Tag Archives: Work

First Seven Jobs

A #firstsevenjobs meme has been doing the rounds in the past week. I am participating here, rather than on Twitter, because…

  1. tele-fundraising
  2. cashier
  3. graphic designer for newspaper
  4. graphic designer for family planning organization
  5. graphic designer for private university
  6. graphic designer for boutique studio
  7. freelance graphic designer

It just seems to make a mockery of the concept. And not even in the intentional way of Warren Ellis’s list, which is otherwise an exemplar of the rubbish, low-level jobs that one is expected to show off.

I, on the other hand, have two mild offerings in that category, followed basically by the same near-profession over and over. The one for which I went to college, and from which I have earned my living, my entire adult life. In fact, in terms of a job meaning “on-staff employee” this is really my entire list at age 38, and even now I only achieve a first seven by cheating, in essence, and including self-employment as item seven. As my last traditional job, at item six, ended 10 years ago it seems fair to make an allowance for having supported myself somehow all this time since. But it still seems like I just don’t have a proper #firstsevenjobs list.

I don’t mind, really. I would say that I have been quite fortunate. I didn’t need to go looking for work in adolescence, which seems like a good thing for any number of reasons, not least being that I don’t think a part-time job really helps with the studies theoretically meant to open up broader horizons. I didn’t even have a summer job until after my freshman year of college, and the brief succession of these is basically my list: One crap job during first summer break from college, another crap job during second summer break, an excellent internship during my third summer break, and then consistent employment in my chosen field.

I sense that part of the #firstsevenjobs concept is that those odd, rubbish jobs build character or something. I can only say that I have my doubts, frankly. Boring list aside, I don’t feel like I missed out by not delivering newspapers or slinging french fries or detasseling.* Variety of life experience is not to be dismissed, by any means, but I’m just not sure how much truly life-enriching experience the typical #firstcrapjobs really provide. At best, I suspect that the point of diminishing returns arrives rapidly, and that menial jobs often take more away from the soul than they contribute before long. For this reason, I think there is a lot to be said against making people perform them in an age when lots of them probably make negligible contribution to any important goods or services.

Of course, since I failed the #firstsevenjobs game so completely, I may just be making excuses. Say, perhaps I can interest you in a #favsevengames list…?

* Here’s a brief explanation for anyone who didn’t grow up around this phenomenon, as was apparently the case for the editors of the dictionary which WordPress uses to spellcheck my posts.

Basic Income vs Jobs

Politics produces endless strange outcomes. Yesterday, I encountered a Guardian item by Ben Tarnoff attacking universal basic income from the left.

Yeah, well, sure; why not?

I’m not sure that all of Tarnoff’s thesis hangs together, though a lot of his arguments are difficult to dismiss because other highly qualified voices support them. A long stretch in the middle basically rebuts that the popular narrative that economic inequality is the product of automation and “inevitable” globalization. Instead, the author lays blame on intentionally pro-elite trade policies (passed off as globalization), “the transformation of the tax code, the growth of the financial sector, and, above all, the collapse of [organized labor] since the 1970s.”

Economist Dean Baker makes and provides ample evidence for much the same arguments, almost every day. He has written more than once that “robots putting people out of work” is a red herring, and that automation is entirely compatible with full employment and a growing middle class, if we reverse policies that favor capital over labor.

I find his case persuasive, and generally endorse his specific prescriptions. Mr. Tarnoff’s objection to basic income seems a bit less convincing; a lot of it seems to be driven less by substance than style. He portrays the concept as a scheme by tech billionaires to “give us an allowance to live on, and keep the rest for themselves,” and “crumbs left by the bully who steals your sandwich.” In practice, though, I’m unclear that this is really all that different from his one-line alternative: “Better to own the robots collectively, and allocate the surplus democratically, than leave society’s wealth in the hands of its luckiest members.” Unless I’m missing something, basic income accomplishes two of these three objects, and it’s unclear to me how much meaningful difference collectivized robot ownership would make if the wealth produced by automation is redistributed. Possibly Mr. Tarnoff assumes that basic income must mean small-scale redistribution—”crumbs”—but besides its name I’m not sure that the concept is actually incompatible with much more aggressive leveling.

Meanwhile, though, I feel like something is missing from both his vague rebuttal to the “robots are going to take our jobs” story and from Mr. Baker’s more rigorous version. Both seem to assume on some level that society not only can produce lots of jobs despite automation, but should. I’m not clear that this is a very worthwhile goal.

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David Frum: crap jobs keep us safe

I’m beginning to wonder if the best that contemporary American conservatism can offer is interesting trolling.

Of those self-identified conservative writers who make some kind of real attempt at contributing to a wider discussion—rather than just playing to the sealed audience of e.g. Fox news and its talk radio or online analogues—two of the best examples I can think of today mostly seem to engage in some kind of value-added trolling. Reihan Salam appears to have settled into a natural niche at Slate, trolling so consistently that (in combination with Slate‘s basic raison d’être) I have to suspect it’s at least semi-intentional. Occasionally he produces some interesting new wrinkle on familiar controversies, though, rather than just endlessly repeating the exact same ignorant and inflammatory lines over and over and over. Not simple flamebait, i.e., but value-added trolling.

I think that David Frum, by contrast, is probably as sincere as he can be. But through the years of occasional encounters at The Daily Beast or The Atlantic, it seems like in practice much of his output can be summed up as a form of concern-trolling. That isn’t quite the right term, exactly, but it does come close. Frum seems to have found a niche playing that rare, reasonable, moderate conservative; the premise of his articles is frequently a critique of some instance of the mass of conservative politics going overboard. Except, when you read past the click-baiting headline, he generally proceeds into a non-shouty but otherwise standard affirmation that the real bedrock problem, whatever the situation, is liberalism. His reaction to the Conservative party’s wipeout in last month’s Canadian election was a classic example. Setting out from a premise that the Conservatives must avoid the tempting error of deciding that their message was just fine and they just need to continue saying the same things but louder… Frum wasted little time in declaring that the Liberal party has no real answers for Canada and will inevitably bring ruin to the nation, and that essentially the Conservative agenda is still the correct one in all significant aspects. Implying that, basically, they just need to continue saying the same things but louder.

This Friday, however, he may have outdone himself. His article’s headline promised an all-too-precious interruption of wisdom in the mostly brainless reaction to last weekend’s terrorist attack in Paris: “Bombing Syria Won’t Make Paris Safer.” Good for you Mr. Frum, I thought, let’s reward this with a page view… He managed to maintain some tenuous connection with the headline’s promise for three of four whole paragraphs. After that, oh dear heavens, David, have you really been engaging in the most amazingly subtle parody this whole time after all?

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Work: ask and ye shall receive?

One more thought about the persistent centrality of “work” to the 21st century economy. Kind of obvious, but it feels worth jotting down, and we are after all just a couple of days from the old Labor Day-bor.

It occurs to me this morning that, maybe, in some sense, contemporary society gets the economy that it demands. Or at least, the economy we get is powerfully shaped by what economic structures people focus on most. One of which is, most definitely, jobs.

Job creation, job creators, job growth; job losses bad; jobs added good! Job reports. The problem of joblessness. Get a job! Jobs, jobs, jobs jobs jobs jobs jobs.

Now, compare. How much is said about, say, leisure as a policy priority?

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Work, productivity, status, affinity

Last month’s flap over Amazon putting even its white collar workers through the mill struck me as mostly a non-event. Anyone truly shocked to discover that Amazon is exploitative, or that corporations squeeze the Eloi as well as the Morlocks, hasn’t been paying attention.

The week of pearl-clutching by Guardian columnists, et al., has however suggested to me one or two possible new connections in my evolving theory of 21st century work. At the moment, I write mainly to trace these out for myself, so fair warning that this post will be a bit elliptical.

As brief background, I’ve grown quite cynical about the modern economy and particularly the white-collar office. Years of close association with sales and marketing activities are probably an influence, but I have reached the conclusion that a lot of what happens in the typical office is largely pointless theater producing minimal if any social value. I have written before that many of the affluent, in particular, seem to work mostly as a display of status. (See Quantum Whatever, currently print-only but free copies remain available.) I don’t think this behavior is exclusive to the affluent, however, particularly as they tend to exercise much influence on the patterns of the typical workplace.

Seeing yet another bit of puffing about brutal conditions at Amazon has suggested a further insight into this concept. It occurs to me that a culture of status based on competitive displays of exhausting toil could have a deep biological foundation.

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Good Jobs

What exactly is a “good job?”

Here is another concept that is not new, but has recently popped up in my reading enough times that it begs some inspection.

What is a “good job,” and in particular, is it in any way better than just having the equivalent income with no strings attached?

I don’t think there is any firm answer here, ultimately. I suspect that “good jobs” are like “the American dream,” or “free market,” i.e. terms so vague in use that they are immune to obsolescence. “Good jobs” are not a mathematical calculation you can disprove, nor are they an ISO standard or defined by the dictionary. The concept only has meaning because, and as, people choose to believe it does. Regardless of what component ideas a critical study may strip away, the terms live on through a combination of other components that are still valid, plus widespread readiness to pretend that the false components are still true.

I feel like picking at this a bit, anyway. Why do so many people choose to believe that this is a meaningful, and important, object?

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2014 Year in Review

I don’t really have a big Year in Review post in me this year. I don’t know how much that’s me slowing down, or the novelty wearing off; perhaps a little from column A and a little from column B.

For the most part, certainly in terms of the creative/work theme on which I have focused in previous years, the story of 2014 was publishing another book and otherwise just hanging on. I’m still proud of Cotton’s Library, and the fact that I was the first person in its four-century existence to write and publish a book-length history of this important collection. Still, I guess that having done this once before, something of the wow factor is missing this time. I’m not sure what it says that I can feel like researching, writing and publishing a book is just part of the old routine… but that’s kind of how it feels now.

Work in 2014 also had a “keep doing my thing and try to make ends meet” lack of magic. At the moment, most of my clients are with one firm, so a lot of the work is of a kind, in addition to being sharing-restricted anyway. They do throw challenges at me, but not too many are the type of challenge that is solved by exploring new frontiers in creative design. Lot of charts dense with numbers, lot of coordinate maps. More Microsoft PowerPoint…

Otherwise, I did a surprising amount of drawing, including this, this and a series including this. I began researching a third book. I also had some interesting minor adventures like visiting the Cartoon Library, revisiting archives from my college house-presidency for a current-resident archivist, and changing ISPs. That last one was really less an adventure than a fiasco, though, and on the whole…

Really, 2014 was kind of a downer year, to be honest. I feel a deeper pessimism about the society around me than, very possibly, ever. Contrarians can offer all the “the world is actually getting better!” items they want, and I’m aware that there is a lot of the world about which I have little more than a hypothetical awareness… but pretty much all the world with which I feel any practical affinity seems like it’s locked onto a negative trajectory for years to come. Basically, I see a world of which I just don’t want to be part, and no practical alternatives.

That just makes for a drag, every day, basically. Meanwhile my individual existence hasn’t been on any kind of offsetting highlight trip, as noted. “I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries…”

And this just seems like that’s basically that for now. Tough crap, keep on slogging. I have some plans and ideas, inevitably; I maintain some expectation of wringing some juice from life in 2015 come what may.

But it does seem like “keep doing my thing and try to make ends meet” will predominate.