Just a Paycheck

A comeback that is 25 years in the making can hardly be considered “snappy” but here it goes.

The first three years after I graduated from college, I spent in food service. And one day, on a day off, I was at a function with my now wife and some of her co-workers. I was sharing a conversation I’d recently had with one of the cooks at the restaurant I was working for at the time. I’d asked if he cooked much at home and he told me that most days he just makes a sandwich and has a beer.

One of my wife’s co-workers, who had some experience in running a restaurant, said something along the lines of “Well, he most not be a real cook, because the real cooks I’ve worked with continue to create in their kitchen at home.”

At the time, I didn’t know what to say. She was older, presumably more experienced, and I was not one to argue.

But in the intervening years, I have learned that, for many people, a job is…

Just.

A.

Paycheck.

It would be wonderful if we all could be gainfully employed in an occupation that we find ourselves uniquely suited for, that gives us companionship with colleagues and the satisfaction every day of a job well done.

But not every job is the perfect job, and not everyone has the privilege in their life of finding something that even resembles perfect. The laws of supply and demand remove many of our choices to somewhere beyond our grasp.

In the meantime, the bills have to be paid and there are mouths to feed. There is trash to be collected and sewers that need to be unclogged. There is vomit that needs to be cleaned up, roadkill that needs to be moved out of the road, asses that need wiping.

As I’ve said before, there are some people of a certain political point of view who say that everyone should be grateful simply to be employed. And I will allow that being employed has merits in an of itself. But the gratefulness is a stretch when the best you can say about your job is that it is just a paycheck.

So yes, there are certainly some “real cooks” out there who are passionate about preparing food. And then there are others (probably many others) for whom the work at the stove and the plating of the food is just a means to an end. When they clock out, they’d rather not think about it until the next shift.

And it would be best not to confuse one for the other.

There’s a fine line between “work[ing] like a soul inspired until the battle of the day is won” and “hanging on in quiet desperation.” Most of us take comfort believing that there are working heroes, who pour their soul into their occupation day in and day out (lots of TV shows about that). But if you peel back the curtain a bit, the reality is far more bland and nuanced, and we should neither think better of ourselves for it nor judge others (or ourselves) more harshly.

There. A not-so-snappy comeback.

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.