In Praise of Work
This post will also be the last in my unemployment series started in July 2011.
Here is a list of other posts in the series:
1. Quick Introduction and Statement of Purpose – describes my goals for the series
2. Punctuated Equilibrium – a fictionalized but representative email exchange about cover letters
3. Dueling Conundrums: Existential, Institutional – on the spiritual state of the unemployed individual
4. Nickel and Dimed Ten Years Later – a powerful quote from Barbara Ehrenreich
5. Jobs and Other Wastes of Worldly Effort – questions the idea of jobs for jobs’ sake
7. On Lowering or Eliminating the Minimum Wage – explores the idea that the minimum wage and unemployment may be directly proportional
8. The Scooby-Doo Ending – models scenarios for the resolution of the economy
9. Found Conversation – Vietnam War veterans comment on #occupy
10. How Finding a Job is Like Losing Your Keys – a criticism of the idea of unemployment as trivial experience or right-of-passage
11. Who Occupies the Occupiers? – an in-depth criticism of #occupy
12. The Mission – asks the question, does work serve people or ideals?
13. What Gives – discusses the impact of poverty on lifestyle, including health, friendship, and family
14. A Network of Support – on “homeless hot spots”
15. I am Dependent on the Government… – argues that welfare should be thought of as public investment
16. McUnion – on the fast food unions taking shape in New York City
17. Wage Mastery – explores the idea of a maximum wage
18. Les Misérables – on the widespread abuse and lack of charity for the unfortunate economic realities faced by immigrants
19. Frum Many, One – a sharp critique of David Frum’s views on immigration and employment
I believe that policy and culture drive or exacerbate unemployment and inequality and that this can be conquered. In order to make progress on these issues, we must put behind us the notion that we live in a meritocracy, or even that we should live in a meritocracy. Nothing in the labor market will ever be fair, even if those with the most power believe they acquired that power solely through their own exceptional abilities. That is not to say we can’t and shouldn’t make the system more fair than it currently is.
Nevertheless, only when we realize that the stations in which people find themselves are not fairly distributed can we truly foster more compassion and understanding for the situation at the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. Eventually, we should tailor policy to ameliorate the detrimental effects of people responding to incentives, especially at the bottom, where such effects can be even more pronounced. In many cases this can be best accomplished by simply getting out of the way – i.e. allowing immigrants to find work and make lives for themselves and their families in our country, allowing labor to organize as management is organized, allowing protests to make their case to the public without unfairly questioning the motives or socioeconomic background of the protesters, seeing recessions as opportunities for institutional and economic molting.
In other situations, such as with especially vulnerable segments of the population – i.e. the unemployed, recent immigrants – it is important to see public and private assistance as an investment that can pay off. The minimal assistance that my family and I have received will almost certainly pay off for society, as I have now been accepted to multiple United States MD programs, will matriculate in the fall, and am deep in the process of applying for full scholarship plus stipend in exchange for extensive future public service as a physician.
For my final post in this series, I’d like to focus then on a somewhat related topic, one which is appropriate for our current symposium and one which will help transition to my next project here at Ordinary Times. The topic I would like to write about is work as service.
Three years ago, I set out to chronicle my journey through unemployment inflicted by run-of-the-mill human stupidity though compounded by extraordinary natural disaster. In November of 2012, after twenty months of inconsistent and not-enough part-time work, hand-waiving reparations from offending entities, government and church welfare, and earnest worldly effort wasted treading water among the nation’s unemployed, I was finally offered a full-time job via personal referral: in exchange for ensuring that large, multinational corporations were compliant with certain quasi-efficacious regulations, I would receive 2X,XXX dollars a year, full medical and dental insurance coverage for my family, and the relevant experience that would eventually allow me to fire the metaphorical proton torpedoes of my application into the womp-rat sized thermal exhaust port that is United States allopathic medical school admission.
2X,XXX dollars a year is not enough to support a family of six, so we had to be very creative and very lucky. To increase inputs, I took on or continued an additional three part-time jobs, working more than eighty or ninety hours in a typical week, while simultaneously continuing to take classes to satisfy medical school prerequisites. To decrease outputs we moved into a winter rental, reduced food costs by decreasing meat consumption, purchasing local vegetables directly from farmers, pickling, fermenting, canning, and making stocks, and we did not travel. Most of the time we lived a solid, comfortable middle class lifestyle. My two biggest failings have been being unable to pay the fees required for my foreign-born family members to realize their full legal rights in this country and being unable to afford to send my oldest daughter to preschool.
Now I am looking back on the denouement of this period of my life, spent working several low-paying jobs for which I was staggeringly overqualified just to get by. Yet I consider this period to have been my life’s most valuable. The reason is because I have come to see work itself as central to the human experience, and that work is central to human experience is something to be celebrated.
Those of you who have read me know that I started out writing for the Internet from Fukushima, Japan, where I lived for five years and where I met my wife. Her family has worked the land there as farmers for generations, and I have never tasted a peach as delicious as those grown in the vicinity of my wife’s family’s home.
My wife’s cousin, Kazuhisa, recently graduated from high school. He will not attend college, and the economy in northern Japan is still very much ravaged by the disaster there three years ago. Like many other young men in Fukushima, Kazuhisa has obtained work cleaning up radiation.
As you can imagine, this has been big news in my wife’s family. My father-in-law has questioned Kazuhisa’s new job, saying that, if it takes them three years to clean up all the radiation he’ll officially be a radiation sanitation expert and what kind of job prospects will he have then?
The competent man is an idea most cogently espoused by Robert Heinlein:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
In an age obsessed with personal entertainment, the perpetual happiness of the individual, and the hope that we might all someday be able to sit around doing nothing, work is a return to the goal of self-betterment – a form of exercise for the spirit, and it is through this self-betterment that one can most effectively serve the greater society.
From my full-time job assisting research I have gained: in-depth knowledge of research methods and regulatory structures; remarkable facility and patience with paperwork; knowledge of how to push the scientific boundaries yet ethically; in-depth knowledge of several important and interesting subject areas; knowledge of how different institutional sizes and structures translate into particular outcomes and the corresponding effective methods for working well within such structures.
From my part-time job teaching chemistry I have gained: five times the familiarity with concepts as my peers having gone through the courses only once; a wide network for friends and colleagues; experience working within one of the world’s premier institutions; skills at communicating difficult concepts to those with little to no background knowledge; understanding of my own strengths, weaknesses, and limitations.
From my part-time job working at a restaurant I have gained: skill at waiting, bartending, valeting, and organizing functions; in-depth knowledge of food and several different varieties of cuisine; knowledge of what it really means to be a good worker, to be valued for my efforts and not just for my knowledge; an appreciation for the bottom line; an appreciation for how immigrants must work twice as hard for half as much; an appreciation for the fact that whether or not a customer is satisfied may be out of my control; the ability to deal with people, whether they are happy, sad, angry, or just plain weird.
More than the riches that a job gives us, and outside of its direct contribution, it should ultimately be about acquiring skills for personal betterment, to be used in service of the greater society. The skills listed above will all allow me to more effectively contribute in whatever form I may, and they are skills that I will take with me throughout my entire life, that will help me stand out among my peers and perhaps someday to contribute importantly in a situation where no one else can.
I’m definitely playing the long game now that I am employed.
(Image Source: Wikimedia Commons: Teachings of Jesus 30 of 40: Parable of the Talents. Etching by Jan Luyken from the Bowyer Bible)