By Matt Dineen
“Whatever you do, just don’t get stuck in a dead-end job.” These words had a powerful effect on me and have occupied my consciousness over the past seven years. It was the summer after my high school graduation and this advice was given to me while I was working in the mechanized bakery of a large grocery store chain. My coworker had been there for over 20 years and now, in the midst of back problems and middle-age, she was unhappy with her life and urged me not to make the same mistake.
I escaped that dead-end job in August to attend an increasingly respectable liberal arts college. Graduating four years later with a bachelor’s degree in Sociology, I returned to the workforce with an education that provided me the opportunity to avoid getting “stuck.” But in the past two and a half years I have not succeeded in transcending wage-slavery. Rather, I have struggled with the collective dilemma of life under capitalism: How do we follow our passions while simultaneously survive? It is the challenge of life in the “real world,” in which we often have to neglect the things that are important to us in order to feed ourselves. It’s the reality of the artist who waits tables and the activist working for a big corporation. We are forced to compromise our true interests, what keeps us going, simply to make ends meet. We are resigned to the economic imperatives of survival.
Education is supposed to remedy this dilemma. The mythology of American class mobility is epitomized by the cliché, “I was the first in my family to go to college.” What function does education serve in a capitalist society? Does it really provide people with a chance to freely pursue their passions?
Unlike many of my friends growing up I had the privilege, thanks to financial aid and student loans, to attend college. Perhaps because of this I also experienced social pressure upon graduation to “do something with my education” and “find something in my field.” Being in this position has been difficult for me on two levels: First, like every other college graduate with no connection to the economic-political elite, it is not that simple to land an empowering and lucrative job right after school. Secondly, I have no desire to conform to a social construction of success that values wealth and power over personal wellbeing.
In his autobiography of his early years as writer, Hand to Mouth, Paul Auster articulates this dilemma describing the “double lives” that writers and artists must lead to survive in a capitalist society. “They earn good money at legitimate professions and carve out time for their writing as best they can: early in the morning, late at night, weekends, vacations.” In his personal rejection of this compromise he explains, “My problem was that I had no interest in leading a double life. It’s not that I wasn’t willing to work, but the idea of punching a clock at some nine-to-five job left me cold, utterly devoid of enthusiasm.” Auster continues: “I was in my early twenties, and I felt too young to settle down, too full of other plans to waste my time earning more money than I either wanted or needed. As far as finances went, I just wanted to get by.”
For me, this dilemma has translated into a string of alienating and menial jobs. While leading a “double life” I have been forced to segregate my passions from my work, my means for survival. I have carved out time for writing, music and activism but the sub-living wage jobs have drained my energy and inspiration. Last year I worked at a natural grocery cooperative stocking frozen foods and dairy products. One day I found myself on my knees in the walk-in storage refrigerator cleaning up a jar of pickles that I had dropped right before my shift ended. In that moment I knew that there had to be something more than this. I had to find something more meaningful to do with my life. But I have been unsuccessful in my applications to jobs that are “in my field.” From collectively-run bookstores to independent media organizations there are always a plethora of educated and qualified applicants in the same position as me desperately searching for something better.
This is not simply a “quarter-life crisis.” It is an issue that many people in our society deal with all their lives. My coworker in the bakery who warned me about getting stuck in a dead-end job has spent three decades separating her passions from a stifling 40 hour work week. Unlike me, she did not have the same access to resources that a college education provides. This has been a common story amongst working people throughout US history. So many people spend the majority of their lives at jobs they hate. Some carve out time to pursue higher education deep into middle-age in hope of creating a more rewarding life.
In response to a recent interview on Toward Freedom that I conducted with Pittsburgh activist Andalusia Knoll on “Redefining Work,” an inspired reader described this exact situation:
“I have been in the workforce since 1966, without any wealth to show for it. More importantly, the last few years (advertising encouraging people to buy more of what they don’t need) have been totally unfulfilling. At 55 years old, I went back to school to get a quick degree. I found out what I really missed was learning. So, I am going to grad school next year and will work part-time as necessary and perhaps seek a Ph.D. I also volunteer with Greater Philadelphia Cares and am much happier than I was getting and spending.”
The last job I had was at a coffeehouse in the small New England college town where I currently live. I found the work, ownership, and most of the clientele of the café oppressive and spiritually nauseating but I stuck with it because I needed a job. The other thing that kept me there were my amazing coworkers. They were all in similar places with their lives as I was—mostly college grads struggling to go somewhere bigger in this moment of personal transition. We were not simply baristas, dishwashers or counter help. When we weren’t making sandwiches, steaming lattes or cleaning toilets we were pursuing photography, massage therapy, poetry, radio production, journalism, and music—our true passions. Despite our boss’ contrived efforts to convince us otherwise, these were the things that were most important in our lives and the café was a mere stepping stone to something more.
In her book, The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work, Joanne B. Ciulla describes her similar experience with this transitional moment as she was advancing her education in pursuit of what she loved to do. She worked part-time in a restaurant when she wasn’t studying or teaching undergraduate courses in philosophy:
“I worked alongside a ballet dancer and a model. We all had great ambitions. The manager took sadistic delight in making fun of our aspirations and verbally abusing us. I don’t know what happened to the manager, but the dancer eventually went on to become a prima ballerina, the model ended up on the cover of Italian Vogue, and I landed a fellowship at the Harvard Business School.” Ciulla continues, “This experience helped me understand the relationship between hope and work. We can endure the worst of jobs, if it is reasonable to hope that the job will get us where we want to go or at least feed us along the way.”
This passage resonates so deeply with our collective experience of working at the aforementioned café. One day, one of my coworkers stood next to me as I washed dishes at the industrial sink in the back. She looked at me and stated, in a tone of disbelief and wonderment, “This is our life, Matt. This is what we are doing.” This seemingly simple statement contained enough meaning for me to fill volumes and volumes of books on the human condition.
This is our life. This is what we are doing.
Her relationship with work and hope was shaped by her passion for photography. In her double life outside of baking pastries she was creating a portfolio from photos developed in the dark room she built in her apartment. Along with another coworker, she was applying to graduate school for photography in hopes of escaping this job that was slowing us all down. This is an example of how education has the potential to liberate us from “dead-end” situations in which we are forced to compromise the pursuit of our passions.
Despite all of this, it is important to reiterate that it is still a privilege in this society to acquire such an education. Throughout history the power of the ruling, educated classes has depended on depriving the majority of the population such an education; hence the phrase: “Knowledge is power.” The social movements of the 20th Century were integral in democratizing education in the United States but this structural inequality is still in place today. Furthermore, we need to recognize and criticize the limitations and failures of existing educational institutions and their role in perpetuating these unequal power structures.
In my personal struggle to follow my passions in this complex society, I will forever remember the advice of my coworker that summer before I began my college education. I want to be conscious of my opportunities and privileges of which she was denied. In this struggle I will also be inspired by the words of Boris Pasternak:
“The great majority of us are required to live a life of constant duplicity. Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike, and rejoice at what brings you nothing but misfortune.”
Matt Dineen is a freelance writer living in Northampton, MA.