I have found myself, as I've eked on into adulthood, more and more fascinated by work. By the tasks and responsibilities people, billions of people, rise each morning (or night) to perform. How did they find this job? What does it mean to them? Is it what they envisioned doing? All the jobs I ever had before, in high school and college, were purposely temporary, means to an end, not "forever" jobs.
Retail associate at American Eagle was never supposed to shape into anything beyond school. Now I work part-time on nights and weekends at Gap, supplementing my full-time job, using what I learned about the industry during those years. And I don't have the same dread about it, either. I'm not at work, willing the hours to pass faster so I can get out of there. I have a purpose: helping people find clothes that fit their bodies, making a good sale so Gap stays in business. And I work contentedly. Even if, yes, perhaps I would rather be at home. But isn't that the definition of work?
And so my fascination grows.
This is the articulation of something I've been pondering a lot over the past year:
[quote cite="JShakespeare" url="http://jshakespeare.com/dont-worry-that-your-job-is-pointless/"]
I’ve certainly experienced my share of cognitive dissonance when it comes to determining the social value of my career. But, like most people in their twenties, I find it very hard not to derive a lot of my self-worth from that career. For any recent graduate taking their first steps onto the ladder, a job is the culmination of fifteen years of education and all of the hard work, money and striving that comes with them. It seems like the most important thing in the world because it’s what finally qualifies us as grown-ups. In career terms, being in your twenties is a time to be selfish, to take what you can and claw your way to the top. The consideration as to whether or not this career, this badge that we wear so proudly, is actually of any significance to the universe can wait until later. Right?
Wrong. Part of the reason people burn out and have mid-life crises is because they reach a point where they realise that they’ve given the best years of their life to a career that didn’t really mean anything. And because all their self-worth was built around their job title, when that becomes devalued then so does everything else.
I started watching The Walking Dead recently, an AMC show that follows the lives of several little groups of survivors of the zombie apocalypse, basically. It is always intriguing to imagine what falls away and what is left, in humanity, when normal life ceases to exist. A cataclysmic event occurs, and those who survive must examine what is left of their life and what matters now. In stories like this, it is usually just survival. There is a part where four men from vastly different lives before are now devising a plan to escape from a large building in Atlanta that is surrounded by the undead, who are sure to feast on their flesh unless they're quite careful. The American kid of Korean descent has come up with a great plan.
"What'd you do before all this?" another asks.
There. If the zombie apocalypse began tomorrow, your entire job life would stop, become defined by whatever job you had been performing, whether or not you ever considered it your forever job. I think quite often, things that start as temporary become your career, whether it was what you envisioned or not. Grocery store clerk, maybe a promotion to manager of a department or the whole store, if you're a good leader. But if you're not, there's not an ounce of shame in being good at your job as a grocery store clerk. Or a pizza delivery guy. But it doesn't mean that, as humans, we won't spend plenty of time pondering out work, because it does provide a huge sense of what the meaning of ours lives is. We spend so much time at our jobs. So we do hope that, at the end of the day, there is some meaning there.
The longer I was in school, too, the more meaning I expected my post-graduation job to have. Surely this much education, this much money spent, means doing something really valuable for society afterward. I think people need clothes, which means people must sell them. People need gas and food and so there must be truck drivers and grocery store clerks to provide it. People need gas station attendants and train drivers and miners. As much as we like to ignore it, we also need seamstresses in Asia who make our clothes. The more I live, the more fascinated I am with the regular, non-glamorous, blue-collar work that keeps us all alive and operating. There's so much meaning in that work.