On career respectability as a cover for shame

Perhaps the strongest reason why people speak so often, at such great length, and with such perturbations and agita about the desire to have a career is that they wish to appear respectable in the eyes of others. It is not as if they wanted their lives to be flourishing; it is rather the case that they want not to be ashamed, to lead a shameful life.

Respectability, let’s say, is the antithesis of shame for, by achieving higher social status, he cannot be charged with having something to be ashamed of. People look up at him out of something like awe and fear; they do not look down on him, now vulnerable and exposed, now denuded. It is not true that a career makes the lawyer, the doctor, or the CEO into a noble human being–surely not–because having a good career bears no relationship to being a morally upright person, and vice versa. What is true is that having a good career immunizes one from the possibility of feeling the downcast eyes of others, sheltering one from the fear of losing social standing, stilling questions about life’s meaning and one’s place in it all.

To have a career is to ‘count’ for something; to not have a career is to go uncounted.

Does it have to be this way? Why can’t one be a virtuous human being, perform good works, and spend one’s life meaningfully without ever thinking of having (or losing or switching) a career? Perhaps chasing a career or following a career path–which, let’s now conjecture, may be no more than a perpetuation of the status quo, an affirmation of the relations of power existing in market society–is making this well-nigh impossible.

A good social world would respect good human beings for being morally good beings. It would not esteem those who covet petty things, glorify minor accomplishments, and list prestigious affiliations.