted to be when I grew up”, before I realized that I don’t want a job, nor do I feel guilty about not wanting one.
It’s time for us to make a crucial distinction between “jobs” and “work”. Work – particularly the kind that is motivated by interest, social welfare, connection, curiosity, learning, beauty – can be satisfying, fulfilling, fun, and honorable. However, it’s exceedingly hard to see this when we are blinded by the compulsion to “get a job” or face the poorhouse, or when we’re terrified by the social and financial consequences of being job-free. In addition, we’ve internalized a puritan work ethic which holds that laziness is a sign of moral weakness. We sense deep in our guts that even if we were to arrange our financial affairs such that we could quit our jobs for good, it would mean we are lazy. We know we’d still face guilt, social disapproval, maybe even an identity crisis once we were unemployed – especially if we were to tell everyone we meet that we’re not “in transition”, not hunting for a new job, that in fact we are happy this way. I maintain that a complex web of unquestioned assumptions are what keep such fears in place, and that we need to delve into those places we fear to tread if we’re ever going to make lasting changes for the better.
A job, nowadays, is used as a shorthand term for whatever it is you do that occupies a large portion of your time and provides a paycheck. In a work-obsessed culture that elevates jobs and money-making capacity to crucial components of our identities, having a job and money often provides a sense of social acceptability that cannot be found any other way, or so we believe. But there are lots of (legal) ways of getting money besides jobs, and what’s more, we are increasingly becoming aware that we’ve paid a very high price for our myopic job-centered focus.
On a personal level, many of us find ourselves disillusioned, depressed and frustrated when, day after day, we force ourselves to get out of bed and put in another eight hours at our jobs, then come home exhausted – only to get up the next day and do it all over again. The future doesn’t hold out much hope for us when we consider that we’re expected to continue this way indefinitely. When do we get to enjoy life, we think as we watch the clock and count the days until the weekend?
On a societal level, we hear about corporate “downsizing” as well as environmental and human rights violations, rising rents in choice areas, the growing wage gap between executives and “worker bees”, the rising cost of a college education and the lack of “marketability” of liberal arts degrees, and many other factors which contribute to a widespread sense of disillusionment. This certainly isn’t the way we thought it would be, is it? It’s not what we were promised when we heard about the “American Dream” and were told that getting an education and a “good” job would be our ticket into the promised land.
This concept we have of jobs as the way we make a name for ourselves, “get ahead”, create an identity, and earn money is ripe for re-evaluation. It’s high time for us to take a hard look at the personal and environmental devastation such thinking has wrought, and to conceptualize and create alternatives to the cult of jobs and work in our lives.
Such alternatives could take many forms – self-employment, cooperative living arrangements, simplifying our lives, changes in economic policy, and so forth. Envisioning a new way of working is certainly not a new idea, but those of us who question the conventional wisdom about jobs are still considered heretics, radicals and pariahs in many circles.
Heretic or not, I’d like to see us re-define success as having more to do with people and their values, and less to do with profits or climbing the corporate ladder. I’d like to see a world where we are less relentlessly driven by the pursuit of job growth, impressive stock portfolios, the “bottom line” and material acquisition – and more motivated by active mindful learning, joyful work, and creating a web of relationships that will sustain us in our more meager times. I’m holding out for a new way of thinking, one in which we recognize that leisure is essential to our mental health rather than cause for guilt, and that we don’t have to spend our lives struggling, striving to make ends meet through working at a job.
I think we all know, at some level, that we weren’t meant to live this way, and that there are better, more fulfilling, and more socially responsible ways to work than by sacrificing ourselves on the altar of jobs and money. There are the stirrings of a new social movement underway as we speak – a diverse collection of people from all walks of life who are re-examining the way we’ve been indoctrinated into thinking our jobs are our ticket to respectability, freedom and the “American Dream”. They are re-defining success, learning how to appreciate what they have instead of endlessly questing for more growth, and discovering their passions without worrying about trying to fit them into the form of a job.
I’m happy to count myself among the proponents of that movement away from the cult of jobs and toward a new way of envisioning work – a way that gives us hope for the future. I invite you to join us.
(Copyright D. JoAnne Swanson, 2003. All rights reserved.)