For the last four months, I’ve sat with dozens of underemployed South Africans talking about work. We talk about the work they dream of doing and the way the world works to keep them from getting that work.
I am ever more aware of the very privileged position I have when it comes to work. I absolutely love my work—interviewing, writing, learning, traveling, getting to know new people, learning languages, and living in a country our family loves. And most incredibly, I currently do that work without worrying about a salary.
Having a husband with a salary that supports our family at a middle-class lifestyle, also in a job he loves, with the flexibility to do his work from across an ocean, is in my opinion more awesome than winning the lottery.
I recently read an article by an anthropologist of economics, David Graeber, who thinks a lot about work. He wonders why it seems that the more your job helps others, the less you get paid for your work.
He also notices that working class people tend to envy and hate those he calls the “cultural elite.” He writes:
“They hate the cultural elite because they see them as a group of people who have grabbed all the jobs where one gets paid to do good in the world… If you want to work in journalism, and pursue truth, or in the arts, and pursue beauty, or in some charity or international NGO or the UN, and pursue social justice—well, even assuming you can acquire the requisite degrees, for the first few years they won’t even pay you. …. Who else can do that except children of the elite?”
I see in those “cultural elites” a description of myself. Sure, I’ve worked and saved and done well in school to get to where I am, but how can I take all the credit for that? I had parents who prepared me to do well in school. I had middle class friends who donated money for my salaries overseas for several years. I had connections to people with cars and homes to borrow, and a reputation they trusted. I had people who encouraged me and believed in me and told me to keep pressing on with work we believed in. A lot of that comes by birth, or luck, or something I didn’t earn.
I’m not sure what to do about that, except to be grateful. Skipping between non-profit volunteer positions, writing for little or no pay, and pursuing a liberal arts degree have given me a lot of joy and satisfaction. I consider it a gift to be able to have time and work that involves sharing with others.
That said, I still think there is something healthy and satisfying about giving of yourself, no matter how little you start with. While it may be harder from a working class or poverty starting point, I don’t think it’s impossible. Of the people living in poverty that I’ve known, some were truly satisfied with their lives, and often it’s because they found ways to give of the little they had. They care for sick or hungry neighbors, they teach children, they organize activities to make their communities better places. Maybe they, too, are a cultural elite of a sort, but they got there not by birth, but by decisive choices.
It leaves me always puzzling over a question more and more Americans seem to be asking: what does it take to get work you genuinely enjoy? Is that just a luxury? Is it worth holding out for? Is it something you just have to find in a few hours of leisure outside the misery job that pays your bills? Is our society doomed to have ever more dull jobs, or is there something we can do to make a future where more people get satisfaction in their jobs?
I’d love to hear from you. What’s your story? Do you like your work? What keeps you from finding work you’d enjoy? Do you find satisfaction in some kind of work outside of your paying job?