It seems as though most 20- and 30-somethings I’ve run into in past months–not to mention some of the philosophical counseling clients I’ve worked with–insist on banging their heads against the wall. In quiet despair, they follow self-defeating strategies, tracing out beautiful collision courses with walls they’d already saluted with foreheads and cheekbones. I’m thinking in particular of their pain-inflicting work life but also, and more generally, of the conceptual quagmire (to change metaphors) that most of us are now in. Never has the idea of work been more important in our overall conceptions of leading a good life, yet never has finding meaningful work seemed more elusive.
In such a case, the task of philosophy is to articulate the right question. I use “articulate” advisedly. Of the role of “articulators,” Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly have recently written, “[T]hey bring out a shared-background understanding of what matters, and therefore of what it makes sense to do” (All Things Shining 103). What is our shared cultural predicament that is in need of articulation? Let’s say it is defined by 3 conditions.
1. Indebtedness. According to the American Council of Education (as of 2003-04), college students, on average, owe around $14,000-17,000; newly minted Ph.D.’s around $45,000; professionals around $63,000-70,000. These numbers hardly tell the whole story some 7 years on, but at least they suggest two things: first, that Americans have begun to take the idea of debt as a given; and, second, that post-college adults are used to thinking in fairly narrow, unimaginative terms as a result, in no small part, of their sea of debt.
2. The End of the Career. The truth is that the concept of a career is losing its sense. For much of the 20th C., we grew accustomed to the secular notion that a career was a life script that we followed from beginning to end. Unfortunately, these life scripts are becoming increasingly unavailable to those of us coming of age in the 21st C. The social contract between the large organization and the new employee is dissolving.
3. The Rise of the Gig Economy. Published in January 2009, Tina Brown’s short piece, “The Gig Economy,” had a formative impact on my thinking. Already Brown was observing what has since become obvious to me since I moved to New York. This is that the business world is trending, in some instances at breakneck speed, toward offloading, outsourcing, and freelancing. A freelancer doesn’t work for a company; she gets paid to finish projects, often juggling multiple at a time for multiple companies. Contracts replace loyalties while coffee shops double as work spaces. Everything has begun to look rather like the fashion industry.
The upshot: We’re more indebted than ever before, we’ve been bred to think and speak in terms of careers even as these terms have ceased to track social reality, and we’ve come face-of-face with a gig economy that doesn’t look or feel all that appealing.
The question we need to ask ourselves, then, is how we’re going to hit upon a form of life that is at once financially secure and genuinely meaningful in a post-career epoch.
The question is apt, and yet the problem hasn’t gone away. I suspect most of you will regress, longing for a tied-down career. I see you regressers tweaking your resumes and jerry rigging your job letters in hopes of landing a job with a company you can “grow” and “mature with.” (“Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?” “Piss off!”) For most of you, this strategy will be self-defeating, but you’ll continue to try it out anyway.
The rest of you will vacillate between wanting a career and putting up with gig work. A career, you acknowledge, is unavailable, but going from gig to gig is intolerable. Yet the seesaw life cannot be genuinely fulfilling, either.
1. You could become a mystic. The mystic rejects the mundane, secular, and corporeal tout court. Indebtedness can only be indebtedness to the One-All. Work can only be work on emptying the self of its earthly desires.
I’m rather sympathetic to certain kinds of mysticism (e.g., I’m fascinated by Plotinus), but as a way of life that confronts the problems mentioned at the outset it falls far short of the mark. If we wish to live in the here and now, then we’ll have to abandon the mystical way of life. The puzzle has not been solved so much as it has been put aside.
2. You could become a craftsman. Read Richard Sennett’s book, The Craftsman; also, Matthew Crawford’s cogent defense of the trades, Shop Class as Soulcraft. Then think of the rise of the 21st C. artisanal class–the local bakers, the local farmers, jewelry makers, and so on–as a renaissance in post-alienated labor. If you can make it work (and that is indeed the question), then you’ll find that the craftsman’s life is a lovely way of being in the world. Jefferson certainly thought so, insisting that an independent class was indispensable for a thriving democracy.
3. Finally, you could become an entrepreneur–with a conscience. The entrepreneur with a conscience seeks to create a beautiful soul, marrying the kind of person she is with the way of life she’d like to lead. Consider Siobhan O’Connor’s ethos as a paradigmatic example of a viable model–viable inasmuch as it expresses a single way of life in manifold forms.
Hegel and Jesus
Hegel’s master thought was that we have to live out our life-problems before we can truly understand them and hope to overcome them. That is to say, I can listen to John speak about his career woes until I’m utterly exhausted; I can ask him whether a career still makes sense to him; he can acknowledge, in some way or another, that it doesn’t; and when he leaves, John is apt to spend his week career hunting. Life is tragic in the Hegelian sense to the extent that John will have to exhaust all strategies and sub-strategies with respect to “career consciousness” before he will be ready to take on board a new way of thinking. Or he may sink into despair. That too is a genuine possibility.
Once he is prepared, he can turn to the philosophical Jesus. Jesus’s fundamental insight was also a deeply practical one: forget about theoretical discourse and follow me; lead an exemplary life, not a life according to abstract law. Do not think about meditation: meditate. Do not speak about a beautiful life: live beautifully. Do not think in terms of law: act in terms of need. To follow Jesus, in this philosophical sense,* is to lead the life of a craftsman or that of an entrepreneur with a conscience.
After the Last Career
And when the last career had finally lain itself down, the people thought nothing more of it for they could not think to ask, “What do you do, and what do I do?” They could think only to ask, “And how do you live, and how shall I?” And so in the endtimes, which were also the betimes, life was returned to itself. And it was good.
*In my discussion of Jesus above, I’m neither making a theological claim nor implying a theological commitment. For my purposes, I could just as well have chosen Socrates or the Buddha. All three figures were important inasmuch as they re-oriented thinking toward living.