changes afoot in jobland (part two): on being employed

Massachusetts Historical Society
(December 2008)
This is the promised part two of my post on being hired as the Assistant Reference Librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Being hired for a modestly-renumerated full-time professional position straight out of graduate school during a recession (one in which there has been a much-reported-on "jobless" recovery no less), and being hired for that job while surrounded by many other fellow graduates and friends who are struggling on the hellish job market was a sobering experience.

Because that's the sort of person I am. It's incredibly, incredibly painful for me to accept opportunities that come my way when those opportunities are being offered conditionally. When those opportunities are offered supposedly on merit, due to some particular alchemy of my personal character or skills; when what I am being given -- in short -- is not being given to others.

I read somewhere recently that folks on the liberal end of the spectrum tend to have personalities that are "intolerant" of inequality. I laughed when I read that, 'cause I practically break out in hives when I feel like good things are being offered to folks based on some external (and, to my mind, inherently flawed) set of expectations concerning who is deserving and who is not.

We all deserve work that is challenging and rewarding. That exercises our abilities and builds new skills. And that provides materially for us and our families.

The fact that I, currently, have at least an approximation of that -- and others, including others close to me -- do not makes it really hard to meet the future with joyful expectation.I may have mentioned in my last post Brian Hawkins' observation about being liberal in America: "Ring a bell and I'll feel guilty for weeks!"

But guilt is unproductive (thank you Tim Wise), so I've been trying to focus instead on what it means to take responsibility for being employed in this particular time and place. And here is an (unfinished, ad hoc) compilation of initial observations.
  • Wage-work is not a privilege to be grateful for, but labor we offer in exchange for material gain. While being employable in today's economy comes in part through social privilege (for more, see below), I think it's dangerous to start acting as if wage-work ipso facto is a state for which we should be grateful.  Wage-work is something we do, not something that is given to us. Yet in a recession, it's really easy to start saying to ourselves that we should be grateful to have a job -- any job -- and that those who employ us deserve our gratitude for hiring us. When we start to believe we should be grateful, we hurt not only ourselves, but also every person who feels pressured to accept and/or remain in wage-work in which they are exploited.
  • The process of being hired is not (solely) about personal qualifications. Most of us know that, despite idealistic talk about meritocracies, we live in a society in which structural inequalities exist and work (often invisibly) to position some of us to greater material advantage than others regardless of our individual abilities. Do I believe I'm qualified for the position I was hired into? Yes. Yet I am far from the only qualified person out there, and the fact I was hired hinged on a complex set of circumstances. I've had a lot of folks congratulate me on my new position with language that suggested I had "earned" the offer, that somehow through my efforts I have been rewarded with this position. I call bullshit on that because people who have valuable skills to offer the world remain un- or underemployed. Once we start talking about employment in the language of who deserves and does not deserve wage-work, whose efforts should or should not be rewarded, we're supporting a way of understanding employment and economic security in terms of those who are "deserving" and those who are "undeserving." I will not allow my personal circumstances to be employed in narratives that support that understanding.
  • All of my jobs have been "real" jobs. At least one person has suggested that now I have a "real" job ... as opposed to the "fake" wage-work I've done since I was about nine and started working as a bagger at the college bookstore? As opposed to the "fantasy" wage-work of delivering newspapers? Working retail? Providing assistance to undergraduates as a teaching assistant? To faculty as a research assistant? As opposed to the reference and processing work I've done for the past three years as a library and archival assistant? I think the words were thoughtless rather than intentionally demeaning, but the net result was to imply that all of my colleagues who continue to work part-time, non-salaried, sans benefits, under-compensated positions are somehow not "real" workers. Whose labor does not count. In a capitalist economy that relies on such marginalized sources of labor, implying such work isn't "real" is beyond insulting. And once again: not okay to be insulting to folks while invoking my name.
So my responsibilities (as I see them) as someone who has a reasonably well-respected and well-renumerated position:
  • To understand that I am granted social privilege by virtue of my position rather than through any personal awesomeness ... and do what I can to identify and name that privilege, so that it is not invisible.
  • To respect, not look down upon, those folks who are un- or underemployed; to recognize that no individuals should be reduced to their employment status, and not assume that their employment status is a result of their own personal actions/worth (or lack thereof).
  • To advocate for decent working conditions for all, including myself. To remember that critically assessing my own position as a worker and advocating for change when I believe it is warranted can be part of pushing back against inhumane working conditions more generally.
This probably isn't anything new for those who cut their political teeth in labor activism, or for those who have spent much more time than I have thinking in terms of class and economic disparity, but labor activism should not stop at the simplistic goal of employment. Rather, it needs to continue critically analyzing the place of wage-work in the economy, and the need for economic endeavors to (ultimately) cycle back to support the well-being of us all.

Put like that it sounds hopelessly idealistic. But I really, I only have this to say in response: Intellect and Romance Over Brute Force and Cynicism.


  1. Stop it, Anna. Stop it! Stop it! Thank your lucky stars. Have a glass of wine. Pour a libation to the gods on the snowy ground. And do good work.And "above all, be flexible."

  2. Hi Larry,

    Thanks for the encouragement ... though I think everything I said here stands, regardless of the state of my guilty feelings. I think it's important to make these critiques even when not feeling directly responsible for redressing inequality.

    But yes: wine is definitely on the menu and I plan to cultivate flexibility for the rest of my life ;).