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Why we work

| Monday, September 19, 2016

Last week, my buddy Alec and I arrived home in the morning hours after a cheery Tuesday evening at the bar, to find our third amigo, Drew, typing on his laptop at the dining room table.

Surprised to find him awake and working so late, I asked, “Hey man, whatchya been up to?”

“The Career Fair is tomorrow,” he said, with his head in his hands.

I could hear Alec in the kitchen, searching through the fridge. He returned with two beers and gave me one, as Drew explained all the work he had done to prep for the Career Fair: sending emails, writing cover letters, calling recruiters.

Listening to Drew, Alec stumbled a little, drunk, or maybe just nauseous from thinking about his own future. We went outside to drink our beers and talk nonsense.

After a rare pause, Alec asked, “Should I go to that?”

“Go to what?”

“That career thing,” he clarified.

He had a curious look on his face, as if this was the first time he was considering that college would end and he might need to find something to occupy his time after graduation.

“I don’t know. Do you want a job?” I asked him.

“Not really,” he said.

“Me neither.”

We laughed.

I laid up a little restless that night. Truth be told, I hadn’t thought much myself about what I was going to do. After a summer interning at a bank — inside an office staring at six computer screens for 10 hours everyday — I vowed that post-graduate employment would be the last thing on my mind as I enjoyed senior year of college, our last year of youth and freedom.

Yet it seems to be everyone’s favorite topic: Where did you work last summer? Did you like it? Are you going back? No? What are you doing after graduation then? What’s your five-year plan?

See, lately I’ve been wondering why it is that we have to get jobs. Like why don’t we just not? I’m kind of kidding, but also not really.

Why do we work?

At least because we have to survive, right? For those of us without trust funds, we’d rather not starve or be homeless, so we need some cash for groceries and rent. But the economic math doesn’t add up for this to be the only reason we work.

According to a 2011 Heritage Foundation research report, “Most of the persons whom the government defines as “in poverty” are not poor in any ordinary sense of the term. The overwhelming majority of the poor have air conditioning, cable TV … are well housed, have an adequate and reasonably steady supply of food and have met their other basic needs, including medical care.”

James Q. Wilson wrote, “The poorest Americans today live a better life than all but the richest persons a hundred years ago.”

This is because after the first Industrial Revolution, circa 1750, real world GDP began to increase significantly for the first time in history. Then, in 1900, the GDP graph hockey-sticked and began to grow exponentially faster than the global population. Today, our generation divides, though not equally, relative to history, with exponentially increasing amount of real wealth amongst a population that is not growing nearly as fast.

The Census Bureau in 2009 defined a family of four whose income was below $21,954 as poor. Our Career Center reported in 2014 that the median first year salary of a Notre Dame graduate was $58,000. So, without adjusting for inflation, an individual Notre Dame student in their first year of work will earn almost three times as much as a family of four requires for their basic needs, including air conditioning, TV and sometimes internet.

Suffice to say, we don’t work just to survive. Thanks to economic progress, the income from an unemployment check, part-time job or seasonal job is plenty to sustain life in modern America.

My next theory is psychological. I like to think of human behavior in terms of needs-based motivation, one of the most useful frameworks being Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In this context, it seems we began work in the early caveman ages motivated by our physiological and safety needs for food and shelter. We literally had to fight to survive; this is no longer the case.

Today, per the economic argument, our basic needs are met much easier. And according to the hierarchy, our motivations then focus on higher needs: love, esteem and self-actualization.

And because our culture is such that the majority spends most of their days working, we use our jobs as a source of satisfaction for these higher needs. We want to be hired to the most prestigious firms and make the most money so that we are respected and empowered. It’s even common to hear things like you should “love what you do.” But is “love” not an awkward thing to say about our work, and why is it that “what we do” is necessarily a job in the first place?

I think it is extremely difficult to self-actualize via a traditional job, especially in a big company, mainly because the self is, to some degree, an inherently individual thing, but also because the nature of the modern U.S. economy is such that its labor roles are highly specialized.

Where I worked this summer, it was one person’s job to trade Latin American credit default swaps, and he had been doing it for almost a decade. And even though that guy’s life was so much more than Venezuelan CDS, he spent the majority of each weekday doing that one thing.

We cannot expect our creative identities to be cogs that fit perfectly within the gears of the economy. Especially for a generation so dynamic and well-educated, maybe it’s time to take a break from the capitalist Kool-aid. Finally afforded the opportunity to rest in the armchair, we might divert significant resources away from industrial progress and to the arts, especially to thought on the human condition. For it seems to me that progress has brought us here, to this frontier of human history, but progress might also bring us down.

This is all to say: maybe it’s alright if you don’t take that job.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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