Monday, March 10, 2014


Upon request, today's topic is work. I'm breaking it down into parts, starting with the role of work in society, then some family history, followed by general reflections.

Beneath the cultural surface of the United States, the primary activity has always been work. This has never been considered an interesting topic to anyone who isn't a labor historian, but it really is what the country is about. Almost everything in American life that people might consider artistic or transcendent simply wouldn't exist if someone hadn't racked up a bundle of money a long time ago. Private universities and the arts would be nothing without it. The long arm of money is more apparent here on the East Coast than in other parts of the country, because it has been rich for much longer. You don't have to look far to find it. For example, one of my neighbors is a retired Vermont orchard owner. This sounds rustic, but an examination of his background reveals something quite different. After he graduated from Yale, he had a job on Wall Street but didn't like it and left for Vermont to grow apples. It turns out that his great-grandfather had made a fortune manufacturing varnish and was one of the founding trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

My mother's family wealth came indirectly from the United States too. Her father grew up in a well-off Armenian family in Bursa, Turkey, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. Since his parents didn't want him to be drafted into the army, his father arranged for him to be trained in piano manufacture. In about 1910, he and his father traveled to Richmond, Indiana, where he entered a training program at the Starr Piano Company, which was then one of the leading piano makers in the country. I have a picture of the two of them that was taken then, with my grandfather looking very proud. After he completed his training, he moved to Athens, Greece, and set up an office through which he imported pianos. He became relatively wealthy and was a benefactor to Armenians who fled Turkey during and after the massacres of 1915. My mother grew up in a large house that, during World War II, was occupied on the first floor by German officers, with a Jewish family hidden on the third floor.

Piano sales began to decline when recordings became available, along with radios and radio broadcasts. The Starr Piano Company experimented with recordings very early and made some of the first ones for artists including Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. However, the Great Depression killed off most of the recording industry, and the Starr Piano Company never recovered in records, though it continued to sell pianos. The recording industry retained a presence in the Midwest with record manufacturing plants. Early in my career I worked at printing companies in Indiana that produced LP record jackets. The evolution continued with the transition to cassettes and then CD's. The first American CD's were produced in Terre Haute, Indiana. The dynamics of the music industry continue to evolve with digital media, the cloud, etc.

On a side note, I have always found it a strange coincidence that my grandfather's career started in Richmond, Indiana, and that I somehow randomly ended up going to college in Indiana and meeting someone who grew up in Richmond, where we were married in 1974.

Beyond what I've written above, work is a highly practical matter for most people: they need the money. While our ancestors hunted and gathered all day, most workers now show up at an office every morning and engage in something far more arcane. When I determined that I wasn't going to get a Ph.D. in Philosophy and work at a college, I was at loose ends for a while. I didn't particularly want a white collar job and thought a trade might be more satisfying and honest. I took a short course in printing and before I knew it I had a thirty-year career in it. I probably could have planned it better and picked a career in a different field, because printing has been a dying industry ever since the 1980's.  Also, although I would have preferred to do skilled work, I soon found myself in office jobs anyway.

My printing employment was not particularly interesting, though I was exposed to a lot of ordinary people in various cities and towns in Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois. While I didn't have much in common with most of them, they were people like any others, but in most cases were not very well educated. My boss in Dixon, Illinois was dumbfounded that I took long trips to study Anglo-Saxon archaeology and cathedrals in Oxford and Impressionism in Paris. I never formed any close friendships, and the closest I came was with a guy who had gone to the University of Maine to study forestry but switched to English when he couldn't do the math. His hobbies included duck hunting and topless bars, neither of which I ever participated in. But it paid the bills, and I managed to retire at age 57 with the help of an inheritance.

There was an article recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled "You Don't Have to Love Your Job," which blames Joseph Campbell for popularizing the myth "follow your bliss." Many college graduates now think that they are failures if they don't have a high-status job that they love. I'm not sure that there is such a thing as an ideal job for most people, and conditions are deteriorating as we enter into the late stages of our system of capitalism.

I think the majority of jobs now available to college graduates are specialized ones related to maintaining corporations and increasing their profits, or much the same thing in nonprofits, but without profits. Within this framework, the opportunities for self-expression and fulfillment are limited. Toward the end of my career, I noticed a significant decline in working conditions for employees at the corporation where I worked, R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., one of the largest printers in the world. When I started working there in 1998, the attitude was still upbeat and there were vestiges of earlier paternalism. At one time, Donnelley management would send letters to the parents of single female employees to assure them that their daughters would be taken care of properly. By the time I left in 2007, it was obvious that management didn't give a damn about anyone, and if you didn't meet its requirements, you would be fired on short notice. The long-term employees of the company felt hurt and betrayed when they were permanently laid off.

Some may argue that there is fulfillment to be found in the helping professions or some of the nonprofits, such as teaching and the arts, and I don't deny that, but here there is a high level of job competition, which must detract somewhat from the ability of participants to define their own terms of employment. And because of the attractiveness of these jobs, the pay is often low.

The glamorous alternative to a boring office job or a low-paying helping job is to become an entrepreneur. Not all people have the right personality to pull this off, and even then most of them fail. Moreover, behind the outward success of prominent entrepreneurs is a hidden legacy of oppression and exploitation of workers. A case could be made that Steve Jobs was a modern-day robber baron who reached his success on the backs of underpaid workers in Asia who were exposed to health risks that were illegal in the United States.

Within the context of the current economic backdrop, the prospects for most workers look grim for the foreseeable future. Global competition is going to drive wages lower, and no cure is in sight. Eventually I think there may not be enough jobs, and the government may have to step in to prevent social breakdown. My advice to those who must work is to match yourself up to a job that suits your skills and interests and requires training that will differentiate you as an employee. I don't think a traditional liberal arts education is going to be of much economic value in the future.

For those who still insist on "following their bliss," prepare for a life of low pay and humiliation. It makes more sense to plug along until retirement, at which point you can take up any hobby you like - this blog, for instance.

1 comment:

  1. I find some comfort in pondering how work will be defined in a post-capitalist world economy, simply because I know that it will no longer be possible for it to follow our current "maximization of profits" model. What concerns me is that it is almost a certainty that working conditions will continue to decline for the average person until we reach a complete environmental collapse, at which point humanity will not be in the best position to come up with viable alternatives. If as a species we ever become successful at redefining the significance of "work", as well as the purpose of economic exchange, it will be our greatest accomplishment yet.


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