16.8 Million Americans File For Unemployment: The Fragility of Gainful Employment & The Lie We Call Meaningful Work

There are three things we should notice, right here and now, about our post-World War II model of “full employment.” (I criticized this model already in 2018.)

  1. Meaningful work is an illusion. Work cannot answer the question, “What is meaning? What a meaningful life?” Therefore, this illusion should be seen through right now and dropped. Dropped immediately. Just forget about it.
  2. Our model of full employment is fragile. Are not witnessing this awful system right now? 16 million Americans have filed for unemployment only weeks after social distancing and home quarantine began. So many people having jobs in service, hospitality, and retail industries are living paycheck to paycheck that how can we not question the model itself?
  3. Our model of gainful employment has become hegemonic and thus ubiquitous at our peril. How could we ever be so foolish as to believe that most, if not, all people could mold themselves, discipline themselves with a view of becoming jobbers?

The great ideological lie, of course, is that we can justify a fragile (Nassim Taleb) and ubiquitous system by appealing to Careers, to Callings, and to Meaningful Work. How wrong is this! Can’t we see that now? Can’t we see how much people are suffering this ideological lie? (For more on this lie, see here.)

But now we see, don’t we?, that what people, once the scales have been removed from their eyes, really care about, apropos work, is having a decent, reliable livelihood. What they, what we care about, apropos work, is first of all being able to support our lives as well as those of dependents.

This is so obvious!

Let’s be open, then, to a plurality of models with respect to decent livelihoods for all.

  • What can we learn from digital nomads, solopreneurs, and freelancers who have been successful in their endeavors?
  • Are there models of passive income that are worth exploring today?
  • What about communities experimenting with, say, a Local Exchange Trading System?
  • What can we learn from viable eco-villages and vibrant intentional communities? Or isn’t it now time to begin thinking seriously with friends (hopefully those with a rigorous spiritual practice and with a wide array of skills) about starting an intentional community?
  • Are there good “forged family” models of the kind discussed by David Brooks in a recent Atlantic article?
  • Can a gift economy, of the kind I’ve been living in since 2011, be replicable elsewhere?

Now is not the time to lie on our backs and simply hope that things will “get back to normal” so that people can have “good jobs again.” That’s crap. Now is the time to start thinking seriously about alternative models for livelihoods so that more and more people can live without being anxious about insecurity. We owe each other this.

Three Books With Andrew Taggart

Davood Gozli and I discuss three books that have been near and dear to my heart: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Pierre Hadot’s The Present Alone Is Our Happiness, and Lao Tse’s The Tao Te Ching. All three books have been formative at the just the right moments in my life. Austen’s books taught me the importance of moral and intellectual education in the deepest sense of that term. Hadot showed me that philosophy was, rightly understood, a loving pursuit of living wisely. And Lao Tse (or Laozi) showed me that sacred texts slowly sink into us: if we allow them to, they shall slowly transform our sensibilities, our way of being in the world.

This is as much a conversation about transformation (the substance, as it were, of the conversation) as it is one about presence (the vibrancy of what’s occurring in the conversation itself, right and now).

And if that isn’t enough to get you to listen, then, well, Davood is kind enough to call me a “real philosopher.” Now you have to be curious!

Our Kairotic Zeitgeist: An Opening For Contemplation

There are now approximately 5 billion people ordered or strongly urged to stay at home. At this very moment, we could be experiencing an extraordinary collective existential opening.

It must be clear to you that, at least in the United States, our healthcare system is fragile; that our food system (given intricate supply chains and green revolution innovations) are fragile; that our system of employment is fragile; and our nuclear families, as David Brooks recently pointed out, are likewise fragile. Welcome to our meta-crisis.

Now, the Greek term kairos refers to a kind of time that is “opportune” or “timely” or “propitious.” To be sure, we must act swiftly as well as wisely.

Yet, just now as 5 billion people are sheltering in place, might the kairotic zeitgeist be urging us, almost pleading with us to re-embrace contemplation? When we contemplate, we ask introspective questions that had been, perhaps for centuries, long forgotten. We also, right now, realize how many things we had taken for granted.

Since I’ve been writing, at least for three years now, about work, let me turn to that subject here. Consider closely what Bertrand Russell once said, “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” You can now see, if you’re being honest with yourself, that we’ve embraced a culture that presumed that work was “terribly important.” It was not and it has never been. 

Once you’v started to–what a strange idiom this–‘work from home’ and also once you realize that the work you do is not terribly important, you can ask, “Well, then, what sorts of things are actually terribly important?” Don’t stop the inquiry at family or romantic love. Don’t go for sloppy thinking. Go much, much further.