Sunday, June 26, 2011

Job Juggling

It doesn’t show up in the statistics, but the human cost of extended joblessness, especially among recent college graduates, is one of the most important stories of our time.

Take the case of Roger Fierro, reported by Hannah Seligson in today’s New York Times: “Mr. Fierro, who is 26, has four jobs: working as a bilingual-curriculum specialist for the textbook publisher Pearson; handling estate sales and online marketing for a store that sells vintage items; setting up an online store for a custom piñata maker; and developing reality-show ideas for a production company. So far this month, he’s made about $1,800.”

What kind of life do you have when you are juggling four different jobs and barely making ends meet? You are not on a career track; you are not planning for a brighter future; you are not developing skills that will be more valued in the marketplace; your work life is unstructured.

For those who proudly proclaim the virtues of living in the present, in the here and now, well, meet Roger Fierro and his growing cohort.

It’s a portrait of social anomie.

Fierro is certainly well-educated. He studied at one of the nation’s best universities, the University of Chicago. It sounds good that he majored in International Studies, but he also studied Latin American Studies, the kind of trendy, politically correct field that tends to make you barely employable.

Seligson points out that Fierro’s lifestyle used to be the province of aspiring artists, people who had been lulled into thinking that they had sufficient artistic talent to succeed in the art world.

In her words: “Some portions of the population — especially young, creative types like actors, artists and musicians — have always held multiple jobs to pay the bills. But people from all kinds of fields are now drawing income from several streams.”

When it comes to developing a career, the art world is among the worst. Aspirations are stratospheric; chances of success are minuscule.  

Regrettably, some of those who are in Fierro’s cohort are choosing to juggle multiple menial jobs: “Some of these workers are patching together jobs out of choice. They may find full-time office work unfulfilling and are testing to see whether they can be their own boss.”

Here our culture does young people a great disservice. For having failed to teach them how to respect authority, how to take advice, and how to follow instructions, it has prepared them for endlessl job juggling.

When you are young and just out of college, you should not be thinking about being your own boss. You should seek out mentors and mangers, not creative self-fulfillment. It's time to learn, not to express your soulfulness.

While Seligson is certainly right to say that the problem can only be solved by a robust economic recovery, we also have to ask ourselves whether this generation-- chock full of high self-esteem and creativity-- would be able to do the new jobs.

Take the case of Louise Gassman. Seligson reports: “But full-time jobs don’t suit everyone. Ms. Gassman, for example, has been offered a full-time job at SoulCycle, complete with full benefits, but she doesn’t want it. ‘I wouldn’t be able to go on auditions in the middle of the day,’ she explained. ‘Of course, it stresses me out not to have health insurance, but what is my choice? Work in an office and be unhappy? Being happy is a superhigh value to me.’”

OK, SoulCycle is a company that offers spinning classes. Since Gassman gives these classes now, I assume that she is now being offered a more managerial job. It would give her health insurance and benefits.

I’m glad that Gassman is pursuing happiness. I’m as much for happiness as anyone else, but I would point out that happiness is not a value. It’s a goal, an aspiration.

To imagine that you can only be happy pursuing creative activity is one of the great illusions of our time. Far too many young people have bought it.

Perhaps Louise Gassman can never be happy working in an office. But, one wonders whether she is really happy going to auditions and being repeatedly rejected. Because that is what the life of most aspiring actors looks like.

Last week Robert Samuelson wrote that there is currently a jobs mismatch. Jobs in engineering and science are going unfilled. Employers cannot find people who are qualified even for entry level jobs in these fields.

It is, or it should be, the disgrace of the American educational establishment. By feeding young people a diet of self-esteem, creativity, and political correctness, all the while degrading the hard disciplines of science, technology, and engineering, educators have ill prepared them for the real world.

Not to put too fine a point on it, education has overemphasized ideas and underemphasized numbers.

And the educational establishment has not taught young people the values and the work ethic that would help them to function, even to thrive, in a business environment.

Some job jugglers believe that they are learning to multitask, but, in truth, they end up unfocused and disorganized, not possessing even the elementary skills that would make them good employees.

And since young people who do have jobs do not have enough of a sense of loyalty to stick with them over time-- they prefer to jump from one job to another every time a new opportunity presents-- their employers have no vested interested in spending the time and money necessary to train them.


David Foster said...

Interesting that you should mention anomie in this context. The concept of anomie, which comes from French sociologist Emile Durkheim, was widely used in the 1960s and 1970s by academics and writers who were attacking mass-production manufacturing under the claim that it was anomie-producing, in that someone performing a single repetitive task as part of a process, the whole of which he did not understand, could not have a sense of meaning in his job.

Yet it is at least arguable that a bolt-tightener in even the most Taylorized assembly plant is likely to be a member of the "plant community" and to feel a sense of participation in making something useful, that people in the situation you describe above do not.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

That's a great point, David, and an extraordinary irony. After all, nowadays people would kill to have good manufacturing jobs-- witness the Hyundai plant in Alabama. Those who fought against the apparently soul-deadening assembly line jobs now bequeath to young Americans the soul-deadening task of job-juggling.

One of the jugglers in the article said she get by on caffeine. Another felt the need to set aside a couple of hours of down time every day, lest he go crazy.

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