My Uncle Bill, who worked forty years at a job he didn’t much like and who resented the gold watch he received upon retirement because it was self-winding (“What a stupid thing to give someone who was retiring!” he’d say when the watch kept running down because he was insufficiently active.) I once inspired my uncle’s ire when I suggested that Ed and I, beneficiaries of America’s Golden Age of employment, would quit our jobs if ever they stopped being fun. “You are such a jerk!” he fumed. “Jobs are jobs. They’re not supposed to be fun.”
(Some might dispute my description of a Golden Age of Employment. People sometimes did lose their jobs, but their unemployment didn’t stretch into years as can happen now. And you never heard stories of an employee, innocent of any crime or infraction, returning from lunch to find a security guard with a cardboard box for the employee’s personal effects prepared to provide an escort out of the building.)
I remembered that interchange with my uncle when I read Gordon Marino’s piece in Sunday’s New York Times, “A Life Beyond ‘Do What You Love.’” He wonders whether “do what you love” is actually “wisdom or malarkey.” He refers to an article in Jacobin magazine earlier this year in which the writer Miya Tokumitsu suggested that “the ‘do what you love’ ethos so ubiquitous in our culture is in fact elitist because it downgrades work that is not done from love.”
Elitist, huh? That cut close. Maybe Uncle Bill was right to slap me down for my comment, coming as it did with the benefit of a college degree awarded during a period of economic growth and prosperity. Compared to the prospects today’s graduates are facing, we were indeed a lucky generation, able to pick and choose – and abandon – jobs as we saw fit. Uncle Bill of course came out of the Great Depression and remembered when jobs were precious and worth hanging onto for dear life. Never mind “fun.” Will today’s young people, touched by what I call The Never-Ending Great Recession, feel the same way? Will they be allowed to indulge in today’s buzzword, “self-fulfillment”?
His own father, Marino writes, labored at a job he detested so he could send his children to college. “Was he just unenlightened and mistaken to put the well-being of others above his own personal interests?” he asks. “It might be argued that his idea of self-fulfillment was taking care of his family, but again, like so many other less than fortunate ones, he hated his work but gritted his teeth and did it well. It could, I suppose, be argued,” Marino continued, “that my father turned necessity into a virtue, or that taking the best care you can of your family is really a form of self-service.”
My mistake in that interchange with my uncle was in using the word “fun.” A creative effort of any kind can be fun. Finding a solution to a difficult problem can be fun. Even a full day of back-breaking labor can be fun as long as it’s properly acknowledged and rewarded. One Monday morning, a student worker in my college office asked if I’d had a good weekend. “It was wonderful,” I told him. “We managed to get an entire truckload of gravel spread on a path we were building.” The student looked puzzled until another student set him straight: “That’s the kind of thing she does for fun.” The look on the first student’s face read, “Please God, don’t let me ever get so old and boring.”
But the truth was it was fun. My body ached for the next few days but I probably lost a pound or two and we had a nice new gravel path to show for the effort. I guess you could say that work was for me, self-fulfilling.