This was written in 2010 and it took a while to be posted. Apparently it was ahead of the curve given the anti-boomer backlash and widespread economic disillusionment that followed.
The idea that there is something innately pure or dignified about holding down a job in our postmodern, ‘post-history’ society is about as defunct as North American manufacturing. It’s a bygone notion from a bygone past.
“What’s changed?” You may be asking yourself, because you like most people are under the impression that the Protestant work ethic can somehow survive being repeatedly shanked by global capitalism. To put it simply: it’s the structure of the Canadian economy that has shifted. Our economy is no longer about tilling soil, building stuff, or latching on to the civil service and holding on for dear life (ok, there’s still that). Instead, it’s characterized by serving coffee, answering the phone with the proper amount of enthusiasm, and praying to God for a minimum wage hike. In other words, working life has become an intravenous drip of advanced capitalism, apathy, and alcohol. We’ve transitioned from our parents’ ‘get an education and get a job’ to our present ‘get an education, get another education, and then go work at Indigo.’
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with ending up at Indigo. Anyone who’s travelled to places without electricity or running water knows that in the grand scheme of global relativity, it’s a pretty plum deal. But, never let it be said that selling books at Indigo is a surefire route to employment nirvana. This is not meant to rag on book-selling as a whole, for there can be no doubt that the proprietors of those legendary, pre-Indigo independent book stores derived a great deal of satisfaction from selling their own books. But those days are over now, and stores like Indigo are pretty much the only show in town. Having nowhere to turn except the gaping maw of big box stores leaves many of us in employment limbo- not necessarily hating our job, but finding it exceedingly demeaning when held up to our original expectations of working life.
This all comes from the sunny side of forty, which is an important distinction to make because there is a generational divide when it comes to Canadian perceptions on employment. These perceptions are critically important in determining whether working at Starbucks for your whole life is worth being depressed about or not.
On one side you have the forty-pluses. Broadly speaking, they were lucky enough to have access to spiritual and material tranquility in their working life. Their constant fear of nuclear holocaust kept things in perspective, while the still-nascent process of economic globalization maintained job offerings across the professional spectrum. For that generation, the idea of staying in one profession for a lifetime wasn’t shooting for the moon, and said employment could provide a now nostalgia-inducing level of job security.
Their world was still viewed in shades of black and white and hard work was an end in itself, no matter the job. This truth manifested itself consistently at every level of society, from the nuclear family all the way to government. Employment made for a simple line graph: the harder you work, the greater returns, and the sky’s the limit. They were a generation on a mission- nay, on a march towards modernist progress- and it would only stop when robots had been invented to take the work off their hands. At least, that’s how the story goes.
On the other side of the divide, you have the forty-minuses who, for the most part, have been living shades of grey since we were born. Most of us suffer from the sort of collective schizophrenia described by Jacques Lacan as, “a breakdown of the signifying chain.” The forty-pluses’ truths have melted away into a meaningless riot of past and present. The government is not so much a defender of liberty, but a club of greedy egomaniacs. Family is a re-occurring theme in car commercials. God is always capitalized when writing essays, and so on.
For us, work can no longer be a means to an end because nobody really knows what they’re working towards. What’s more, we don’t even have the comforting thought of robots coming along to save the day. The children of postmodernism have outgrown progress, so essentially all we can do is kill time until sea levels are high enough to kick off our slow-burn apocalypse.
If the signifying chain had been completely shattered, the forty-minuses would have a much easier time as Jameson puts it, “playing in the nonsense.” But this is not the case. Whether it’s the familial paragons in Growing Pains or the imaginary wholesomeness that politicians seek to slather themselves in, we always have been, and will continue to be bombarded with the scraps of that antiquated worldview.
Perhaps an example is in order. At no other point in my life has the ghost of employment past clashed with the realities of employment present more so than during my time in Asia. In Taipei, I was approaching true employment enlightenment teaching English as a Second Language. The salary was ridiculous, the weather was nice, and everyone had a healthy fascination with me because of the colour of my skin. Life in Taiwan maxed out most barometers of personal happiness, and it might have ended up as happily ever after if not for one intervening variable: crushing guilt.
Apparently, my hours and hours of watching Family Ties as a young lad had planted a nefarious seed in my mind. About a year into living in Taiwan, it bloomed into a full-fledged life anxiety attack. It convinced me that I was only wasting my time teaching ESL and not reaching my full employment potential. Every month I remained in Taiwan was one in which I was deferring finding a ‘real’ job in Canada- the type of job that I could finally slap on my resume without feeling that tinge of shame.
The most amazing thing is: I wasn’t alone in this guilt. Most foreign teachers in Taiwan experience it in some form another, like a ghostly hand reaching across the ocean to pull them back to ‘real life.’ Some of the weaker ones only last a year before buckling, while others can make it to five before the guilt drives them back home.
Of course, upon return to Canada one fast discovers that ‘real’ jobs are like hambones thrown to a pack of hungry wolves. If you’re not an alpha, you can but sigh and resign yourself to doing whatever job will pay the bar tab, taking comfort in the thought that if worse comes to worst you can always go out and get another degree.
We the children of postmodernism are living critiques of one of the grandest old narratives there is: that to work is beautiful and has value beyond simply pulling in a paycheck. Our globalization-ravaged, service-based economy is long on style, short on substance, and most of the remaining jobs have been hollowed out a long time ago. To write is to stuff articles with keywords, to illustrate is to design corporate newsletters, to sell things is to work at Wal Mart, to serve coffee is to work at Starbucks, to build is to move to China, and so on.
Best of all is the fact that none of us really even give a shit. We’re too busy getting sloshed and being seen. So, if there is some kind of remedy for this employment malaise out there, don’t expect the forty-minuses to find it.