Do you remember your first paying job? I certainly do. It was a great day. I was about 12 years old, but very anxious to figure out what life was about, because I knew for sure it had to get better than the offerings at miserable public school.
There was a man who owned a company that specialized in moving pianos. He was willing to pay me cash — yes, this probably violated federal labor law, which was then only lightly enforced if at all — to apply my energies in the service of others.
It was a crazy challenge and so super exciting. I would get paid! In a way that home chores and school never could, it made me feel like a valuable person. I loved going to work: it was always an adventure. I couldn’t get enough of it.
These days people mostly have to wait until they are 16 for such an experience. Still, once the chance to enter the commercial workplace is upon you, it is a wonderful turning point in life.
I know two teens who recently landed their first jobs, one as a receptionist in a veterinary clinic and the other as a hostess in a restaurant. They were both wildly exuberant about it all, same as I was when I was a kid. They get to discover a business from the inside, meet new people, learn new skills, find out about the producer-consumer relationship, the connection between work and reward, and get paid for all this! It’s wonderful.
There is another factor here. At your job, you are hired as an individual, treated as an individual, paid as an individual, judged as an individual. Here is a great revelation because most of our childhoods are spent being defined as part of a group, including and most especially your class rank in school and then, in turn, your school and its spirit as some kind of collective entity. At your job, however, it’s just you: your skills, your discipline, your performance, your capacity to deal with new and unexpected challenges.
Why the Hate?
Meanwhile, there is public punditry. It seems like lots of smart people out there want to convince you that paid work is mostly a terrible thing. You might have a bullshit job. Probably the workplace is savage. Your company is a fake. You are a lab rat. Commoditized. You are certainly overworked, underpaid, nickeled and dimed, invisible, bullied, and discriminated against in every way. What a brutal life it is in the labor market! Or so we are told.
To be sure, not every job is the greatest thing ever. There are bad bosses. Grueling commutes. Dangerous work conditions. Stultifying tasks. On the other hand, a free labor market in a growing economy means the greatest thing ever: we can change jobs. Especially these days, the labor market is hopping. The online tools for finding your next and better job have never been more accessible. Your ability to manage your career is in the hands of everyone as never before.
The Alienation Theory
So why all this bellyaching? Will Luther and I were discussing this strange disconnect between what the intellectuals say and what most people experience. He had this remarkable insight that had never occurred to me. He said that much of this rhetoric comes from the Marxian theory of alienation (note that I use the term here only as it appears in the Marxian literature, not in normal vernacular). The idea is that because the capitalist steals the worker’s surplus value, and because the division of labor extends production in so many directions, the worker’s personality becomes disconnected from his or her labor. Our work life is not real life, so all we really can do is suffer the drudgery or revolt and start socialism — or something like that.
This theory of alienation is everywhere in the commentary on labor today. It is baked into vast amounts of labor regulation, among which I would mention my favorite topic, which is the ridiculous age restrictions on remunerative labor. Sixteen is too old for a kid to discover the empowering dignity that comes with work in a commercial enterprise. Honestly, how can anyone think that working at a Chick-fil-A is alienating whereas being forced into a government-run public school and moving from room to room by the bell to listen to lectures is somehow ennobling? I find that utterly bizarre.
The right wing has its own theory of alienation. The idea is that when you buy from a foreign country, you are diminished in your capacity to realize your destiny as a member of a unified nation. Your company imports from China or Vietnam? It is probably harming the nation, contributing to the trade deficit, and sucking the life out of the only affiliation that is truly meaningful. The idea of tariffs is that you as a consumer or producer should be punished with taxes for your dependency on anything foreign. Global trade, in this view, is alienating you from a proper sense of belonging to a national collective; tariffs are necessary to reel you back into loyalty.
The problem with both the left and right version of alienation is that they take a perfectly wonderful experience — a mutually beneficial trade of labor for money — and distort the exchange with a weird ideological prism. It’s not only dangerous to prosperity; it’s psychologically dangerous because it leads to a strange and unsatisfiable sense of disgruntlement with life itself. Working relationships are integral to the good life. The surest way to ruin it is through strange theories that attack not only commercial life but the dignity of work itself.
Beware: every theory that posits that your job is alienating is a ruse to draft you into a new form of collective identity in which you will have fewer choices.
The development of money and wages for everyone was one of the great achievements of modernity, a product of the end of feudalism (which promised only food and security) and the rise of capitalism which in turn created everything we call progress for humanity.
To everyone who is just entering the job market, now is the moment of your emancipation. Your right to work, to earn your own money, is part of what it means to live the good life with dignity, grace, and choice.