Career and the heart of modernity

Let us first realize how unprecedented our situation is.  The great Emile Durkheim identified the key new feature of modern society as its being built around “organic solidarity” as opposed to “mechanical solidarity”.  In premodern societies, each household performs similar economic functions and does so largely indepedently each other.  Thus, it makes sense to have a single standard and set of expectations for everyone (or, rather, one for men and another for women), because, except for small ruling and clerical classes, everybody does pretty much the same things.  In modern societies, we’ve replaced this with a system where everybody’s pooled into one tightly connected economic system, and we’ve pursued specialization and a division of labor so that people do very different things.  Each person has a single, tiny focus, and relies on everybody else to supply his other needs.  This destroys the “mechanical” solidarity of one standard for everybody, but it creates a new “organic” solidarity around our much tighter interconnection.  In the short run, modernity creates alienation:  specialization and individualism erode our sense of community.  But Durkheim was convinced that the cure was to go all out for modernity, and it will cure its own problems.  Once inheritance is gotten rid of (based as it was on the idea of household independence and thus no longer making sense) and wealth is based on merit, our economic system will no longer seem unfair.  Our sense of alienation will be cured by the specialization that caused it:  new profession-specific societies will provide us with the sense of belonging we have lost.  Individualism itself will serve as a common creed to replace all the other social creeds it destroyed.  (My understanding of Durkheim is based on these selections.)

Modernity’s true ideology, one shared by nearly everyone, is the “career”.  Every adult should have a career, and this career should be the main organizing principle in his life.  A career presumes organic solidarity:  a man’s career is supposed to take him away from home and family and set him to work producing something to be consumed by society at large, rather than by his own kin.  This, however, isn’t enough to make work a career; this just makes it a “job”.  A career is also supposed to be the prime outlet for a man’s creativity, intelligence, and initiative.  His bonds with his coworkers (with whom he spends more waking hours than he does with his spouse) provide him a sense of belonging and common purpose.  Career is the ultimate fulfillment of Durkheim’s vision.

Career has largely devoured older forms of belonging–home, tribe, religion–just as Durkheim hoped it would.  There are certainly economic factors in this:  the extreme division of labor certainly brings certain efficiencies with it.  It could well be–I will not speculate on it here–that a sufficiently dense population is stuck with organic solidarity.  What interests me, though, is the ideology, the fact that we have decided to regard this as a liberation rather than a curse.  What’s more, we have outpaced economic forces, deliberately attacking other ways of organizing one’s life.

The romantic conception of work–that it uniquely manifests the “species-life” of man as an intelligent, creative individual–arguably goes back to Locke’s defense of private property.  It is given full expression in Marx’s early writings (especially the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844).  Of course, for Marx, this vision was an indictment of the modern system, because it was obvious to him that the wage-employed hyper-specialized laborer of his day was not engaging in expressively creative work.  Similar criticisms came later from the Agrarians/Distributists.  For both Marxists and Distributists, employment and the division of labor are inherently alienating and must be abolished.

The ideology of the modern age, which we may call “careerism”, has done a remarkable thing in accepting the Marxist/Distributist romanticized vision of work as the outlet for creativity and saying that the current system instantiates this ideal, at least for those with true careers.  Adherents of feminism, an aspect of careerism, would no doubt take offense at the idea that they are proponents of the capitalist system, but this is hardly credible, given that they preach that no woman can be fulfilled without being part of it.  Most people, of course, wouldn’t call themselves anything as radical (i.e. anything as explicit) as feminists, but they accept the careerist creed.  No one thinks it controversial to tell children to start dreaming about the careers that could “empower”/”fullfil”them and let them “change the world”.  When we tell these kids to study hard and get good careers so they can “make something of themselves”, it doesn’t strike us as insulting to those without careers–who are therefore presumably not “something”–although it should.  We never come out and say “your career should be the focal point of your life; everything else should be organized around it”, but this is implied in the way we live and the advice we give our children.

Well, what’s wrong with telling everyone to look for a rewarding and challenging career that will make them “something”?  The ideal of careerism is, after all, somewhat broad; it blesses a great variety of callings.  The trouble is that it’s still not broad enough.  One of the main criticisms leveled at medieval Christianity (and at medieval Buddhism, to the extent anyone but me criticizes Buddhism) is that it was a religion aimed at clergy.  Its vision of human excellence supposedly required one to be a priest, monk, or nun, and it had nothing to say to a layman who wanted to acheive holiness in his lay life.  In short, it valorized a far too small part of the human experience.  Now, whether or not this is a fair criticism of medieval Christianity is a topic for another time, but it is quite odd that the same people who level this charge don’t realize that their own ideology is obviously guilty of it.  Most people don’t have careers, not in the sense of careerist ideology.  This ideology is then forced to regard these people, or at least their way of life, as fundamentally defective.

Today’s world is an exact analogue of the popular image of the “theocratic” Middle Ages:  a society designed for clergy where a majority of the populace were not clergy.  Today, we offer career as the priviledged means of personal fulfillment, but most people don’t have careers.  Thus, careerism has shown great intolerance, or at least a stunning lack of sympathy for, those who don’t fit the careerist pattern:  religious contemplatives, unskilled workers (i.e. those with “jobs” rather than “careers”), and housewives.

The hostility of modernity to the consecrated religious life is so open and extreme that little needs to be said about it.  Closing monastaries and convents is a quintessentially modern thing to do (as is guillotining their former occupants).  What’s really striking is that the contempt for the contemplative life has seeped down even to Catholic apologists.  How often have we heard them tell us that the great thing about the Rule of Saint Benedict is that it forced the monks to work and so valorized labor as a path to holiness, or some such nonsense?  We are then unseemily eager to point out that the monks performed social services like distributing alms.  We seem positively embarrassed to admit that the primary purpose of these institutions was prayer and worship.  (Here modernity has been more gentle with the Buddhists.  Nobody asks how much of Buddhist monastaries’ resources goes to poor relief or reclaiming swamps.  People seem to accept that that’s not the purpose of these organizations.  Sometimes they even recognize that having an organization with explicitly spiritual aims might be a valuable thing.)

What about that majority of men (and now women) whose jobs involve no particular skill or creativity, who generally don’t see their job as a calling but mostly as a way to pay the bills, who work 9 to 5 and then return to their more cherished home life, who find their life’s meaning in family, hobbies, or something other than the job?  For rhetorical purposes (the purpose of posing as a voice of the majority), the careerist ideology will sometimes say that these people have careers, but if it says that, it must admit that they are inadequate careers.  They certainly don’t measure up to what a career should be.  Something is wrong with these people.  We may say it is their fault:  they’re just lazy or dumb.  We may be more generous and say it’s society’s fault for not educating them enough.  What we certainly won’t do is defend their way of life.  Our rulers rather work to destroy it through free trade and mass immigration.  There’s something very wrong that it is becoming harder and harder to support a family–or even maintain a job–without becoming some kind of college-credentialed specialist, but for our politicians (especially, I’m sad to say, our Republican politicians) the answer is always career retraining and more higher eduction so that everyone can become an engineer or entrepeneur.  This is how beholden to careerism they are.

Finally, there are the housewives, who endure as much hostility as the monks.  They are the last representatives of mechanical solidarity:  the home as a place of valuable and creative work, not just relaxation and consumption.  Feminism exists largely to eliminate this holdout.  According to careerism, one needs a career to have an outlet for one’s creativity and initiative and to be socially engaged.  I am fond of pointing out on this blog that most jobs (and even most careers) involve less, or at least no more, opportunity for creativity and initiative than organizing and keeping a household and educating children.  In fact, Chesterton’s argument against women having jobs basically comes down to the claim that it would dull them.  Men have already been narrowed by specialization; let us not lose the womans’ generalism too.  Of course, Chesterton’s goal wasn’t just to keep women in the home; he was more ambitious than that.  His goal was to bring the men back home too, as farmers and artisans.  Is it workable?  Or is it–like Marxism–an accurate diagnosis of the tendency of careerism to distort the soul tied to an unworkable cure?

I’m not sure.  I’m convinced that conservatives must fight careerism, explicit and implicit, when it erodes the morale of these other honorable ways of life.  We are the natural allies of the cleric, the unambitious family man, and the housewife.  Some people, men and women, indeed have callings to a career, and God speed to them.  I decided I wanted to be a physicist in third grade.  In fifth grade, my mother once punished me by forbidding me to read about the theory of relativity for a weekend.  By junior high, I had taught myself multivariable calculus.  (I used to sneak into my parents’ bedroom to read my father’s college calculus book–I needed it to follow an exposition I’d found on the Euler-Lagrange equations.  For some reason, I thought this was something I wasn’t supposed to be doing.)  Most of the other kids I knew weren’t like that.  As seniors in high school, they didn’t know what they wanted to “do with their lives”, even as the pressures to find a career calling in their souls got ever stronger.  Most people don’t have a particular career calling–their passions lie elsewhere–and there’s nothing wrong with that.  It may be necessary in today’s world for the man to take on a career, and not just a job, anyway, to work as if he had a passion he doesn’t have.  I do not concede this, but I admit the possibility.  Let us put up a fight, though, before we let careerism devour home life as a whole.  We certainly should not push women, whom nature has particularly ordained to the care of young children, into the careerist path unless they have a genuine calling for it.  It may still be necessary (and given how the non-work related social world has been practically deserted, it may even sometimes be desireable) for noncareer women to have jobs, so long as their maternal duties come first.  Patriarchy gives no inflexible rules here.  It only demands that family duties come before work in our self-understanding.  In fact, family duties inform our understanding of work, i.e. seeing it primarily in terms of the father’s provider role rather than as a means to “self-actualization”.

14 Responses

  1. A career is usually a mundane thing, isn’t it? Even if we find it enjoyable or consider it useful to society, it’s rarely a focusing of the spiritual self.

    I’d have to say too that the identity we derive from work is usually a relatively shallow one, because again it doesn’t connect to any larger essence but only to a temporal role in society. What I am as a man is more significant than what I am as a teacher or plumber or shopkeeper.

  2. Yes and no.

    People have always had an innate satisfaction in work well done, particularly when they can see the usefulness of that work to others.

    Furthermore there is evidence that having one’s career as part of a person’s identity goes back well before modernity: Baker, Smith, Bower, Fletcher, Brewer, Carpenter, Cartwright, Cook, Dyer, Forester, Gardener, Hunter, Mason, Miller, Miner, Painter, Potter, Shepherd, Shoemaker and Weaver.

  3. Very good point about the tyranny of careerism, which should be the reactionary’s term for what liberals usually call “meritocracy.”

  4. It was the Reformers, and Calvin, in particular, that revived the idea of work as a “calling,” breaking down the distinction between unhallowed, mundane tasks and “good works.” The Christian was to sanctify himself by performing the duties of that state in life, to which it had pleased God to call him or her. We still talk of “vocational training”

    The Counter-Reformation Church adopted this emphasis (which is thoroughly Pauline) through the promulgation of such devotions as the Morning Offering and devotion to St Joseph (a saint almost entirely neglected in the Middle Ages). The Jesuits, in particular, produced examinations of conscience for different “states of life,” nobles, merchants, inn-keepers, craftsmen, servants and others, some of them remarkably detailed.

    That it could be distorted, particularly in the Puritan work-ethic, with its depreciation of leisure and the valuing of work (and gain) is not to discredit the idea itself.

  5. True, but there were other, and often more important, sources of identity. The first hereditary surnames were derived from a family’s seat – John of Blackacre was Mr Blackacre (= Master of Blackacre) and his wife was Mrs Blackacre (= Mistress of Blackacre) Even today, in Scotland, when a younger son marries an heiress, it is quite common for him to assume her name and arms.

    The Scottish Seymours take their name from Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, on the Marne. They were 12th century immigrants. Locally, I am know as Boyd, from the name of my land, as farmers in this part of the country usually are. “Moncrieff of that ilk” simply means “Moncrieff of that same” i.e. Moncrieff of Moncrieff, the Moncrieff family living on the Moncrieff lands.

  6. A further aspect is when people seek validation through earning a living at something – as a ‘professional’.

    So instead of earning some money doing what they can can best paid for doing, then doing what they love as an amateur (writing poetry, acting, performing music, doing science or philosophy etc) – people insist on doing these things as a professional, which in most cases means living off benefits in whole or in part while being paid next to nothing.

    Just so they can say “i am A poet/ An actor/ A musician’ or whatever, rather than that they *do* these things.

    I read a fairly interesting book a while ago (although I can’t remember the title or the author) about a man who took a half time job working on the London Underground railways so that he could do philosophy the rest of the time.

    Most academic philosophers spend MUCH less than half their time *doing* philosophy once you have subtracted teaching and administration. As for the quality of philosophy – well I don’t think that any modern philosophy is worthwhile and most of it is actively harmful – but as for that there is little to choose between amateur and professional.

    As for acting, music etc – the best amateurs in performance are *much* better than the average of the jaded stuff you get from most professionals – although the very best professionals are of course the best.

  7. “The Jesuits, in particular, produced examinations of conscience for different “states of life,” nobles, merchants, inn-keepers, craftsmen, servants and others, some of them remarkably detailed.”

    What do you mean? I think I have heard of these, but what are “examinations of conscience”?

  8. Wise perspective here in bgc’s comment, and useful to me. I spent my undergrad days earning a bachelor’s degree in music, with the intent to be some kind of “musician.” I’m fairly talented in the piano, but not nearly the caliber of those who tour and play with established orchestras. It took me a couple years to realize that if I was going to be able to support a wife and family as I desired to do, it wasn’t going to happen by the merit of being able to call myself a “musician.”

    So what do I do now? Public accounting. I find it almost always mind-numbingly dull, but it’s tolerable enough to keep me occupied enough to earn a living for my wife and three children. I find myself leaving the office quicker than I would otherwise in order first to spend time with my family, and then also to get a little extra time in the evening before retiring to keep up with Bach and Brahms on the piano.

  9. This approach has merit (and is the one I take as well), but it is exceptionally tasking. I suppose it depends on the amount of time and energy consumed by one’s “paying” career/job, but I often find that there isn’t very much mental energy left in the remains of the day for my other interests. I am fine with this, by the way, as I accept that these aspects are not going to be the emphasis of my life, when all is said and done, but I do think that for those who have more copious amounts of energy, or who are blessed by being “night persons” (i.e., retaining a great deal of mental energy for the evenings/late evenings, as compared to someone like me, who begins to really be mentally sapped around 5 or 6pm), this is an approach that can work.

  10. “Taxing”, not “tasking”. Ugh.

  11. In my experience there is a somewhat related sense in which these troubling aspects of careerism apply to philosophy majors. When the average man asks what I am majoring in it is not very easy to tell him ‘philosophy.’ Fortunately for me, before I’m given the weird look I can say I’m also majoring in mathematics and everything is okay. In careerism, some careers are more careers than others; and some careers (like philosophy) are not careers at all. I highly doubt that one would experience the same derision in physics, even though from what I know the job prospects are about the same. No offense, but I suspect the reason a physics major would not receive similar treatment is due to the philistinism, materialism and apathy toward for the transcendent which has infected the world. This goes hand in hand with careerism. When all that matters in life is the maximization of utility, why wouldn’t the means to doing that–the career–be the prime focus of your existence?

  12. I suppose another perspective is that career fills the vacuum – since leftism is against Christiainty, and marriage, and family, and patriotism/ loyalty – there isn’t an awful lot left to motivate people in a long term way.

    (Most extreme in what Charles Murray terms the European Model, but this is also advanced in the US:

    http://www.american.com/archive/2009/march-2009/
    the-europe-syndrome-and-the-challenge-to-american-exceptionalism

    Career fills that gap by default – although perhaps only the ‘career’ of a top creative artist or scientist until about 100 years ago truly fills that gap…

  13. The god of modern careerism is STEM, and Good Lord does that make it hell for those of us who aren’t quantitatively inclined.

  14. Rusty

    An “examination of conscience” is an exercise, usually performed each evening, when one thinks over the doings of the day, recalling what sins one has committed.

    A general examination of conscience is also undertaken before the Sacrament of Penance (confession)

    Books of devotion often contain questionnaires to assist with this and there were also manuals for confessors to suggest questions to be put to penitents, to assist their recollection, or to discover sins of ignorance

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