In January 2009, I began to fear that my job was at stake. Bear Stearns had collapsed in the spring of 2008, sparking a summer of speculation as to how bad things were in the economy, and how bad they might get. Then Lehman Brothers collapsed in September, and the federal government felt it had no choice but to step in with emergency measures to prevent a full-scale breakdown of the American economy.
At first, I had reason to think my job was secure. The firm was stable and profitable. It was one of the top firms in the field of economic consulting. It did not make hasty decisions. And finally, I had been promoted at the beginning of the year and I was on good terms with my boss. But as the economic tailspin continued, business slowed and I had little to no work to do. Meanwhile, I was earning a six-figure salary. The cost-benefit scenario did not make sense for the firm. During Monday senior lunches, the conversations invariably turned to the possibility that the firm would have to lay people off, and I could not avoid thinking that I would be one of the victims should it come to that.
This brought stress because I was living in New York City and had no means of support other than my job. I had a fair amount of savings, but if I were laid off, it would not be enough to live in New York City given the high cost of living and the improbability of securing another job in the span of a few months after being laid off in what was being touted as the worst recession since the Great Depression. I did not have family or friends who could slip me a check to keep me afloat in hard times.
There was one thing, however, that never came to mind: self-doubt. I never once wondered: who was I if I didn’t have a job? What would I do with my life?
I was not concerned that I would not eventually make it back into the work force. But more important to me, I never once worried that my identity or self-esteem was at stake. Though the anxiety of how to earn a living would be thorn in my side until I secured another job, I would have no problem figuring out how to spend my day or how to make something of my life.
The reason is that never in my life have I allowed myself to be defined by my job. Well, I should not say ‘allowed myself,’ as if doing so were a sin. It has always been my dream to align my job with my passion. But life had taught me that such an alignment is a rare thing to achieve, and it had proved to be a luxury so far out of reach for a kid who was born poor, raised poor, and never had a dime (well, except for summer jobs) until he graduated from an Ivy League university and got a job working at a prestigious consulting firm in New York.
So I took what I could get, and in my free time pursued my passions in philosophy, literature, art, and other intellectual pursuits as best I could.
I did not excel in my job until the latter half of my time there. In the beginning, I had my sights on graduate school and figured I was doing ‘field work’ while working at the firm: that is, I was just learning what it was like in the real world before I retreated to the ivory tower. It was a callous attitude which stripped away my motivation and, as a result, I did half-ass work that was not appreciated by the firm. In the beginning, after one performance evaluation, I was almost put on probation. Then as time went on, and I got more used to the life of the private sector, and because I still had enough pride to make me feel ashamed after a bad review, I cleaned up my act and became a model employee.
But I still did not love the work I did. Not as a passion anyway. I did, however, manage to delude myself at times into thinking I loved my job; I convinced myself that it was the best I was going to do in the private sector. I worked with good smart people, which helped ease my indifference about the nature of the work. It was also true that the work was intellectually stimulating at times, and definitely made me smarter. I learned good life lessons too. Finally, it didn’t hurt that I earned an excellent income.
By the time the financial crisis of 2008 arrived, I had settled into a complacent routine in life. I had a good job, a good income, not a whole lot of leisure time but, compared with the investment bankers who worked hundred hour weeks, it seemed good enough, and I was living in New York City.
Not bad for a kid raised in the inner city.
But was I happy with my life?
The question bothered me. Not just because it spoke to an underlying malaise about whether my job compromised my passions. But also because it seemed almost sophomoric or immature to ask the question. The feeling of dissatisfaction one feels from wasting away one’s life in the cubicles and offices of Corporate America feels a little like an insult to all those poor souls in history who have lived meager existences in societies that could not come close to providing the living standards that one enjoys in the twenty-first century. Even in America, it was only a century or so ago that families lived out their entire lives in mill villages with the fathers working long hours tending to a loom or weaving yarn in a dust-filled factory, only to go home, maybe read the paper, see their family, get insufficient sleep, and go do it again the next day. In many cases, six days a week.
The examples abound in history of how men and women have lived at subsistence levels and have had to be content with the simple pleasures of family and friends and the few past times they were allowed by the small increments of leisure that life allowed. So my complaints about not loving my job could make me feel ungrateful.
Yet, the discontent lingered. Just because I lived at the peak of material progress did not mean progress had solved the most fundamental of human problems: how to find meaning and happiness in life; how to find work that accords with the inner logic of the soul, the inner drive of passion, the inner siren call of doing what you love.
This is why I have always believed that one of the most unfortunate aspects of our society, or perhaps any society, is that one’s identity depends so fundamentally on what one does for a living. When I lived in New York City, I thought maybe it was a New York thing. The first question you got at a bar was: what do you do? Answering that question became an art in itself. How to answer in the most interesting way possible, to distinguish yourself in some way, and convince people that you were among the lucky few who had a great job that was fulfilling and remunerative, and that indicated you were going places in life. Invariably, however, and much to one’s chagrin, you sounded like all the rest.
I work at a consulting firm.
I’m a banker at Goldman Sachs.
I’m a lawyer at Sullivan & Cromwell.
I work at Fox News.
There were the luminaries of New York, the celebrities and moguls and media personalities who lived the glitzy and exalted lifestyles to which many of us aspired, but otherwise, rarely did you encounter someone who had a job that was both remunerative and personally rewarding. And perhaps rarer was someone whose job was ‘interesting,’ though that was standard we all wanted to be measured by (no one wanted to admit ‘selling out’). There were those striving to be actors or writers, but they were never taken seriously unless they had already made the big-time. So inevitably, ‘interesting’ was someone who worked at a place like ESPN or a cool nonprofit or some other place in vogue.
And like everyone in New York, even they had their eyes on something bigger and better. That’s why, in New York, the art of answering the question of ‘what do you do?’ could feel like more of a competition than an ice breaker. But the question is not unique to New York, and in those less hectic and competitive arenas of social interaction, the question still carries with it a weight of self-doubt. I venture to say the foundation of this doubt has to do with the distinction between a vocation and an avocation. A vocation is a skill or a trade according by which one earns a living. An avocation is a passionate interest in an activity or project, an idea to which one is passionately committed and dedicated; one might recognize an avocation as a hobby. Ideally, one wants his vocation and avocation to be one and the same. Hence, the advice the older generation gives to the young: do what you love to do.
This ultimately proves harder than we expect. When we are young, we are inclined to wave away our elders because we already do what we like to do while our parents are supporting us, and it is not hard to think we’ll never become strapped down to the daily grind of jobs we are not passionate about, like so many of our fathers (and mothers). There are many reasons for this, but one is simply that one never knows how life will turn out. The opportunities that arise in societies in which technologies and tastes change may not accord with the passions one has. The demand for data scientists in our digital age may not be of interest to those with a passion for drawing or music. Inevitably, one is confronted with the choice of how to make one’s way in the world, and this choice imposes upon a person compromises between the passions that make him happy, and the opportunities that appeal to his vanity, ambition, and, ultimately, one’s keen interest in the necessities of survival.
In either case, however, one finds a place in the world, and the question that remains is how content one is with that place in the world.
In my case, I have always loved philosophy, literature, art, and intellectual pursuits in general. I have always loved to write. But upon graduate from college, I took up work in the field of economics. I liked the field. I considered it important. I was glad I had training in economics. I loved working on my senior thesis in economics. But it was not something I loved like I love literature or philosophy. Or so I told myself. The truth, in fact, was that I was not in love with the practical life of working and living in the private sector, where work was not about learning, but about earning.
I suppose I could have gone to graduate school and tried to become a professor, but along the way I became disillusioned with academia as an alternative road in life. Lest I digress, suffice to say that academia struck me as a place just as institutionalized, politicized, and factionalized as corporate or bureaucratic America. It was not about learning per se, but learning the things that were in vogue, attaching yourself to a well-regarded professor, doing research that happened to be fashionable, and playing the game of politics that life inevitably becomes no matter your road in life.
To do what I love, I would have to do it on my own. Which takes me back to January 2009, when I was fretting about losing my job. Sure enough, it happened, in April of that year. By that time, I saw it coming. My office was adjacent to my boss’s office, and I occasionally overheard her on conference calls (through the not well-insulated wall) when her door was closed discussing plans for layoffs with senior members of the firm. I could not hear distinctly enough to hear my name mentioned, but I saw the writing on the wall given that I was earning too much money for the little amount of work I was billing to a dwindling number of clients.
The day came, and I bowed out gracefully. I left on good terms with my boss and a relatively generous severance package. I had already begun thinking about positioning myself in the job market. But it was only the beginning and nothing had materialized other than an invitation to take the phase 1 test with the FBI. So I made plans to move to move to Rhode Island and spend time with my mother. I had a girlfriend in New Hampshire (that’s another story), and I figured I’d be closer to her as we figured out our long-term plans, and my mother would not charge me rent to live with her.
It was early June when the move was complete. I now had unemployment insurance and full days to myself. What was I to do? Many perhaps would spend all their time in a panic looking for a new job. Those with more means might take the time to travel. Those with less means might wallow in discontent and fear.
As for me, I simply spent the time doing what I love: pursuing intellectual interests and projects that had captured my imagination at the time. I worked ten hours a day. I got up in the morning and worked in a project I had been working on with a friend in foreign policy. Then I spent an hour or two conducting my job searches. Then I drove to a gym and worked out with friends I met there. Then I went to my favorite Starbucks and studied for the CFA level 1 exam in December (the CFA charter was a finance credential I wanted to obtain) for a few hours. Then I packed up my books and drove home, sometimes stopping at a bookstore. I read literature until it was time to go to bed. Each day was productive. I was working on things that were personally gratifying to me.
I went to bed a happy man.
It turned into one of the best summers of my life. I was working on projects that were personal and enjoyable. I was learning finance and studying problems in foreign policy that were of interest to me, while reading literature in between and thinking through a novel I had begun to conceive. I was on my own. I was dictating my schedule and setting my own agenda for the future. Of course, I did not want to live with my mother forever. I worried about whether I’d eventually be able to get back into the labor force. But it was not difficult to figure out how to spend my time and how to plan for the future.
And never once did I worry about who I was or whether I had lost my identity. In fact, I was discovering my identity.
Five months after being laid off, I landed a job in Washington, D.C., working as an economist in the federal government. The following year, I passed the CFA level 1 exam. Over the next four years, I also passed the level 2 and level 3 exam and became a CFA charter holder. I also was able to start writing a novel I had conceived in September 2007 (and on which I have been working seriously since I finished the CFA program in 2014). The job was more to my liking, allowing me a chance to publish articles and work on a subject in macroeconomics that was more interesting to me than the microeconomic topics on which I worked when I was in the private sector. It also provided a far better work-life balance than I had known in the private sector in the New York City metropolitan area.
And eventually, I met the woman who is now my fiancée.
In the summer of 2009, I had time to reflect on life. I had time to hit a reset and set an agenda for myself. And I was able to land a job that was not in the kill zone of New York City, but in a place where the culture allows for greater work-life balance. I have had more time and energy to cultivate my passions outside of work. As a result, I am a CFA charter holder and an aspiring novelist, two things I could not say when I was living the workaholic life of an economic consultant in New York.
And it would have never happened if I had not been laid off in the spring of 2009 during the Great Recession.
All of this came to mind when, in June, I read that the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA), in the office of the President of the United States, released a study on the ‘long-term decline in prime-age male labor force participation’ in the United States. The first paragraph in the executive summary of the report reads:
For more than sixty years, the share of American men between the ages of 25 and 54, or “prime-age men,” in the labor force has been declining. This fall in the prime-age male labor force participation rate, from a peak of 98 percent in 1954 to 88 percent today, is particularly troubling since workers at this age are at their most productive; because of this, the long-run decline has outsized implications for individual well-being as well as for broader economic growth. A large body of evidence has linked joblessness to worse economic prospects in the future, lower overall well-being and happiness, and higher mortality, as well as negative consequences for families and communities.
The study reveals that the decline has been sharper in the United States than it has been in other developed economies, and argues that demand-side (decreased demand for lower-educated men) rather than supply-side (men choosing to leave the labor force to be stay-at-home dads or go to school or because public assistance is more attractive) factors help explain the decline. It then argues for a set of policies to reverse the decline.
The report is motivated by a concern that ‘labor force participation has outsized implications for broader economic growth, as well as for individuals’ earnings prospects and well-being.’ A decline in labor force participation means the productive capacities of men go unused, and also means that men lose out on income and employment opportunities and all the emotional and psychological benefits that go along with having a good job. The report does not fail to speculate on what these benefits may be:
While no definitive studies link nonparticipation with broader outcomes, to the extent that nonparticipating individuals have become so discouraged about the prospects of finding work that they do not participate, it is reasonable to expect that many of the documented effects of unemployment beyond the simple loss of income extend to nonparticipation. Unemployment has been found to increase mortality, largely from increased likelihood of suicide and alcohol-related deaths (Eliason and Storrie 2009; Gerdtham and Johannesson 2003). Job loss is connected to higher rates of smoking initiation for non-smokers and increased body weight (Marcus 2014; Black, Devereux, and Salvanes 2015). Unemployment is also associated with lower overall well-being and reported happiness (Winkelmann and Winkelmann 1995; Knabe and Ratzel 2011; Lucas et al. 2001) that can last even after reemployment (Lucas et al. 2004). Lack of employment has been shown to have scarring impacts on entire communities, as these phenomena have been linked to rising crime rates (Raphael and Winter-Ebmer 2001; Gould et al. 2002; Lin 2008). For parents, job loss is associated with negative consequences for children, including lower school performance in the short term and earnings losses and increased reliance on Unemployment Insurance and social assistance in the long term (Rege, Telle and Votruba 2011; Oreopoulos, Page and Stevens 2008).
The causal link between labor force participation and broader outcomes in material and psychological well-being may only be imperfectly understood, but it is not a stretch to wonder if there is some connection between a decline in the labor force participation rate due to a less supportive economy in which low-skilled laborers have fewer opportunities available to them, and unwelcome social outcomes like suicide, weight gain, smoking, crime, and dysfunctional families. While it is not the purpose of this article to conduct social science research on these matters, or to delve deeply into hypotheticals better handled by professional social scientists, I cannot help but reflect on this recent CEA study in light of my experience during the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008.
When I was in college, I became enamored of a group of German philosophers associated with the so-called Frankfurt School. In particular, I became fond of a work called the Dialectic of Enlightenment, written in the 1940s by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. It was a fragmented, complicated work that is difficult to understand, but a central thesis was that the Enlightenment was a failure. Part of their dismay was the result of living in a world that had just witnessed World War II and the Holocaust. But their dismay also had roots in their disaffection with the cultural decadence of radio and film and other mass media institutions of the 1930s and 40s which seemed to impose a cultural homogenization that militated against individual autonomy and freedom. Though I am no Marxist, I was sympathetic to their view that the social organization of capitalism is upheld by a concept of rationality that was instrumental rather than objective. That is, capitalism is utilitarian, and the rational faculties are focused on figuring out the means to attain one’s ends, rather than evaluating the ends themselves. Splendid underdogs and white knights and Prince Charming are cultural memes we applaud and seek to imitate without really questioning the way they maintain a dominant social order that manufactures the memes as part of a culture industry that profits the industry while homogenizing the populace into passive consumers of mass culture. As they write: ‘[t]alented performers belong to the industry long before it displays them; otherwise they would not be so eager to fit in.’ Performers learn the business of their arts, not the art of their business, and thus the career of a celebrity, for example, is spent learning the means by which one plays the game of fame, not earning the fame that might come with making a farce of the game.
This distinction between instrumental and objective reason is further laid out in Horkheimer’s book Eclipse of Reason, but in the Dialectic they illustrate the point by arguing in one chapter (called an excursus), a bit bizarrely, that Odysseus from Homer’s Odyssey is a prototype of the modern bourgeois individual. The argument, as laid out in this helpful lecture, is that Odysseus, the man of many wiles, battles a mythical world and succeeds, returning home after a twenty-year odyssey on the high seas and on isolated islands with mythical creatures like Calypso and Circe. His intelligence is his best asset, and it allows him to survive and return home. When he returns home, he kills the suitors who have been ravaging his home, disrespecting his son, and courting his wife. He restores order and assumes the throne.
Not once does Odysseus ever wonder about the ethical underpinnings of the mythical world in which he lives. He simply assumes the throne and rules again. This is no different than the modern bourgeois individual who employs his intelligence to secure a good job, take out a loan from a bank and put it to good use, run a company, or start an enterprise. Both Odysseus and the modern bourgeois individual employ instrumental reason to succeed in a world by pursuing ends that they take for granted. There is never a pause to wonder if the ends they pursue are worth the effort to attain them.
What is the problem with this? For Adorno and Horkheimer, they were convinced that instrumental reason was one of the primary instruments by which capitalism perpetuates the phenomenon of exploitation. If everyone is concerned only with means and not with ends, they do not think too hard about the exploitative relations between capitalists and laborers. This was another failure of Enlightenment. Enlightenment celebrates rationality as the way to free us from the exploitative relationships perpetuated by a belief in outdated myths (e.g. our subservience to the gods on Olympus). But if rationality is simply a positivist conception concerned with perfecting the mechanized and industrialized economy, it may be that overall material well-being is enhanced, but the spiritual well-being of laborers and capitalists who depend on each other to keep the cogs in the machine running is seriously compromised, a condition known as alienation (it is more technical than that, but it ultimately comes to that).
This is, of course, a highly simplified framework. And controversial. It depends on a presumption that we suffer from ‘false consciousness.’ In reality, many of us spend time reflecting on what we want to do with our lives as we grow into adulthood. The mid-life crisis can be a serious crisis for many men and women. And even in a world where inequality has grown, economies are dynamic, there is social mobility across the income distribution, the anxiety about what to do with one’s life is real, and it is still possible for a student to stumble upon the works of Adorno and Horkheimer and find himself engaging in social critique and striving for enlightenment. And of course, the world has greatly changed since the 1940s.
But still, it does not strike me as outlandish to argue that they were onto something. In the digital age in which we live, capitalism places a lot of stress on those who can’t find a place in the economy because they lack the technical skills to thrive. If the CEA report is correct that demand-side factors explain the decline in prime-age male labor force participation, then many men are deciding to leave the labor force because they don’t see a place for themselves in a labor force that does not value what they have to offer. But the CEA report reveals that many of these men don’t then invest in activities that will eventually make them more attractive or productive in our advanced digital economy:
The largest difference in how men in and out of the labor force spend their time is in time spent on leisure activities—socializing, relaxing and leisure, with nonparticipating men spending almost twice as much time on these activities than those prime-age men overall, and more than twice as much time watching television. Together, these patterns suggest that men are, on average, not dropping out of the labor force to specialize in home production or to invest in skills to improve their future labor market opportunities.
One is reminded of the Frankfurt School philosophers arguing that the culture industry relegates us to passive homogenized consumers of mass culture, especially if so much free time is spent on leisure activities like watching television. This sounds a lot like time spent trying to escape serious reflection on the meaning of one’s life or where one fits in the world. It is thus plausible to see a path that leads from labor force nonparticipation to widespread social problems like suicide, depression, and other unhealthy outcomes in poor communities where men go to wither in the malaise of not feeling like they have a place in the world. This is a rather broad claim to make, and this is not an article about the social science research that might support such a claim of causal connection. Rather, it is to pose the question of whether capitalism as we know it has failed the project of Enlightenment in the sense of failing to inspire a culture in which men are raised not simply to seek riches or die, but to seek the kind of work that they love to do and worry about riches as a secondary concern.
In that kind of world, maybe a man does not leave the workforce and give up, spending all his time watching television or playing video games. Maybe instead he learns a trade like carpentry or construction or plumbing because as a kid he found he had a talent and a love for mechanical work, or maybe he goes to school to become a chef because he always loved when his father or mother taught him to cook. Maybe he does not lose hope, as I did not lose hope when I lost my job in the spring of 2009.
I read a story recently about a man who transitioned from jobs in pharmaceutical sales and food service to a luxury car sales representative. The lifestyle was brutal. Twelve hour days. Six and seven days a week. Extreme pressure to perform. Only to get replaced by a hungry 22-year-old. The man started at $70,000/year. The next year he made $10,000 less. He had panic attacks and back pain. He had to take blood pressure medication and anti-depressants. It go to the point where he contemplated suicide. Then he quit on the advice of his fiancée, and he was ‘now 54 and living off savings while working part-time at a music store.’ The story was written to illustrate a trend spotted by economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case about rising mortality and morbidity rates among middle-aged men, where, according to the story above, a leading explanation is the absence of ‘good jobs.’
Is it too much of a stretch to ask what, in fact, is a good job? Would Darryl Warren, the focus of the story above, be happier if he could work as a BMW car salesman making $70,000? That certainly didn’t seem to be the case. But was it because he made less in the second year, or because he worried about being replaced, or because the hours were too long? Or was it because, maybe, he simply did not feel needed. If the latter, perhaps a critical problem in modern-day capitalism, and which came to the attention of the Frankfurt School more than a half-century ago, is that supply and demand reflect too much of a culture that prizes the material over the spiritual, the bottom line over the bottom rungs of the soul, time management over the luxury of time and all that one can do when a man has the time to cultivate an avocation rather than worry about holding onto his vocation.
Maybe then he won’t mind working long hours. I certainly didn’t when I was working ten hour days on the things I loved after being laid off during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Do what you love, or die trying.
Don’t die not trying.
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