Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The Longing for a Career

Interesting article in the NY Times today on how the attitudes of workers have changed during the pandemic. Reluctant to return to their old jobs, and cushioned by federal benefits, people are looking for something better. Many, of course, are demanding more pay, guaranteed hours, improved working conditions. But quite a few are asking for something different: a path upward. 

What many Americans want, it seems, is not just a job but a career. And companies are responding; surveying the job openings on internet hiring sites, the Times finds that mentions of "training" and "opportunities for advancement" have increased by a third over last year. Companies like hotels and restaurant chains are dangling, not just improved pay, but the chance to move into supervisory jobs. Some are rethinking what jobs actually require a college degree, allowing more entry-level people to move into white collar slots.

Careerism seems to be a big preoccupation in the firms I have worked for. Every time senior management offers people a chance to ask questions, usually after a presentation about some re-organization or another, many queries focus on career paths: how do I move up? How do I get the experience I need to move up? Can I get support for training? The project management courses I consider to be a chore are seen by many as a plum reward, and there is, I was shocked to discover, a scrum to get into them whenever they are offered.

This is one of the things that I find most striking about our world: many people want a ladder to climb. They are ok with low wages now if they believe they will move up in the future. They want the things that go with a career: rising pay, more impressive titles, training in new skills, travel to conferences or seminars. And also, maybe, respect and a greater sense of self worth.

I have said this before, but it seems like the main reward our society has to offer people who are doing the right things is a career with a visible path, however narrow and difficult, toward the top.


David said...

Interestingly, what I've noticed in the last couple of weeks is a whole slew of NYT opinion pieces talking about people giving up careers. I particularly liked this one from Sunday: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/22/opinion/lying-flat-work-rest.html. Here's a quote: "A recent tweet that proclaimed “i do not want to have a career” racked up over 400,000 likes. Instead, proclaimed the tweeter, @hollabekgrl, “i want to sit on the porch.”"

I think one should not refer to what "most Americans" or "people" want. Rather it seems to me careerism is one fault line along which Americans divide. As Yuval Harari says, if you want to understand a culture, find what people in that culture disagree about.

I note the divide over careerism is one of our society's (few?) divides that does not seem to track with the Red-Blue split.

Shadow said...

ATTENTION: Effective immediately, all full time employees who are not managers are now assistant managers. But wait, didn't we already go through this?

John said...

It is certainly true that many people don't want a career. Some would rather not work at all, others just want something low-stress and stable. I remember one acquaintance whose great ambition was to become a rural postman. Two of the people I have known that I envy most are two who completely left ambition and the rat race behind. One of them was a guy I met doing archaeology in the 1990s who spent part of every year working as a white-water rafting guide. But in West Virginia that's only about four months a year of steady work. The rest of the year he did "as little as I can get away with." He had a friend who owned a small construction business who would sometimes call this guy when he needed extra help. Otherwise he hung around his "shack", idling his life away. I met him because he had a BA in archaeology and whenever he needed extra money he would go do traveling archaeology (living in hotels, his meals paid for) until he had earned enough. If I remember right, he needed $1800 to have his well redrilled. So he worked until he had $1800, then went home.

But I do not think those people are anything like the majority. One of the topics I have followed a lot is motherhood and the workplace, and the dominant issue, at least for educated women, is the impact on careers. I keep getting the impression from these articles and interviews that there just isn't anything else; if you don't have a career, you're have no identity and nothing worthwhile to do. I think those feelings are very strong in America and drive a whole lot of what happens.

It is true, as I have written, that many people are ambivalent about it; I bet most of the people liking Tweets about not wanting a career actually have one. But I have known very few who have really escaped it.

John said...

Incidentally that article on "lying flat" is excellent except for the insinuation that this is new. Why do people have to believe that everything is new? The Times also offered me a link to an article titled "We're Finally Starting to Rebel Against Ambition." Oy.

Susi said...

My experience has caused me to theorize that most folks have a measure of "enough". It's as if they have a bag/box that's empty and they look to fill it. Each person has a different size bag, which is expandable, according to that person's ambition and abilities. My son's has, as he's grown, expanded from $250 to $250,000. He is mid 40s and ambitious.
When the 'bag is considered 'full'. often the motivation seems to lower. For Instance, the Teen I've been using for help wants a truck. He has enough for that, and walks slowly whereas, before he hustled. He has his bag 'full'. He has 'enough' according to his ambitions.
Often when one's circumstances change (new baby? marriage?) it makes one realize that the 'bag'/assets are meager compared to the perceived need.
Careerism is relative to one's idea of 'enough"

David said...

I think the jury's out on the relative numbers of careerists vs. those who really want to sit on the porch. My own suspicion is that many of those who clamor for advancement are faking it, because they think they have to do that to stay employed at all, or because they were trained that that's how a good person is (and especially because their parents' approval required that they perform ambition). In any case, my original point was in part rhetorical, or maybe lexical: phrases like "most Americans" convey a certainty I think is not warranted.

David said...


Perhaps the difference in our perspectives is that I'm ambivalent about a lot of things and respect and empathize with others who are ambivalent--including those who, for example, don't want a high-pressure career, but do want a house (with porch attached, in the case of hollabekgrl) and other middle class comforts. I think your instinct is to say, "if you don't want a career, quit," and not to take too seriously anyone who won't go all the way. I think a lot of folks want middle-class comfort, but aren't burning with career ambition--and I feel for them, even if they aren't willing to take a sort of "Into the Wild" kind of dive. I'm one of them, after all.

I think, even in an America, sincere burning ambition is not a majority trait. Liking comfort is. I think that's just fine.

David said...


Not to gas on, but I do note in your original post that you seem to suggest you don't quite identify yourself with the super-ambitious (e. g., your puzzlement at people who clamor to take those leadership seminars, or whatever), so I'm not saying "lean in" is your stance. But you are on record as not being too patient with people who want to live as slow-moving socialists while enjoying all the comforts of middle class life. What can I say? I'm one of them. Vive la Denmark! :-)

John said...

Maybe the right framing isn't the numbers of people involved, but the salience of careerism in the discourse. This seems to be especially true in the discourse around motherhood and work that I follow closely.

I am indeed ambivalent about careerism. I think work is really important, and I guess I think that if you have to work you might as well have a good job, which in our world requires a certain amount of ambition and effort. I have put more hours than I want to think about into grim management tasks, which is a requirement of my job. But the notion of climbing the ladder as a path to fulfillment is as strange to me as monasticism, and I think it is just wrong to evaluate the state of the nation solely on the basis of how many people have "successful" careers.

You know there are a lot of people in Denmark with a German attitude toward work.