Financial Stability vs. Fulfillment
We evolved from a world where our work would define us, where our passions were monetizable. Take the Middle Ages, for instance, where most people’s surnames would be the same as their occupation. The last name “Carpenter” would mean that the breadwinner of a given family was a carpenter. Similarly, a baker would likely hold the surname “Baker”. Of course, that was the cultural norm at that time, when labor would consume one’s identity. While that practice is not prevalent in the modern-day, our occupations continue to consume our identity, and that is because we are desperate to find fulfillment in them.
This isn’t wishful thinking — it’s practical. A staggering 90,000 hours of our lives are spent working, according to Gettysburg College. As celebrated writer Annie Dillard once stated, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Taking this notion to heart, we strive to pursue a career that makes us happy.
The conundrum arises when we grow up to realize that, unfortunately, not every job is created equal with regard to earning potential. By convention, we want to earn a wage that is representative of the value of our labor, which encompasses the time and effort we invest into doing our jobs. Jobs that necessitate similar levels of time and effort investment, however, can have vastly different pay scales. Take, for example, the earning potential of a marketing manager and a sewing machine operator, both of whom work around 8 to 10 hours per day. The former makes a little more than $147,000, compared to a mere $25,896.
Why the disparity?
It boils down to supply and demand, the basis of capitalism. Those with marketing skills are sought after in our digitally evolving world where firms are looking to advertise their products. The high demand for people to fill that role means the wages of workers in that industry will increase.
The sewing machine operators, on the other hand, are being replaced in factories by machines who can complete tasks in less time and are cheaper — the demand for their skills is falling, as are their wages.
Americans have been prioritizing high incomes for decades past, while a minority of the population followed their passions in jobs with limited demand. These stark choices inevitably led to a wealth gap. Nonetheless, the mainstream American population skewed the trend in recent years: A number of surveys commissioned by American Express found that Americans have made fulfillment one of their top priorities when seeking employment, ranking ‘having a lot of money’ 20th on a list of 22 possible contributors to having a successful life. This cultural shift has been spearheaded by the newest members of the labor force: millennials.
A 2015 Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll revealed that 57% of surveyed millennials prioritized a career that was either enjoyable or gave them opportunities to “make a difference” in society. Evidently, financial stability has been overlooked by many millennials as they seek to fulfill themselves, and this ideology perpetuates the wealth gap. A report titled “The Emerging Millennial Wealth Gap” by New America found that millennials earn 20% less than their baby boomer counterparts did at the same stage of life.
The financial implications of choosing a low-demand career go beyond mere economics. It is resulting in many millennials favoring left-leaning policies. A survey conducted by New America revealed that around 59% of millennials associate themselves with the democratic party. This is likely due to the much-needed financial support that they can receive from a left-leaning government.
The preference of left-leaning governments for the sake of closing wealth disparities is not new.
Karl Marx, a quite infamous and widely disregarded German philosopher, proposed numerous theories which would theoretically enable people to pursue their passions as well as make a living wage. A staunch believer that one’s work was supposed to be meaningful to them, Marx observed quite the contrary in newly industrialized 19th century Europe. Instead, he saw workers as “alienated” from society — the rise of mass production in the factories they worked at prevented them from seeing the products they helped produce, and they were disconnected from society while working in an isolated environment. These feelings of desolation can be translated into society today, as well. Marx developed his Theory of Alienation in which he ideated that “Labor [makes] us human and the ways in which capitalism destroyed our ability to take joy in our work and control the conditions under which we created value.”
Marx argued that the supply and demand model on which capitalism was founded defeated the primary purpose of work, which is to feel fulfilled. He proposed his own economic theory, Marxism, which is essentially the antithesis of capitalism. Rather than having the supply and demand of the population determine the value of someone’s labor, the cost of production would be the determining factor.
Take, for example, an artist, who paints a piece that they wish to sell. The cost of their canvas, paintbrush, and paint comes to a total of $75. This means the product would have to be placed at above $75 for the artist to make a profit. The only way the artist can make money is if someone buys their painting. If there is not enough demand for the artist’s work, then they will not make a profit nor sustain themself. Marx’s solution was to redistribute the accumulated wealth from society to everyone so that individuals could pursue their passions and make a living wage.
This socialism-like economic system would mitigate economic inequality, but at the cost of economic opportunity — firms would experience inefficiencies and individuals would be deprived of the freedom to make as much money as they desire.
Evidently, a mere change of government policy to shift towards a certain economic agenda does not mitigate any problems. Marx’s theories would only work in theory, as the term suggests, while capitalism hinders career-related liberations.
This fear of not making a sustainable income plagues the youth as they navigate their future. Oftentimes, the thought of suppressing their interests to pursue a 9–5 or “desk-job” is paralyzing, and understandably so. How do we decide between our passion and a monthly paycheck?
We must consider, however, that our jobs need not be synonymous with our identities. We don’t live in a world where our last names match our professions. We do not need to be as strictly attached to our work.
The fundamental flaw with Marx’s Theory of Alienation is that people are bound to their work so much so that it is one of their only sources of fulfillment. We must recognize that work does not necessarily need to be fulfilling. If you are one of the many that are fortunate enough to be passionate about something that is employable, then work can fulfill the role of both providing financial stability as well as contentment. For others, however, a distinction between work and pleasure should be made — not all our passions have to be monetized and transformed into full-time jobs.
As work prevails as a binding societal system, it is our job to make it so that our jobs work in our best interests. Given the freedom we have to make these decisions, we don’t have to “settle”. Everything has trade-offs. For workers, it’s a matter of what we are willing to trade-off. A meaningful life is a life well spent, and it is well within our capabilities to achieve one as we prioritize what is most important to us.