Take This Job and Find a Better Way

About 15 years ago, I was in Reno on a business trip with a colleague. While we were waiting to meet with a client, we ate lunch in a hotel restaurant and had a brief conversation about the nature and value of work.

As we ate, a thin woman who may have been in her late 50s wandered through the dining area and repeatedly announced “Keno” in a high-pitched voice. She was wearing a uniform of some sort that identified her has an employee of the establishment. She gave off a vibe of tedium, which seems understandable if all she did for eight hours a day was solicit wagers on the Keno games inside a windowless hotel casino. (In case you’ve never been to Nevada, pretty much all hotels are casinos.)

Photo: John Sanphillippo

My colleague and I watched her come and go. After a while, my colleague looked at me and said, “Is that the kind of job that makes someone grateful to be employed?”

“No,” I said with a sad chuckle. “She actually seems rather pathetic.”

Employed, but pathetic.

Up until recently, our current president was very proud of the number of people employed in the United States. Whether these statistics portray an accurate picture or not, there was a lot of verve in the economy before the coronavirus brought things to a screeching halt.

Since March, a lot of people have lost their jobs. Some of those job losses will be temporary, but many will likely be permanent. And it is worth asking whether those were jobs really worth having to start with. Perhaps there is something more than the job/no job binary.

There are many in this country who have a point of view that goes something like this:

  • any employment is better than no employment
  • having no job is “bad,” as in “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”
  • all jobs are of equal quality when viewed in the employment/no employment dichotomy
  • any job will be a step up the ladder of progress.

This is a very simplistic perspective that ignores many realities of human interaction. Among them are the fact that employers take illegal (and sometimes immoral) advantage of their employees all the time, day in and day out. One has only to look at the number of lawsuits that employees or former employees have filed against companies to get a sense of the magnitude of the situation.

This also ignores the plight of the working poor, who are employed and yet still unable to afford basic necessities such as decent housing, food, and health care, and have no guarantee that things will improve. Also, freelancers, contract workers, and those stuck in the so-called gig economy have little reason to feel that they’re being paid fair compensation for their efforts.

The job vs. no job view of employment paints a flat picture. It disregards the idea that employment–serving a valued role in society–can be key to one’s sense of self-worth. Once, all employment, with the possible exception of royalty, served a purpose. Today, there are far too many “bullshit jobs.” Perhaps we will actually be better off if many of these just go away, to be replaced by truer, more worthwhile vocations.

This may sound unsympathetic, but I would question how much people really enjoy selling shit on Ebay day in and day out, or taking money from drivers while sitting all day in toll booths, or calling out the next round of Keno betting in a forgettable lunch cafe in Reno. I think there is a better way, and I think we can take some time during this moment in our history allow ourselves to consider the possibilities.

There is a perhaps unsolvable tension between the economic need of having the means to fulfill one’s basic needs and the psychological need for fulfillment and understanding. We’ve created a society where the two are often mutually exclusive. Perhaps we could do better.

Gen X Has a New Hero

A few years ago, I wrote about how people from Generation X*–my generation–are essentially nonexistent in the public sphere. With few exceptions, we are almost invisible.

I used the example of Reid Hoffman, billionaire founder of LinkedIn, as an example that proves the point. Without Hoffman, who I went to summer camp with, there is nobody of my generation who has “made it.”

I now want to amend that statement and add to my list Eric Garcetti, the Gen X mayor of Los Angeles.

Garcetti began serving as mayor of L.A. around the time I wrote my post on Hoffman, and has shown in the past seven years to be very capable of being in charge of a large and diverse city.

Los Angeles currently has about 4 million people and serves as the keystone to a metropolitan region of about 19 million people. It is often said that the region has more Koreans than anywhere outside of Seoul, the most Mexicans outside of Mexico City, the most Iranians outside of Tehran. The economy of the Los Angeles region is larger than the economies of several nations, including Argentina, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, and Sweden.

I think that whatever Garcetti is doing, he’s doing it right. Like any large city, L.A. has its problems, including crime and homelessness. But no one person can solve all of a city’s, state’s, or country’s social problems, despite what some people want to believe. That takes everyone working together.

However, an effective leader provides the vision and the glue to keep a large and diverse city, state, or nation on track. Garcetti is clearly doing this, and I’m impressed.

*NOTE: I am using the Pew Research Center’s definition of Gen X, being people born 1965 to 1980.

When Purpose Came to Luke Skywalker

I remember seeing Star Wars six or seven times in the theaters from the point it was released in May 1977 into the following year.

It made a huge impression on me, probably in part because, being 10 years old, I was at an impressionable age. But lately I’ve been thinking maybe there’s more to it than that.

It is now well known that, when writing his screenplay, one of George Lucas’ many inspirations was the concept of the hero’s journey, as documented through the work of Joseph Campbell. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker goes from feeling useless and unknown to being the key to saving the galaxy. That’s quite a journey! But it is one that all boys aspire to in various small ways.

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(c) Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

Every boy wants to feel purposeful. Many boys play at being a hero, whether it is as a knight, a cowboy, a policeman, a fireman, or something else. The story of being a key player in the lives of others–that resonates.

At some point during their teens, boys are expected to find that place where they feel necessary. For some it is on a sports team, for others it is the military or other uniformed service. But for many, that purpose never arrives.

It’s been said that we all must seek our purpose. But for Luke Skywalker, it is important to point out that his purpose came to him. He was ready for it, of course, but had circumstances been different–if R2-D2 did not land on Tatooine, if Princess Leia had failed to load the Death Star plans into the droid, if the plot to steal the Death Star plans had been intercepted–Luke’s Uncle Owen would’ve been happy to hide Luke from the Jedi and continue to interfere with his desires until one or both of them was dead.

Purpose came to Luke, and Luke recognized it when it arrived.

I worry about my children. I fear that they may never find that purpose. It is not so much that they are not looking. Instead, it’s that the purpose may not be there at all.

In a world of seven billion people, it is just not possible for all of us to be key players. And still we crave the fulfillment that only the feeling of being necessary can provide.

The glaze is not as smooth as I once thought. The cracks are beginning to show, the pieces are beginning to fall around. As we commute to the office day after day and drink our coffee, we crave heroism.